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Poetry in Food August 23, 2012

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

Cross-posted at Edible Arts

One of the great obstacles to thinking of food as a form of art is that we are accustomed to thinking of food as a collection of flavors and textures that, although pleasurable, lack meaning. Flavors and textures, so it is argued, are not about anything and thus are not representations of an object, place, or person. In this they differ from painting, linguistic arts, and more controversially music, all of which have meaning and which thus qualifies them as art forms.

Chef Crenn, owner of Atelier Crenn, a restaurant in San Francisco, is pushing against this view and understands the depth of meaning that food can have.

Ms. Crenn’s dishes, which she dubs “poetic culinaria,” are all meant to express artistic ideas, in the same way that a line of poetry is meant to communicate more than the sum of its words. A recent 12-course, $160 grand tasting menu was also written as a poem. On the menu, the line “a shallow pool stirs,” for example, accompanied a dish of radish tea with sea urchin and caviar; “as first buds appear” went with a dish of oysters and egg-white foam decorated with tiny flowers.

The rest of the article describes how Crenn used a bird’s nest spotted on a walk as inspiration for a dish called “Birth” which resembled a bird’s nest and which signified the new beginning she must undertake after the foie gras ban in California goes into effect.

One could argue that Crenn’s cooking gets its meaning and thus its artistry from the stunning visual appearance of the food and the title of the dish. Thus, it is poaching on the visual and linguistic dimension for its claim to be art. In other words, the flavors and textures, the elements related to taste, are not doing much artistic work. Having not tasted Crenn’s intriguing culinaria I cannot say what work flavor is doing to enhance the perception of genuine artistry. But there is nothing in the nature of art that entails that art can employ only a single sensory modality. Film for instance employs many sensory modalities. And the dish did include remnants of her foie gras supply, thus clearly flavor and texture contribute to the meaning of the dish.

Many works of art get some of their meaning from language. We would be hard pressed to grasp the meaning of a work such as  Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea) if he hadn’t given it that title. Yet surely instrumental music is an art form despite the difficulty in locating its meaning.

The exclusion of food (and wine) from the realm of fine art increasingly seems like a mere prejudice (or a matter of historical practice) thanks to chefs such as Ms. Crenn, whose cooking I look forward to sampling the next time I’m in San Francisco.



1. Nina Rosenstand - August 24, 2012

What an interesting picture…or is it just in the eye of the beholder? 🙂 Maybe, as we have the concept of program music, composed to illustrate something transcending itself and expressible in language, we should adopt the concept of program food?

2. Paul J. Moloney - August 25, 2012

Dwight, I hope you have enough material on the aesthetics of taste for a book.

When I read your arguments, the thought comes to mind that they are common sense. I think that even though I hate the term “common sense”. What I must mean is that your arguments are very evident when I read them. Your arguments seem flawless. Your reasoning is intelligible, in being clear and understandable. Any arguments that come to my mind against your position dissipate without becoming developed. Not only can I not think of any arguments against your position, but I add arguments in favor of your position. I wish I was the one who came up with your thinking on the topic.

You are in a unique situation in being a philosopher and food connoisseur. If I may make some generalizations about philosophy, which may or not be true, It seems that philosophers tend to speak more of the universal when it comes to aesthetics. It’s hard to think of any philosopher who was also an art or music expert. On the other hand, there are thinkers who have experience with art and music, and the other arts, who are not philosophers.

There can be an unspoken bias against aesthetics by many thinkers on philosophy, another generalization. This might be because aesthetics could be seen as a more unnecessary topic. If one is looking for status in philosophy, it is more likely to be gotten in the theories of nature and knowledge, and the topic of ethics. If one is a great thinker, though, their thinking will extend to aesthetics in some form and to some degree. Aristotle, Kant and Hume had something to say on the topic of aesthetics.

If the subject of aesthetics is unnecessary so too is philosophy. If we can discard taste, we can discard sight and hearing. I think your arguments are well developed. Your thinking is so well done on the subject, I would have to say that it would influence the rest of philosophy. Your thinking on taste is novel, in the sense of being new and original. That being said, it also seems to be very orthodox, if one can use that word in a good sense.

3. Dwight Furrow - August 28, 2012

Yes. Program music is the right analogy for Crenn’s approach to food. I’m not sure I’ve seen anything quite like it.


Thanks for your comments. A book is likely at some point but only after I have developed a way of selling it.

The only contemporary philosopher that comes to mind who also had expertise in the arts is Arthur Danto. He was a Nietzsche scholar early in his career but wrote extensively about aesthetics and was also the art critic for the Nation magazine for many years.

It is really only Anglo-American philosophy that has considered aesthetics to be of secondary value. Many European philosophers take it quite seriously and some think Kant’s Third Critique, which was devoted to aesthetics, was his most important work.

My intuitions are that aesthetic perception is central to many judgments, especially moral judgments, but I don’t really have an argument for that hypothesis yet.

4. attorney salary - October 11, 2013

Thanks for this wonderful article. Yet another thing to mention is that nearly all digital cameras come equipped with a zoom lens so that more or less of that scene to be included by simply ‘zooming’ in and out. Most of these changes in target length will be reflected in the viewfinder and on substantial display screen on the back of any camera.

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