Why We Have No Theory of Gastronomy

by Dwight Furrow

The term “gastronomy” has no agreed-upon, definitive meaning. Its common meaning, captured in dictionary definitions, is that gastronomy is the art and science of good eating. But the term is often expanded to include food history, nutrition, and the ecological, political, and social ramifications of food production and consumption. For my purposes, I want to focus on the conventional meaning of gastronomy for which that dictionary definition will suffice.

We have thousands of recipes from all over the world and, thanks to food historians, this data spans many generations. From this vast database, we know the combinations of ingredients that cooks have used to satisfy our need for enjoyment. We have practical guides to the techniques and methods that make each dish successful as elaborated in countless media devoted to cooking. And we have a robust science of cooking that explains the chemical interactions that occur when dishes are properly made and that also expands our understanding of what is possible. But we don’t have a general theory of the organization and structure of dishes that explains what it means for something to “taste good.” In other words, we can give accounts of what it means for a paella to taste good according to conventional standards of paella making, while acknowledging widespread disagreement on some of the details. But we have no theory of how that is related to a butter chicken or ossobuco tasting good. In gastronomy there is nothing akin to music theory or theories in the visual arts that elaborate the general conditions for the composition of recipes and no account of what kind of aesthetic achievement a dish or a meal is.

This is not to say there are no rules of thumb that guide chefs and cooks. Good dishes must be skillfully made, balanced, have enough flavor variation and texture to be interesting, be appropriate to the season or occasion, and be made from quality ingredients. But these factors make only a minimal contribution to a conceptual system that would organize the vast and highly differentiated world of cuisine.

Early in the current century, the prospects for gastronomical theory were more promising. Chefs, chemists, and data scientists began collaborating on food pairing theory which appeared to identify the foundation of our culinary preferences. Their investigations led to the conclusion that foods that share flavor compounds are likely to go well together; the more flavor compounds two foods share, the more likely they are to occur together in cooking. However, in 2011 a research group led by Harvard’s Yong-Yeol Ahn analyzed 56,000 recipes and concluded that the flavor pairing hypothesis holds only for North American and Western Europe cuisines. East Asian and Southern European cuisines tend to avoid ingredients that share flavor compounds. Furthermore, when you back out milk, butter, cocoa, vanilla, cream, and eggs, the correlation between ingredient pairing and flavor compounds in North American and Western European cuisines disappears. Flavor pairing theory has become an aid to chefs looking for new flavor combinations but doesn’t look like a general theory of gastronomy.

The great 20th Century philosopher of aesthetics Monroe Beardsley provided one explanation for why such a theory might not be forthcoming.

“Smells and tastes can of course be classified in certain ways and basic dimensions have been proposed for them analogous to the dimensions of color and sound. But we cannot, at least not yet, arrange them in series and so we cannot work out constructive principles to make larger works out of them…Suppose you were trying to construct a sense organ with keys by which perfume or brandy, or the aroma of new-mown hay or pumpkin pie could be wafted into the air. On what principle would you arrange the keys, as the keys of the piano are arranged by ascending pitch. How would you begin to look for systematic, repeatable, regular combinations that would be harmonious and enjoyable as complexes.” (Aesthetics: Problems in the Philosophy of Criticism, 98)

Beardsley was pointing to the fact there is no global, structured, conceptual space through which we organize aromas. Flavor is, for the most part, a function of aroma. While there are five basic tastes detected by our taste buds, our olfactory mechanisms by some estimates are capable of detecting over one trillion aromas. Yet it is widely acknowledged that human beings have trouble recognizing and communicating about those aromas when compared to our relative competence when communicating about color or other dimensions of visual experience. The best explanation for this difficulty is that we lack an agreed upon representation of similarity relations across all aromas. Thus, our judgments about aroma never converge on a shared, stable vocabulary for them.

The intuitive idea behind a structured conceptual space for aromas is that our ability to categorize sensations depends on our ability to map similarities along particular dimensions onto proximity relations—this aroma is closer to that one and farther away from this other one, etc. Such a mapping would then reveal clusters of similarities that would enable us to organize aromas into conceptual categories that could anchor our recognition and communication skills and show that culinary compositions have an underlying order to them.

There are many reasons why this may not be possible for aromas. One has to do with the complexity of aroma. There are several hundred molecules, including dozens of detectable organic compounds, that contribute to the smell of coffee, for example. But none of them smell like coffee and minor changes in those compounds can often have substantial, non-linear effects. By comparison, the mixing of red and green to produce yellow has far fewer dimensions. While colors can be compared along three dimensions—hue, saturation, and lightness—odors are often complex mixtures with many aspects and variations that depend on the environment in which they are experienced. The flavor/aroma of tomato in a salad bears little relationship to the flavor/aroma of tomato in a stew or on a pizza. The molecular structures of aromatic compounds in an ingredient are transformed by the other ingredients with which it is cooked.

