When Words Fail

falling-lettersWhat did the wines that stimulated conversation in Plato’s Symposium taste like? Or the clam chowder in Moby Dick, the “brown and yellow meats” served to Mr. Banks in To the Lighthouse? Or consider this repast from Joyce’s Ulysses:

Mr. Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.


But we shall never understand the peculiar attractions of this food, because sensibility is a matter of habit and habits are seldom articulated clearly. They are so familiar we don’t bother to reflect on them or explain them. But even if Bloom had engaged in “mindful eating”, I doubt that Joyce, despite his prodigious talents, had the vocabulary to capture in words the virtues of grilled mutton kidneys with the “tang of faintly scented urine.” We are just not very good at talking about taste. The history of sensibility cannot be written.

Of course, we have recipes (or sketches of recipes) from the past and can reconstruct meals from historical accounts, as some chefs are attempting to do. But recreating a recipe is not the same as recreating the sensibility that created the recipe. That is lost forever unless it can be described in words. The ancient Greeks were known to cut their wine with a bit of sea water. We can, if we want, easily duplicate this drink, but we probably cannot discover what they found attractive about it. Whatever peculiar bit of mental processing created a preference for this is forever lost. (And perhaps well lost)

The best we can do is rely on imagination. Reading a cookbook or a wine review is primarily an exercise of imagination. Paradoxically, our inability to precisely describe flavor, and our dependence on imagination to fully experience it, means that all writing about food and wine must be evocative and hyperbolic because it must compensate for the thinness and unreliability of our taste memories and concepts.

Sometimes this tendency jumps the shark.

Napoleon of Sourdough Brioche, Artisan Cheddar and minced, aged Hereford, garnished with a Preserve of Cucumber and Dill, and finished with Heirloom Tomato Coulis.

Basically a cheese burger with fancy plating.

20th Century Philosopher and food historian Jean-Francois Revel savages this sort of writing:

Indeed, the function of this toplofty jargon is to disconcert and thereby create the illusion of originality, a more facile solution than the honest execution of tried and tested recipes

According to Revel, fancy food and fancy food descriptions fail as a source of memory and cover up the real source of flavor in commonplace food traditions.

But the difficulty when one  explores the past (and even the present) lies in appreciating the difference between silent cuisine and cuisine that talks too much, between cuisine that exists on the plate and the one that exists only in gastronomical chronicles. Or else, to state the matter in a different way, the difficulty lies in discovering, behind the verbal facade of fancy cuisines, the popular, anonymous, peasant or “bourgeois” cuisine, made up of tricks and little secrets that only evolve very slowly, in silence, and that no individual in particular has invented.

Revel thinks the traditions of family cooking are necessary for culinary innovation. It is where much of the real work is done, not in the palaces of fine cuisine. But Revel’s very useful history, Culture and Cuisine, was written in 1979, well before the Internet, the Food Channel, and celebrity chefs made expertise widely available thus influencing “bourgeois” cuisine. I doubt family cooking still plays the essential role Revel assigns it.

Fancy food may sometimes be soulless and vacuous, but when done with conviction and genuine creativity it stimulates the imagination. Without imagination there is no flavor.

Words fail as representations but words do more than represent—they move the heart and cause the mind to take flight.

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