Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Taste as Experience

Title:  Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food (Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History)
Author:  Nicola Perullo
Publication Information:  Columbia University Press. 2012 (original Italian). 2016 (English translation). 176 pages.
ISBN:  0231173482 / 978-0231173483

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "This essay stems from a long exercise of observing the ways in which people encounter food and perceive it."

Favorite Quote:  "Etymologically the word diet - from the ancient Greek diaita - meant way of life, matters related to daily activities such as physical exercise, sleep, sexual activity and, of course, alimentation. Food played a great role in diet, so much that 'dietetics' then came to indicate that branch of medicine that deals with food."

This book, or essay as the author refers to it, states as its thesis, "Taste is situation, circumstance, and ecological experience."  The book "is therefore an attempt to approach food not as an object of study among others, but rather as a matter of a specific system that requires a specific narrative."

Given this premise, the book approaches taste as human experience from three different directions or three "modes of access:"  pleasure, knowledge, and indifference. These three form the basis of the three main sections of the book.

Pleasure comes in many form and from many sources; the book speaks to the relationship between the inherent pleasure of food and the role of emotional and social paradigms to influence that experience. The book brings examples from scientific studies and from literature; some I understand, and some I find myself skimming through. My layman's example is how a particular food - in physical taste, smell, or presence - can trigger a pleasurable memory or how I label certain foods as comfort foods. In other words, the pleasure of a food comes from its inherent qualities but also from our associations with it. I am not sure that is where the author is going, but the idea makes sense in my limited understanding of the book.

Knowledge as the basis of a taste experience uses the example of the wine connoisseur. The experience of the wine comes to the individual through his or her understanding of the different notes in the wine and the training and study that goes into being able to distinguish the flavors. This element is the access to food used in food tasting, wine tastings, tea tastings, and other such events. An individual's experience is dependent on the knowledge they bring to the food.

Indifference as an explanation of experience is again explained through examples from philosophical and literary texts. Indifference comes in many variations such as a situation impacting an individual's experience with a food; distractions removing the focus from the food; and an individual's lack of interest.

This book is considerably more academic than the cover would imply. I can't say that I am surprised though. Columbia University Press is a well-respected academic publisher. Nicola Perulla is an associate professor of Aesthetics at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. The language used and the depth of information covered indicates that this is not the book for a reader with a casual interest in the topic. The author pulls elements from philosophy, anthropology, history, and psychology to draw comparisons and conclusions. This book is a great reference source for anyone with an academic interest in the topic. If you have a general interest in the topic, you may find yourself skimming the book or looking for a different one.

The book may be difficult to understand, but main idea is not. Repeatedly, the book comes back to its thesis - taste is not just about the food; it is about the interaction of the food with an individual at a particular time in a particular situation. The final section of the book draws these three threads together back to the main thesis and leaves the reader with some advice as to how to keep and develop our experiences of taste in ways that are healthy both for us as individuals and for the world we live in.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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