In the face of this complexity, we often resort to identifying an aroma with its source object. But simply referring to the smell of tomato, the source object, covers up the complexity of the array of possible aromatic qualities a tomato (and the many varieties of tomatoes) can exhibit depending on what it is mixed with and how it is prepared. Alternatively, we often describe an odor by associating it with something else—the aroma of Sauvignon Blanc with the aroma of freshly-cut grass—or we resort to metaphor to capture the experience, for example, referring to a bright, clean smell. But these strategies along with the biological differences between individuals in how they process aromas preclude any agreement on a set of categories that would organize this domain since these associations and metaphors will vary from individual to individual.

This lack of precise characterizations of the basic elements of cuisine is unlike the basic structure of music or the visual arts. In music or painting, the basic elements of a work can be exhaustively described via a well-defined metrical system. In music, notes are constituted by frequencies. An A-note consists of 440 hertz (cycles per second). Relationships between notes as they are elaborated in chords and scales can then be precisely described via these mathematical relations. We describe rhythm using beats per measure, and syncopation is represented as divisions within that system and how the subdivided beats are accented.

The elements of painting also can be described using the basic elements of Euclidean geometry. A painting is a two-dimensional surface where lines are used to create the impression of a third dimension. The formal properties of paintings consist of lines, angles, and curves and the shapes constructed out of them. Thus, relationships such as “to the right of” or “to the left of,” “in front of or behind” and relationships of closeness and distance can be given an exact value. Of course, artists and musicians play with and disrupt our expectations regarding these relationships. Neither composition nor criticism of works of art or music can be reduced to the specification of a set of mathematical relationships. However, there is a basic systematicity to music and painting that has enabled the development of music theory and theories in the visual arts.

Such a system does not seem to be available for gastronomy. We can categorize ingredients according to their biological classification. We can vaguely categorize aromas as meaty, vegetal, fruity, or earthy. But these categories do not tell us much about how a dish is composed or what the relationships between flavors are in the absence of a global flavor space in which precise relations can be systematically characterized.

An additional factor that makes a theory of gastronomy challenging has to do with our intellectual habits which are not conducive to grasping this disordered, unanchored realm of cuisine. The first question we want to ask when puzzled by something is “which category does this belong to?” In order to answer that question, we need to know what the essential properties are that qualify an object as the kind of thing it is. There is good evidence that we have a natural tendency toward essentialism. It is a useful, efficient way of understanding reality because it presumes that everything has a clearly defined nature. But it hasn’t worked out particularly well in understanding gender, cultural, racial, or ethnic classifications. Borderline cases and exceptions proliferate and so the categories become straightjackets rather than the anchor for foundational principles.

Essentialism doesn’t work well in cuisine either because cuisine is as varied as the cultures that produce it. What exactly is pizza? Is it a kind of flatbread? No, deep-dish pizza isn’t a flatbread. Must it have tomato sauce? Not a white pizza. Cheese. It must have cheese! Vegans would strenuously object. Like Potter Stewart famously remarked about obscenity, we know it when we see it, but that doesn’t help with our obsession to define. What is authentic Italian food? You better know from which village the questioner hails. Does real chili have beans? Are burritos “real” Mexican food? If someone wants to argue about these questions, run away. There are no clear answers because some things have no essence.

As noted above, once cooking happens, even ingredients, which one might argue are natural kinds, lose their essential properties. No doubt, a simple, lightly cooked, marinara sauce with a bit of olive oil and garlic is a tomato sauce. But is Bolognese a tomato sauce? After three or four hours of slow cooking with meat, the connection to tomato is diminished although still discernible. Cooking creates complex mixtures that mute essential properties and bring new properties into existence that don’t lend themselves to precise categorization. My point is not that we should avoid referring to pizza as a kind of flatbread or to Bolognese as a tomato sauce. These are perfectly fine as practical descriptions that work most of the time outside the context of theory. Rather, my point about the poverty of essentialism is that variations are not exceptions that can be handled by a list of exempting conditions. Think about the various dishes that fall under the category “curry.” Every household from Bangalore to Bangkok to Birmingham will make a different version. Variation is the rule not the exception in cuisine and that is a challenge to any attempt to discover general concepts consisting of essential properties that can anchor a theory.

Each cook/chef with their individual histories and the peculiarities of their preferences bring differences to the table even when following a recipe. When creating recipes based on what ingredients are on hand or which whim is to be serviced, the differences are even more pronounced. The history of cooking is a history of the proliferation of small differences that travel in the larders of mobile populations and become magnified in new contexts.

But if essentialism and attempts to uncover systematic structure are bound to fail, is gastronomy then left with only loosely related dishes and traditions each with particular histories but no general conceptual framework that enhances our understanding?

The answer to this question turns on whether we can marshal conceptual resources designed to handle the anomalous, the imprecise, and the in-between. Perhaps we can, but I shall now pause these ruminations to attend to this bowl of Bolognese in front of me.

Good thinking after all depends on good eating. Stay tuned.

For more on the philosophy of food visit Edible Arts or consult American Foodie: Taste, Art, and the Cultural Revolution.