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. Read more »

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. Read more »

Eating: The Not So Simple Pleasure

by Dwight Furrow

ChiliPlunging into a bowl of chili differs from a dog's dinner only by degrees. Slobbering, slurping, and gnashing, the dense but yielding meat mingles with the earthiness of dried peppers. The gathering heat pleads to be chased with a swallow of cold, bitter beer that cuts the tension with a flood of endorphin-induced satisfaction.

Well, it's not all that special—just a bowl of chili. But the simple act of consumption is undeniably rewarding. Food and drink provide us with an immediate hedonic reaction—no thinking, no analysis, no bothersome complexity. Our own likes and dislikes rule without judgment. You either like it or you don't and no one can tell you you're wrong (if you put away the calorie counter).

Such unreflective feasting is not exactly information-rich, but it is not utterly blind either. Dominant flavors and textures are familiar and thus instantly recognizable. But each forkful is more or less like the other and any evolution on the palate is buried by the next rapidly following mouthful. The satisfactions of this sort of eating can be had while thinking about more important matters like world peace or getting your nails done.

We all eat like this sometimes. Our nature dictates it. Evolution designed us, under conditions of scarcity, to crave such brute pleasure as a hedge against tomorrow when food might be unavailable. Life would be diminished if we could not enjoy this kind of eating.

But another kind of eating is possible and ultimately more important. With some focused attention, even a simple bowl of chili has interesting imensions: a slight smokiness from the bacon and charred chunks of beef, an unexpected fruity note from an abundance of aji panca chiles, and multiple savory layers from hours of slow cooking that we can appreciate only by attending to the shifting balance of flavors as they evolve on the palate. In a bowl of chili, there is food for thought as well as for consumption.

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Why Americans are Fascinated by Food

by Dwight Furrow

Beautiful foodFor much of the 20th Century, the U.S. was a culinary backwater. Outside some immigrant enclaves where old world traditions were preserved, Americans thought of food as nutrition and fuel. Food was to be cheap, nutritious (according to the standards of the day) and above all convenient; the pleasures of food if attended to at all were a minor domestic treat unworthy of much public discussion.

How times have changed! Today, celebrity chefs strut across the stage like rock stars, a whole TV network is devoted to explaining the intricacies of fermentation or how to butcher a hog, countless blogs recount last night's meal in excruciating detail, and competitions for culinary capo make the evening news. We talk endlessly about the pleasures of food, conversations that are supported by specialty food shops, artisan producers, and aisles of fresh, organic produce in the supermarket. Restaurants, even small neighborhood establishments, feature chefs who cook with creativity and panache.

Why this sudden interest in food? As I argue in American Foodie: Taste, Art and the Cultural Revolution, our current interest in food is a search for authenticity, face-to-face contact, local control, and personal creativity amidst a world that is increasingly standardized, bureaucratic, digitized, and impersonal. In contemporary life, the public world of work, with its incessant demands for efficiency and profit, has colonized our private lives. The pressures of a competitive, unstable labor market, the so-called “gig” economy, along with intrusive communications technology make it increasingly difficult to escape a work world governed by the value of efficiency. This relentless acceleration of demands compresses our sense of time so we feel like there is never enough of it. Standardization destroys the uniqueness of localities and our social lives are spread across the globe in superficial networks of “contacts” where we interact with brands instead of whole persons. The idea that something besides production and consumption should occupy our attention, such as a sense of community or self-examination, seems quaint and inefficient—a waste of time. Thus, we lose touch with ourselves while internalizing the self-as-commodity theme and hiving off all aspects of our lives that might harm our “brand”—a homogenized, marketable self. Even our vaunted and precious capacity to choose is endangered, for we no longer choose based on a sensibility shaped by our unique experiences; instead our sensibilities are constructed by corporate choice architects, informed by their surveys and datamining that shepherd our decisions.

