Food and Wine that Makes You Cry

crying girls
From the NPR story Songs That Make You Weep

As I’ve noted many times, philosophers take a dim view of the capacity of food and wine to evoke emotion. Here is Elizabeth Telfer in her book Food for Thought:

“A cook can cook as an act of love, as we have seen, or out of the joy of living. But whereas in music the emotion is somehow expressed in the product itself—the music can be sad or joyful, angry or despairing—in food the emotion is only the motive behind the product.” (pp. 59-60)

And here is Frank Sibley:

Perfumes and flavours, natural or artificial, are necessarily limited: unlike the major arts, they have no expressive connections with emotions, love or hate, grief, joy, terror, suffering, yearning, pity or sorrow—or with plot or character development. (in “Tastes, Smells, and Aesthetics”, p. 249)

You don’t have to be a philosopher to be cold to the charms of food and wine. Essayist William Deresivicz, writing in the NY Times, argues that food cannot express emotion because food does not exist as narrative:

But food, for all that, is not art. Both begin by addressing the senses, but that is where food stops. It is not narrative or representational, does not organize and express emotion. An apple is not a story, even if we can tell a story about it.

I think that Deresivicz is wrong that the flavors and textures of food and wine are not narratives. Traditions are narratives and food traditions are accessible via flavors. But let’s assume he is right about that for the sake of argument.

Where is it written that all art must rely on narrative? The main counter-example is music. Music expresses emotion even when there are no lyrics to provide narrative context.

It is a bit more complicated than this, but there are essentially two ways in which (non-narrative) music expresses emotion. Music can provide representations of emotion because we experience the tensions, releases, the rising and falling trajectory and intensity of music as analogous to similar patterns in various emotions. In that sense, music can, by analogy, be sad, joyful, angry, or despairing. But those emotions are not felt. I feel sad when listening to music only if the music is bad, despairing only if its really bad.

The second way in which music expresses emotion is to directly cause it in the listener. We can be startled, surprised, calmed, or excited by music. It influences our moods as well. The emotions we feel when listening to music are responses to sensations. I would argue, in fact, that sensuous beauty itself can provoke emotions such as wonder, intrigue, excitement, pensive meditation, joy, serenity, intensity, tenderness, etc.  not because beauty reminds us of these feelings, but because it directly causes them.

But then food and wine, if they also induce sensations of beauty, provoke similar emotions. Describing his visit to a Spanish “gastro-temple” Matt Goulding writes

The meal detonated an explosion of diverse emotions—
hushed reverence, brooding reflection, fits of wonder
and whimsy and piercing nostalgia—as only the very best
food can. In terms of a transcendent dining experience, dinner
for me at Can Roca lacked nothing. (Matt Goulding “Table for One”
Gastronomica)

The perception of beauty in wine too evokes wonder, mystery, brooding reflection, whimsy along with joy, anticipation, confusion, amusement, a sense of loss and impermanence, etc.

True, the emotions we experience via food and wine are different than those we experience via a narrative. But why assign “art” only to the expression of anger, sadness, or fear. Why privilege narratively-expressed emotions over emotions that are induced via sensation?

I doubt there is a good answer to that question.

6 comments

  1. I always find your posts really engaging. As an artist working with food, I believe that numerous parallels exist between the two subjects and my wish is to exploit these parallels and allow food to transcend it’s basic purpose and attain new meaning. Keep up the good work 🙂

  2. I think you are right to think that food can generate emotions that are significant but non-narrative. And, of course, this claim–food and wine express emotion–will ultimately lead to your desired conclusion: food is art. However, it may be helpful to analyze and clarify precisely what emotions are (or are not). Most people think that some animals experience a wide range of emotions, albeit mainly non-cognitive ones. However, no one thinks that a German Shepard or Orangutang has anything like aesthetic experiences when eating a “fine” meal (even though a lion zealously
    devouring fresh Zebra flesh may seem like a Michelin-inspired experience). So what is it about human emotion that is distinct different, allowing us to have some culinary experiences that are art-related? Surely the nature of well-crafted, prepared food explains part of the difference. There are no chefs in the non-human animal kingdom. But what about the social aspects of dining and the linguistic elements at work?
    I wonder how much these factors add to the whole experience of eating apart from the food and wine itself. It is hard to know how all the causal influences hang together. If Eating and drinking, as your blog has commented on many occasions is a rich, dynamic, complex process that is not easily deconstructed. If eating was a strictly solitary experience and lacked all of its ritualistic, communal nature, I bet the emotional experience would be dramatically different, whatever emotions may ultimately be. Table for one?

    1. Hi Stephen,

      With the possible exception of excitement, all the emotions I mentioned in the post have a heavily cognitive dimension. I suspect the differences between human emotions and animal emotions revolve around the complexity of the beliefs required for the emotion to be the kind of emotion it is for us. To be sure, the social aspects of dining are important here. Emotions are often amplified when they can be shared. And I think a certain kind of attention is also required in order for us to respond emotionally to food and some of the rituals about food help to make that attention available to us. If we were expected to compete for the food on the table I doubt a feeling of serenity would take over.

      I don’t think solitary dining need be without emotional resonance but we’re social beings and the presence of others tends to heighten the experience.

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