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eating ortolan

from the Eat and Be Merry Blog

One of the objections to food as art is that food acquires meaning in a fundamentally different way than does art. According to this argument, whatever meaning food has is the product of context—we associate a dish with Mom’s cooking (apple pie), a geographical region (boeuf bourguignon), or a holiday (a Thanksgiving turkey). But it is the context that supplies meaning, not the flavors and textures of the food which have no meaning in themselves. Without the association with a holiday, there is nothing about turkey that signifies gratitude. This is not so with art which not only has meaning but exemplifies that meaning in the colors, lines, and shapes which are internal to the work. Even if you know little about the context of a painting, the work still has meaning.

There are some obvious exceptions to the claim that food lacks intrinsic meaning, foods in which the flavors and textures themselves represent something. For instance, the flavor profile of comfort food—uncomplicated, filling, with ample fat, sugar, and salt—helps to generate its meaning as comforting. I doubt that the melt-in-the-mouth texture of chocolate is irrelevant to chocolate’s status as the food signifying romance. But these meanings are considered trivial when compared to the prodigious representational capacities of especially visual arts.

However, Carolyn Korsmeyer, in her books and articles (here also) about the aesthetics of disgust, points to a more profound example of the flavor of food having meaning—the representation of waste and death.

“But certain meals deliberately harbor an awareness of the fact that to sustain one’s life one takes another……another animal whose form is still recognizable not having been chopped or shaped into a hamburger or pate. One might describe this as a meal that is still uncomfortably close to its living state. Indeed, this kind of eating can appear brutal, and one might surmise it disgusts because of the absence of the kind of distance that separates civilized human from brute.” (Food and Philosophy, 154)

The freshness of fish connotes the proximity of death as well. And certain foods—aged cheese, gamy meat—contain in their flavors traces of decay.

Of course, in everyday, contemporary life we try, as much as possible, to eliminate reference to the living state of the animals we eat by removing the head, skin, etc., making the food appear to have been manufactured rather than slaughtered. And many people find aged cheese and gamy meat disgusting precisely because it reminds one of decay.

Yet as Korsmeyer points out, some eating practices are dedicated to converting the disgusting into the delicious. The Japanese practice of eating the poisonous Puffer fish (fugu) or the practice of presenting the head or carcass of an animal at the table are the most salient examples in which the meaning of a sacrifice is deliberately cultivated. Most striking is the (illegal) French practice of swallowing a small, de-feathered bird whole (eating ortolan, pictured above) where diners cover their heads to hide the shame of the feast from God’s eyes. Korsmeyer points to the similarities between such practices and the experience of the sublime in art, where the fearsome is viewed from a distance and thus becomes a source of pleasure.

Thus, rather than trying to cover up such meanings, we sometimes learn to overcome the aversion and enjoy it. In “terrible eating” food sustains reference to death and decay, which prompts meditation on the cycles of life, just as works of art might do.

Korsmeyer’s examples show that food can have a broader set of meanings than critics of “food as art” typically allow. But if we are willing to grant that the flavors and textures of food exemplify death and decay, we have to grant that food can exemplify a variety of other meanings as well.

Some ingredients carry traces of their origin in their flavors—for example, the earthiness of beets, the briny quality of shrimp.The freshness of vegetables indicate their local origins and some that appear early in the season—asparagus, peas, etc.—exemplify, in their flavors, the rebirth of spring. In fact, many food preparations exemplify the nuance of seasons via their flavors and textures–cool flavors indicate our search for refreshment in summer, the sustained heat of soup signifies our search for warmth in winter.

And broader, cultural characteristics are highlighted in flavors and textures of food as well. The lightness and delicacy of Japanese food exemplifies certain features of Japanese culture, just as the heavy solidity of German food exemplifies features of Northern Europe. Of course, dishes always exemplify features of the food tradition in which they are situated.

We often take these meanings for granted. It is the job of the chef as artist to present them in a striking way that makes us pay attention to them.

I doubt that the claim that the flavors and textures of food lack meaning can withstand scrutiny. Is there something about these meanings that food generates that render them trivial or less significant than the meanings attributed to paintings?