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Food as Art: Representation and Meaning

by Dwight Furrow

ScreenHunter_1234 Jun. 22 16.56One of the main hurdles confronting the view that fine cuisine is a fine art is to say what fine cuisine is about. Paintings refer to something beyond the painting and thus a painting can have meaning and can be interpreted. What do dishes refer to? Are they just flavor combinations that refer to nothing beyond the meal or do the flavors have meaning that can be decoded and elucidated, as a reader might grasp the symbols in a poem? Here is a quote from essayist and literary critic William Deresiewic articulating the standard puzzlement often expressed when confronted by this question of the meaning of food:

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. A curry is not an idea, even if its creation is the result of one. Meals can evoke emotions, but only very roughly and generally, and only within a very limited range — comfort, delight, perhaps nostalgia, but not anger, say, or sorrow, or a thousand other things. Food is highly developed as a system of sensations, extremely crude as a system of symbols. Proust on the madeleine is art; the madeleine itself is not art. A good risotto is a fine thing, but it isn’t going to give you insight into other people, allow you to see the world in a new way, or force you to take an inventory of your soul.

This dismissive argument from Deresiewic receives support from many philosophers throughout history writing on the arts. Even Carolyn Korsmeyer, the philosopher most responsible for putting food on the philosophical map, while granting that food is worthy of serious aesthetic attention, has reservations about food being a fine art. “Ought we now to take the next step and conclude that foods also qualify as works of art in the full sense of the term? That they represent in their own medium the same sorts of objects as paintings, sculptures, poems, and symphonies? I do not believe we should.” (Korsmeyer, Making Sense of Taste, 124)

Korsmeyer argues that food acquires meaning only because of its context, the ceremonies and rituals that surround the serving of food. Food, of course, is richly symbolic. The apple in Eve's hand represents the fall of humanity. The apple in Mom's apple pie represents her loving solicitude. For the Genoan, pesto is the taste of home; for coastal New Englanders it’s a clambake. Chicken soup is a symbol of healing; the Thanksgiving turkey a symbol of gratitude, abundance, and the gathering of family. There is plenty of meaning here to keep the semioticians busy.

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When Is a Meal Like a Van Gogh? When the Chef is Telling Secrets

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

Atelier Crenn A Creation of Chef Dominique Crenn

In the humdrum course of daily life, we tend to ignore most of the objects we encounter. We focus only on what will break down or threaten us if we aren’t paying attention and neglect anything that is in its proper place benignly performing its function. Such inattention is a shame but inevitable. We wouldn't survive for long if we maintained a child's fascina tion with what can be taken for granted.

One of the functions of art is to resist that inattention and sustain, if only at very special moments, a fragile fascination with the commonplace. The history of art is full of examples of works that illuminate the ordinary: The Rembrandt portrait that reveals a little-known character of its subject; or beams of light from an undisclosed source in a Caravaggio that reveals God's presence in an everyday scene. But it is especially true of modern art. The still-lifes of Cezanne, the ready-mades of Duchamp, the bricolage of postmodernism, all exemplify one prevalent theme of the art of the past 150 years—the commonplace is extraordinary.

Van Gogh was especially gifted at wresting revelation from the commonplace. In explaining why he left Paris for Arles in Provence, Van Gogh wrote that he wanted to “paint the South” to help others “see” it. Convinced that previous painters had failed in this task, he painted roughly 328 canvases of the area in a little over two years, a body of work which included 14 canvases of trees in bloom in the fields near Arles, a number of paintings of the Alpilles hills just outside of town, and 12 paintings of wheat fields visible from his window in the asylum, to which he consigned himself after cutting off his ear.

Trees in bloom, distant hills, wheat fields? These are commonplace objects we might superficially admire while on a leisurely walk, but they typically escape our focused attention. Yet, Van Gogh was convinced there is something to see in these objects, which our ordinary modes of perception cannot easily discern and which require an artist of his stature to make visible. (I hope cutting off one's ear is not a requirement for such an ability to see.)

What does Van Gogh see in the fields and hills near Arles that others miss?

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Why Kant Was Wrong about Food

by Dwight Furrow

Atelier crenn

from the San Francisco restaurant Atelier Crenn

Among philosophers who think about art and aesthetics, the position of food and wine is tenuous at best. Food and wine receive little discussion compared to painting or music, and when they are discussed, most philosophers are skeptical that food and wine belong in the category of fine arts.

Food and wine have not always been marginalized in discussions of aesthetics. In the 18h Century, taste provided a model for how to understand aesthetic judgments in general—until Kant came along to break up the party. Kant argued that food and wine could not be genuine aesthetic objects and his considerable influence has carried the day and continues to influence philosophical writing on the arts.

What were these powerful arguments that succeeded in removing taste from the agenda of aesthetics? Kant thought that both “mouth taste” and genuine aesthetic appreciation are based on an individual’s subjective experience of pleasure. But with “mouth taste” there is no reflection involved and no imaginative involvement, just an immediate response. The pleasure comes first and then we judge based on the amount of pleasure experienced whether we find the flavors “agreeable” or “disagreeable”. Thus, our judgments about food and wine are based entirely on our subjective, idiosyncratic, sensuous preferences. By contrast, when we experience paintings or music aesthetically, contemplation ensues whereby our rational and imaginative capacities engage in “free play”. Our pleasure is not an immediate response to the object but comes after the contemplation and is thus based on it. We respond not only to whether the object is pleasing but to how the object engages our cognitive capacities of understanding and imagination. This yields a judgment that is not merely a subjective preference but involves a more universal form of appreciation.

Kant was wrong to argue that “mouth taste” does not provoke contemplation. Connoisseurs of wine, cheese, coffee, and beer, as well as the flavorists who analyze our food preferences for the food industry show that food and wine can be thoughtfully savored, and various components of the tasting experience can be analyzed. But that fact by itself doesn’t really refute Kant’s view. What mattered for Kant was not just the fact of contemplation, but rather how the contemplation unfolds and what its result is. So we have to look more closely at what Kant had in mind.

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The Body Complex

by Tara* Kaushal

Psychology-of-Food-Sahil-Mane-PhotographySome thoughts on diet and exercise, food and drink, and health. Conceptual image by Sahil Mane Photography.

I've been on one diet or the other since I was in my teens. Most have been the very definition of crash (cigarettes and Diet Coke for a week, anyone?) and, later, I've tried more wholesome, longer-term lifestyle ones (that I would soon abandon and revert to my yoyo crash-trash diet cycle). First, it was only for aesthetic reasons, to lose weight; the lifestyle diets, Eat More Weigh Less and the like, started when I started to encompass health and fitness as a goal for my body (duh)!

Diet vs. Exercise: A Gendered Choice?

While all of us recognise that the key to a healthy body is a combination of good-for-you food and exercise (and not smoking, limited drinking, etc, and the absence of genetic and birth defects) most people fall in to one or the other category—some preferring exercise, unable to control their need to eat, drink and be merry; others preferring to diet or at least practice diet control, unable or unwilling to exercise. There are the some that do both, as we all should, and those, of course, that do neither.

I've realised that the choice, whether to diet or exercise, both or neither, is quite personality driven. Dieting is passive, to not eat; exercise is active, to get off your butt… And, in light of this fact, I hate to admit that my observation, that more women choose to diet, more men choose to exercise, falls in to gender stereotypes. Though there are exceptions all around, and my casual survey, of friends and boyfriends, and numbers from my local gym, has a small sample size, one could analyse my observation to bits. Is it because women are more driven by aesthetics, we are judged on them from an early age; and power, muscle, sports are traditionally male? Then there are the questions of time, priorities and lifestyle factors, and socioeconomic and cultural positioning. (More about the question of genderism in sports.) Also, men or women, individuals negotiate a complex social, familial, ethical, religious, consumerist, emotional, psychological and gendered relationship with food and drink.

