Wine and Food That Makes You Cry

emotionCan wine or food express emotions?

It seems obvious that they can but philosophers have tended to disagree. 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, one of the most important writers on aesthetics in the 20th Century:

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 several years ago, argued 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 and wine traditions are accessible via flavors. But let’s assume he is right 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 from 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.

One comment

  1. Dwight, when reading your work I often think your thinking/writing is more nuanced than that which you critique. This post is no exception. You raise a good question at the end; I will attempt a decidedly un-nuanced response.

    (1) To begin with, I think that eating/drinking falls into two categories: survival and aesthetic appreciation. And while music and art may “rescue” us in moments of despair, they are not about survival, they are princiapally experienced as aesthetic. (2) Most people in our North American culture eat and drink crap: overly salty, sugary, cheap fat, processed, get it on the table as quickly as possible, make it handy so I can eat while I’m driving (I’m not blaming people individually; culture is bigger than any one person). In this context, food/drink is rarely if ever experienced in any deep aesthetic sense other than “yummy, let’s open another bag of chips.” (3) Per above, as a culture we have become desensitized to food/drink as an aesthetic category of experience. In order to experience food/drink as such, we need to first believe food can be apprehended aesthetic and then intentionally engage it as such.

    I have had a desert bring tears of joy to my eyes. I had pizza in Florence that made time stop (that was 30 years ago and I still remember it). I think about the right wine for every dinner, and my wife bakes sour dough bread. We have a sizeable vegetable garden so we can eat wonderfully fresh local food. We are neither rich nor snobs. Early in our marriage we decided that aesthetic appreciation of food brings us pleasure (though we certainly didn’t use these words). After all, we eat everyday of our lives, why not make the most of it.

    This turned out to be longer than I expected, and I know it lacks nuance. My attempt at answering the question, “why assign “art” only to the expression of anger, sadness, or fear. Why privilege narratively-expressed emotions over emotions that are induced via sensation?” Habit, a culture flooded in crap food, and intellectual laziness. Food as survival is deeply engrained. It’s easier just to leave it there.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post.

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