, , , , ,

food critic Do you have to think about food to appreciate it? Most people would say no. Indeed, it would be obtuse if in response to a question about whether your dinner was good or not you responded with ”let me think about that for a while”.

Our critical judgments about food tend to be immediate judgments based on a hedonic response—we experience pleasure and judge the food good or experience displeasure and judge the food bad. Little analysis or reflection is required. On occasion we might give a brief account of why the food is good or bad but that analysis itself requires very little extended thought. One is still just reporting on a perception—the flavors are bright, the meat was bland, the bread soggy, etc.

And food criticism tends to reflect this assumption that judgments about food are nothing more than reports about one’s sensations. Most reviews of restaurants give food descriptions and a verdict with very little extended analysis.

This is different from our experience of art or music, at least when we are intent on being critical. Judgments about art require extended contemplation, and significant engagement of our cognitive capacities, especially the imagination. Think of the mental labor involved in interpreting a work of literature, making sense of a painting, or understanding the nuances of a symphony. Entire books are written on the interpretation of art and music. Not so with regard to food.

Similar considerations likely led the 18th Century philosopher Immanuel Kant to argue that “mouth tastes” could only be judged agreeable or disagreeable. You either like something or you don’t and there is no further thought that is relevant to the food’s aesthetic value and no argument to convince you otherwise. Tastes and smells do not engage our cognitive faculties, and thus works based on them cannot be works of art.

Most writers on aesthetics have agreed with Kant, although there have some exceptions.

The great 19th Century gastronome Brillat-Savarin responded to Kant by pointing out that the tasting experience has a variety of dimensions that contemplation can clarify. In his Physiology of Taste he divides the tasting experience into stages: the first impression, the sensations that arise with chewing and swallowing, and finally the sensations that arise from considering the whole experience. He demonstrates that tastes evolve in the mouth and exhibit multi-dimensional flavors that must be contemplated and thought about to be fully grasped.

Distinguishing qualities, comparing them with previous experiences and passing judgment on the unity of the experience as a whole would appear to be an intellectual judgment, not simply a report of how much pleasure one is experiencing.  Furthermore, correct judgments about food often require knowledge and familiarity with how dishes are supposed to taste and what the proper methods of preparation are. This involves the application of standards, again, not simply registering flavors and reporting likes and dislikes.

So it would seem that Brillat-Savarin has the better of this argument.

Yet despite the rather obvious complexity of taste there is still no extensive, thoughtful, critical discourse around food. Even the practice of wine tasting, which on the surface seems to support Brillat-Savarin’s contention, falls short of a fully critical practice. Much wine evaluation in both competitions and major wine publications involves quick impressions of dozens of wines tasted over a short period of time—and the assignment of a numerical score that measures little more than a judgment about quantity of pleasure.

So if Kant is wrong about the potential for cognitive engagement with food, what explains the poverty of critical, genuinely aesthetic discourse about food? Perhaps there is some additional feature that food and wine lack that both Kant and Brillat-Savarin failed to identify.