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The Great Land Grab: Beyla


By Maniza Naqvi

Beyla o Beyla—-My precious Beyla! O meri lal-Beyla!

Mubarak Beyla—Jiayanoon Beyla! See, didn’t I always say to you –Keep your courage—Keep your faith–So what if your man is no more? We are here for you—my lali Beyla. Don’t I always say to you we will take care of you–my woman and I are still here for the whole village—like the protective shade of a father, or a brother or a man—We are here. Now just see how we take care of you. I have brought renters for your barren land. Now you will rule like a queen precious Beyla!

I told them to wait until I had talked to you myself. They are waiting on the highway—in their jeep—they are shy and not sure if you will accept them as renters. But I can tell you they are good people. You have my word on that. They want to rent your land. They want to become farmers—you know how the city folk are—they like to have hobbies—you know how they like to hunt around here—shooting and eating those small birds! Now they want to farm! So let them! They are naive in the ways of farming—what do they know about barren land? They think they can farm it. So let them Beyla. I told them that I will talk to you first. I will call them after you agree. They want to be your tenants! Imagine that Beyla—now you will have tenants!

They will give you five thousand rupees per acre for that barren land that the government gave you. Imagine! Do you remember when that oil company came and put up the fences nearby? They said the land didn't belong to anyone, it wasn't in anyone's name. They had bought it from the Government. Remember? And all that time we thought the land was ours and belonged to the village and no one even asked us if we used that land for cattle grazing or anything. Just because it wasn't in our names, we had no right to it. Remember? But now, see you will get forty thousand rupees per year for this land which the Government has given you and it is in your name, this barren land. Let them take it Beyla. You will be able to buy all the grain you want for your oven and your children. And the goats you’ve always wanted. And listen, guess what else, these naïve people want—You will laugh at this—I did—but then I thought why not—they can do what they want—it’s their money—and if they want to give you the money in exchange for nothing then let them—listen to this Beyla–they want to be your renters for one hundred years. Can you imagine?

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Some Accounting For Taste (Food, Faith & Syncretism in the Deccan)

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Charminar_hyderabad_india_photo One fairly nondescript morning a few years ago I found myself headed to Barkas in the old city of Hyderabad to meet my friend, Saleh Ahmed bin Abdat, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Al-Jamaitul Yemenia bil Hind, which administers affairs related the migrant community of Yemen, particularly the Hadramaut province of Southern Yemen. As part of an ongoing project, I have been speaking to members of the community for several years now. Barkas, close to the scorpion-shaped Falaknuma Palace, is a corruption of the English word barracks, for it was here that cadre of the Irregular Arab Forces of the princely ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, were housed. It was 7 AM and we were scheduled for a shoot with Sheikh Ba’wazir Ba’shaiba, a 76-year-old local resident, who had recently returned from his first ever trip to the land of his ancestors. The septuagenarian, as part of the last ruling Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan’s personal staff, had tended to the erstwhile autocrat of the independent state of Hyderabad till his dying breath. The Sheikh was a Khanazad – one of the many wards adopted by the Nizam to keep him company in his palace at King Kothi. We were late to arrive and consequently missed what was to be a delicious start to the day – a saucerful of Harees, the Turkish/Arabic originator of the more popular Haleem, a thickish, pulpy stew (or porridge) of wheat, goat meat or lamb, and spices.

In his foreword to Lila Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, Charles Perry points to the oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh, compiled in the 10th century by the scribe Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. The Nabataeans, as the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Iraq and Syria were known, he informs us, contributed significantly to the Arab repertoire of dishes (and terms used to describe them). Perry points out that the pioneering scribe Ibn Sayyar devotes an entire chapter to stews called nabatiyyat, and it is here we see a mention of Harisa, a Nabataean dish: “whole grain stewed with meat until done, and then beaten to a smooth, savory paste.” Interestingly, in this illuminating foreword, Perry also mentions that there is no proscription against meat at all in Islam and ‘this surely explains why meatless dishes were called muzawwaj (“counterfeit”)’.

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