Taste Is Knowing the Tissue of Little Things

by Dwight Furrow

A life in which the pleasures of food and drink are not important is missing a crucial dimension of a good life. Food and drink are a constant presence in our lives. They can be a constant source of pleasure if we nurture our connection to them and don’t take them for granted.

Because food and drink are an easily accessible source of pleasure, barring poverty or disease, to care little for them is a moral failure with consequences not only for the self but for others around us. However, to nurture that connection to everyday pleasure requires thought and restraint. Pleasure can be dangerous when pursued without reason and self-control. Addictive pleasures damage us and everyone around us. Addicts, in fact, cannot feel pleasure as readily as the non-addicted and require increasing levels of stimulation to find satisfaction. Addictions and compulsions are pathological and are no model for the genuine pursuit of pleasure. Thus, we need to make a distinction between pleasure that we get from thoughtless, compulsive consumption, and pleasure that is freely chosen. Pleasure freely chosen is actually a good guide to what is good for us and what should matter to us.

This emphasis on freely chosen pleasure is important not only for keeping us healthy but because certain kinds of pleasures are deeply connected to our sense of control and independence. Some of the pleasures in life come from the satisfaction of needs. When we are cold, warm air feels good. When we are hungry even very ordinary food will taste good. But such enjoyment tends to be unfocused and passive. We don’t have to bring our attention or knowledge to the table to enjoy experiences that satisfy basic needs. We are hard-wired to care about them and our response is compelled.

However, many pleasures are not a response to need or deprivation.  We have to eat several times a day, but we don’t have to eat well several times a day. Pleasure freely chosen is essential to a good life because it expresses our independence from need.

I can be perfectly comfortable, at the moment, yet be pleased by the warmth of the sun as it breaks the clouds and comes streaming through the bay window. A light snack does away with hunger pangs, yet I am still seduced by the smell of garlic gently sizzling in olive oil. These pleasures are the lagniappe of life because they transcend need. We experience them as pleasures even though we aren’t suffering from their deprivation.

Good food and good wine are not necessities. We are not compelled to enjoy them and when pursued thoughtfully they are not the result of a compulsion. Pleasure rather than the satisfaction of needs is the point of our experience.

They are a surplus, beyond need and necessity, and thus a form of grace.

Too often food and wine are understood as symbols of “the good life”, a life of ease, luxury, sophistication, and refined taste.  But this is not quite right. Food and wine are symbols, not of a life of luxury, but of the essence of life itself. To live is to be surrounded by a sensuous plenum. We live in spaces filled with matter that we continuously interact with—the surfaces we touch, the air we breath, the sounds that surround, the tastes and smells that permeate our environments. Most of the time this sensuous environment goes unnoticed. It slips into the background while we focus on an endless list of specific, practical tasks that occupy our days. Yet that unnoticed environment effects our sense of how we are in the world. When that immersion in sensation is painful, life is dreadful. When it is neutral, life feels like a chore because it’s boring. Only when that sensuous medium contains positive stimulation do we feel truly alive.

The small, delicious pleasures of everyday life are essential because they fill that sensuous medium with positive stimulation that sustains the meaning of life from moment to moment, a consummation of our successful immersion in reality. Happiness is achieved not by grand gestures and heroic deeds but by doing the small things in life well.

Food and wine are among the most accessible of these everyday pleasures. When we eat and drink well, our lives are infused with a continuous source of meaning, minute by minute, hour after hour, day after day.

Those who have discovered this secret live to eat—we do not eat to live.

In Adam Gopnik’s fine book on the meaning of food, The Table Comes First, he opens by describing a condemned prisoner eating his last meal. Gopnik asks “Why do we think of food at times like these?” I’m not sure he gives us an answer. I would suggest the answer is that food stands as a symbol for our most fundamental connection with reality—our total immersion in a field of sensuality that constitutes life itself. Food and drink are a symbol of this sensuous environment because they are a constant source of the small pleasures in life that make life meaningful and satisfying.

If that is right, then the home is the place where happiness is enacted. At home, we are surrounded by a plenitude of familiar sensations, and food and drink are a prominent part of that atmosphere, the aromas and flavors permeating our lived experience throughout much of the day. At least that is how it was in the past. The home used to a place of relaxation (unless the housework was unfairly burdening some household members and not others.) It was a place where we could fully engage with this sensuous dimension, without the distractions or turmoil of commerce. This is, unfortunately, no longer true for many of us working from home. Working from home has many advantages. But one of its complications is that when work penetrates the home the spell of that sensuous plenum is broken.

Many predict that working from home is the new normal as businesses see the advantage of cutting costs by eliminating the office building. However, in this new reality, food and drink become even more important. As a symbol of that sensuous environment, they provide us with the feeling of the world receding even when it isn’t. The enjoyment of being immersed in the sensuous plenum of the home teaches us that this experience of enjoyment has intrinsic value—it serves no other purpose and is not reducible to its usefulness. In the midst of a busy workday, taking the time to savor is essential for mental health.

For this experience of savoring, the quality of the food and wine matters. But its goodness is the goodness of direct, unmediated pleasure that does not require fine discrimination or intellectualizing. Its goodness is not recognized through critical judgment. We are simply drawn to its quality and can sense it. This is the nature of comfort food. The quality of the food expresses our dominion, our control over nature, our ability to create surplus and overcome need even when the phone is ringing, the Instant messenger is pinging.

These ruminations on the home as a source of pleasure and independence suggest that while we may scour the universe for signs of intelligence, probe the brain for the roots of cognition, and build city after city packed with buildings that reach for the sky, it is the small pleasures of life that matter most to us. The 18th Century French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote that “taste is knowing the tissue of little things that make up the agreeableness of life.”[from Emile, Book III] The “tissue of little things” refers to the everyday moments of satisfaction that make up the real substance of a life and give life its character. The subtle gestures of romance, the quiet certainties of friendship, the musical cadence of conversations, or the moments of a caretaker’s resolve mingle with the somber moods of a dreary day, the pleasant feeling when someone smiles, the hypnotic rhythm of waves crashing on the beach, or the gentle rustling of trees—these “little things” support the meaningfulness of life from moment to moment regardless of the major events that come and go.

Food and drink are the lattice that binds that tissue. Take away your favorite food or drink and the threads begin to unravel. There is a reason why a condemned person’s last request is for a meal.

Adapted from American Foodie:Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution, Chapter Two. For more on the aesthetics of food and wine visit Edible Arts.