jump to navigation

Coming Down Off the Perfect Meal October 18, 2011

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink.
Tags: , ,

Food and Wine have not been taken seriously as forms of art in part because of the belief that vision and hearing are the only senses that lend themselves to the intellectual explorations we associate with art. This ideology, called the “sense hierarchy”, and masterfully traced by Carolyn Korsmeyer in Making Sense of Taste, treats taste and smell as thoroughly functional sources of brute pleasure, too primitive and instinctual to be worthy of genuine aesthetic discrimination.

This ideology is ancient. 2500 years ago, Plato argued that vision and sound give us information about the world that engages the intellect, while tastes and smells only encourage the appetite which he likened to a ravenous beast that overcomes our rational faculties. (I suppose Plato can be forgiven for not knowing about the porn industry or trivial pop melodies that suck you in each time you hear them.)

…the gods made what is called the lower belly, to be a receptacle for the superfluous meat and drink and formed the convolution of the bowels, so that the food might be prevented from passing quickly through and compelling the body to require more food, thus producing insatiable gluttony and making the whole race an enemy to philosophy and culture, and rebellious against the divinest element within us.

One wonders what was in Plato’s kitchen that threatened to sap his self-control. But Plato’s assertion rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of how appetite works. Appetite has its own internal control mechanisms.

This point was brought home to me as I read Jay Rayner’s book The Man Who Ate the World. Rayner, a British food critic, often on the judges’ panel for Top Chef, set out on a worldwide quest to discover the perfect meal. With perfection being an impossible standard, his quest involves more disappointments than successes. But the penultimate failures could be attributed to the fact that his ambling about the world was avoiding the one place where such perfection is alleged to be routine—Paris, where he endeavors to eat 7 meals in 7 days at the finest restaurants.

The regrets begin on Day Two, and by Day Six:

Oh, god, I don’t know. Another Parisian three-star. Doormen in peaked caps.Claw-foot chairs. Side tables for the ladies to put their handbags on. The food was standard three-star stuff: langoustines on sticks wrapped in sea-water foam, beetroot meringues, yeast ice cream decorated with silver leaf. You know the score by now.

Rayner’s weary lamentation shows that appetite is not quite a ravenous, insatiable beast. It’s not that the food wasn’t good. Most of it met his expectations. But the adage “too much of a good thing” applies even to the finest cuisine. In the absence of compulsive disorders, pleasures aim at their own extinction. (There is probably an evolutionary explanation for this. Organisms that are never satisfied will ignore everything else to their obvious detriment)

Many philosophers have noticed this tendency of pleasures to be satiated but argue that the desire for pleasure always returns in a never ending cycle of debilitating craving. But, again, Rayner’s experience shows that this is not necessarily the case.

But the wonderful thing about perfection is that it is, of course,unobtainable. That didn’t stop me searching for it. That hasn’t stopped me wondering about it. All I need is the appetite. There is only one problem. I’m no longer sure I have one.

Having experienced the best cuisine in the world, the post-quest prospect of the many failed meals that await the restaurant critic no longer appeals to him. Once one develops aesthetic standards and acquires an ability to discriminate, fewer pleasures seem attractive.  Critical awareness enhances self-control. The motivation to seek pleasure can be tamed by the very intellect that Plato thought would be overwhelmed.

There is no reason to think there is something peculiarly “brute” or instinctual about taste—it can be refined and disciplined just like any other sensation.

Cross-posted at Edible Arts



1. John - October 19, 2011


2. A. A. Handa - October 22, 2011

As someone who is patiently awaiting the time when philosophy departments recognize the importance of introducing philosophy of food in the undergraduate curriculum, I am familiar with both Korsmeyer and Rayner, and enjoyed them both. When starting Rayner’s book, I couldn’t help thinking that he was looking in all the wrong places for the best meal and in fact this is what he concludes towards the end: the best meal was unlikely to be found in a restaurant.

While I was terrifically bored with value theory courses in my undergrad degree at McGill, now that I am working in food, I finally see the point of the exercise of contemplation of the best meal (or the best painting or the best poem). I guess I always saw the point but thought the conversations were better suited to pub tables than to lecture halls or seminar rooms. Wondering about the best requires us to attach value and to argue for that value. Is it better to dine alone or with company, and if with company with a stranger or a friend? And if with a friend, with one or with many? My experience reading Kant et al. in aesthetics or ethics classes was that context was everything. So, why am I so willing to entertain similar questions in food? Perhaps I’ve learned something else along the way as in: the true meaning of the slogan: “the means is the end”. Perhaps in trading in the impetuousness of youth I have settled into a wise old armchair, worn but not always comfortable, that leads me to appreciate that traveling really can be so much more rewarding than arriving. So, now I recognize the value of the pub conversations, and likely should have joined the table there long ago. By the way, I love the title of this blog.

For random musings on similar topics, please visit mine at http://www.philosopheroffood.com

3. Paul J. Moloney - October 23, 2011

Months ago I saw Ringo Starr being interviewed on a Sunday morning talk show. He was asked how he managed to look so good, and he did look good. He responded that he simply keeps active and watches what he eats. To me this demonstrates the validity of Dwight’s argument that taste can be refined and disciplined. (I must add that I was mildly shocked to see what a humble person Ringo is, especially considering he was one of the great Beatles. He came off as a regular sort of fellow, someone I would have hung around with in high school.)

In regards to Dwight’s mention of “pop melodies”, I wonder how John Lennon and Bob Dylan would have done on American Idol.

In the Dialogues it can be difficult, if not impossible, to discern where the thinking of Socrates ends and the thinking of Plato begins. Nonetheless, there is a great contrast between the life of Socrates and that of Plato. Plato wrote of Socrates that he could drink more wine than anyone else without getting drunk. (One would have to wonder about the truth of that statement if the only witnesses to the sobriety of Socrates were those who were drunk themselves.)

4. Nina Rosenstand - October 24, 2011

Oh, to think that Aristotle could have solved Plato’s problem, as well as Rayner’s. Not to much, not too little, but in the right amount, at the right time, for the right reason, to achieve eudaimonia in this life, because there isn’t going to be another one. The Golden Mean in all aspects of life—including managing that ravenous appetite, or rekindle the desires after the blahs of overexposure…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: