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Real Men Don’t Eat Fiddly Foods! February 15, 2012

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Food and Drink, Philosophy of Food.


Cross-posted at Edible Arts


Esquire’s “Eat Like a Man” blog features John Mariani confidently contending that cooking is a craft, never an art.

Thus, imagination and creativity go into cooking, often at a very high level, at which point it is called haute cuisine. But there is nothing that rises to the level of true art in a craft whose very existence depends on the constant replication of a dish, night after night, week after week.

The occasion for Mariani’s diatribe against culinary art is a new book which consists mainly of pictures of:

…cooks’ hands putting the final touches on dishes — a periwinkle on tapioca, a dot of sauce on octopus, a blow torch used on cactus pads.

Given the venue, I suppose the subtext here is that real men don’t eat fiddly foods topped with periwinkles, when the carcasses of large-boned animals can be slathered with Q-sauce and washed down with a pitcher of Bud Light for a fraction of the price.

Subtext aside, Mariani’s arguments are interesting in much the same way a speech by Newt Gingrich is interesting—one shivers in anticipation of impending collapse when bluster is so perilously perched on non-sequitur. So it is worth unpacking the arguments if only for the spectacle.

With a healthy dose of charity, I can discern 5 arguments in Mariani’s piece:

(1) Cooking requires the constant replication of a dish and is thus inherently a reproduction; works of art are unique.

(2) Cooking is science-based and thus cannot be an art

(3) Art can be ugly, troubling, or repulsive; food by contrast cannot be deliberately distasteful.

(4) In cooking, form must follow function. Thus, cooks must make guests happy and this often requires simplicity and making things “taste like what they are”. In art, (by implication) form is not bound to function, simplicity is not a virtue, and art is essentially about creatively modifying the object being represented, not showing it as it is.

(5) What is typically called culinary art involves extravagant display or adding decorative flourishes to traditional ingredients. This is not art because (by implication) art is not about decoration or extravagance.

There is too much misunderstanding of both cooking and the arts to reply in one blog post. So I will take up these arguments in separate posts over the next week or so.

But his first argument that individual dishes are reproductions and thus cannot be original works is simple nonsense. Copies of paintings are indeed mere reproductions, not original works. A print of the Mona Lisa is not a work of art because painting is an autographic art—only the painter can directly cause the work to exist, and there can be only one legitimate instance of it. But many arts are allographic—copies of an original are genuine instances of the original. My copy of Hamlet is a work of art even though it is a duplication of the original. CD’s by Springsteen or performances of Beethoven are instances of works of art despite the fact they are reproductions.

Cooking is similarly allographic. Individual dishes are instances of a recipe just as a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is an instance of its score. So the fact that line cooks churn out 25 copies of a dish in no way shows that cooking is not an art–unless Mariani is prepared to claim Beethoven and Shakespeare are mere craftsmen.



1. Paul J. Moloney - February 19, 2012

If art is about something that is sensed it does not seem that taste can be excluded when it comes to considering an object of art. If the object of taste can be excluded then the object of hearing can be excluded, which means that music would not be art. If music is not art then there is not reason to consider paintings and the like to be art, but this is not to say that anything heard, seen and tasted is a matter of art.

If an essence can be duplicated then what is duplicated is essentially the same. We are just as human as the parents who reproduced us. Dwight seems to have the better argument in saying a dish is an instance of a recipe because the recipe would be the essence of the dish. In music the musical score can be said to be the essence of the work.

I am not sure how much science has to do with the art of cuisine. Aristotle thought the confectioner’s work was a matter of accident rather than an art. If in his time it was not a matter of art then it was less a matter of science. It is more a matter of science when it comes to healthy eating. I am taking the art of cuisine to stand between the so-called confectioner’s art, which has led to the proliferation of candy bars, and healthy eating. Even the art of cuisine, though, seems to be a matter of accident in that the development of dishes is found through discovery.

I have to admit that Mariani’s makes good point in saying that a dish cannot be deliberately distasteful but maybe it can. Post-modern art was deliberately anti-artistic, at least in a manner of speaking. The implication of Mariani’s point is that art is not about the beautiful because art can be ugly. If a dish cannot be deliberately distasteful then this form of cooking has more to do with the beautiful then art does, assuming the art of cuisine is not a true art as Mariani does. Whether or not the art of cuisine is a true art is not as controversial to me as the question of what relationship art has to beauty is. If art has no relation to beauty what does beauty have to do with? Can there even be ugliness without beauty?

2. Paul J. Moloney - February 23, 2012

And: it does not matter how much the culinary art is based on science; it remains an art. This is because the art considers the taste of food while science considers it nutritional value. It is accidental to the art that the food happens to be healthy. The same is true of music. Music is based on numerical ratios such as the quarter and half notes. Music considers these notes in regards to the sounds produced by them. Mathematics considers the notes themselves as being ratios of numbers.

3. Dwight Furrow - March 13, 2012

Hi Paul,

Thank you for the comments. I’m sorry I didn’t respond earlier. I’ve been swamped with grading. I agree that until recently, science was important for health knowledge (and industrial food production as well) but had little to do with culinary art. But with the advent of molecular gastronomy and the increasing interest in science among creative chefs, science is now opening up lots of creative possibilities in the kitchen.

As to Mariani’s claim that food cannot be ugly, I have a post going up tomorrow that will require some serious qualification of that view.

4. Paul J. Moloney - March 14, 2012

Though I am not an academic thinker, I am convinced, all things being equal, that if one acts on all the opportunities in the academic environment, they will be a better thinker than a non-academic thinker, at least for the greater part. That being said, one of the benefits of being a non-academic thinker is that one can continue reading philosophy while others are grading papers. Then again, one of the drawbacks of being a non-academic philosopher is that I do my reading standing in a crowded bus on my way to work.

I am looking forward to the next post. I did not realize how interesting and relevant the subject of culinary arts was until it was brought up.

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