When Words Fail

by Dwight Furrow

What did the wines that stimulated conversation in Plato’s Symposium taste like? Or the clam chowder in Moby Dick, or 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 some contemporary chefs are attempting to reconstruct meals from historical accounts. But recreating a recipe is not the same as recreating the sensibility that created and enjoyed 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 also primarily an exercise of imagination. The words themselves don’t quite do the job without us forming a mental picture that renders the dish or the wine something we can experience vicariously and react to with feeling. 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. Here is a menu description of a dish that Top Chef’s Tom Colicchio singled out for derisive attention:

The other night I ate a great dish: Napoleon of Sourdough Brioche, Artisan Cheddar and minced, aged Hereford, garnished with a Preserve of Cucumber and Dill, and finished with Heirloom Tomato Coulis.

AKA: a cheeseburger.

It’s easy to dismiss this dish as a cheeseburger with fancy plating. It’s a sandwich, not a Napoleon, and a garnish is typically merely decorative and doesn’t belong in the description of the food. Remove these and it does seem to be a fancy cheeseburger. However, although the elements resemble a cheeseburger, it likely doesn’t quite taste like one, since the Brioche and minced meat will yield a softer, crumbly texture and the coulis is closer to liquid than a slice of tomato. Is the dish better described by calling it a cheeseburger?

20th Century Philosopher and food historian Jean-Francois Revel also 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 useful history, Culture and Cuisine, was written in 1979, well before the Internet, popular food science, the Food Channel, and celebrity chefs made cooking expertise more widely available, thus influencing “bourgeois” cuisine. I doubt family cooking still plays the essential role Revel assigns it. The lines of influence for home cooks no longer runs exclusively through family traditions and friends sharing recipes.

More importantly, surely contemporary influential chefs such as Grant Achatz, Ferran Adrià, and Thomas Keller are doing more than creating verbal facades. Creativity in the kitchen has been exploding over the past 40 years (and perhaps will regain its momentum after Covid19). Fancy food is sometimes vacuous, as in the above description of the cheeseburger. But when done with conviction and genuine creativity, it stimulates the imagination—and without imagination, flavor is a feeble thing.

And so we return to the problem of describing unfamiliar flavor experiences. Any conventional vocabulary will fail to describe these experiences if they are genuinely new. Habitual ways of speaking do not contain all the patterns we need when new objects are encountered. Thus, the imagination must shape existing concepts to match new sensory data. Much creative cuisine aims at this tension between our concept of what something is and a sensual experience that doesn’t quite fit a traditional category—for example, ravioli that melts in the mouth or foie gras that looks like an orange. These moments of uncertainty and surprise are part of the aesthetic experience. Words fail as representations or accurate descriptions, but words do more than represent—they move the heart and cause the mind to take flight.

Verbal calisthenics and representational license are not peculiar to fancy food. They are common in describing art. Musical passages bear little resemblance to an ocean. Yet by naming his symphonic tone poem La Mer, Debussy focuses our attention on the swelling and swaying of its musical passages and the glittering splashes of tone colors that call to mind the play of light on water. Dizzy Gillespie’s A Night in Tunisia has little to do with Arabic music or culture and was written in New York. But the title focuses our attention on the feeling of mystery induced by the harmonic tension in the chord structure and melody. The verbal descriptions help make sense of what we are hearing even though they are not literally true.

The goal is not to describe but to imagine. How else can this be accomplished except through the verbal flights of fancy in which a sandwich becomes a Napoleon? Perhaps this dish didn’t live up to its billing, but it inspires me to make a version of it to find out.