Winter 2000–2001

Ingestion / A Personal Gastronomic Alphabet: Part I


Allen S. Weiss

“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.

The publication of M.F.K. Fisher’s An Alphabet for Gourmets in 1949—the post-war moment when an increasing number of Americans were discovering the subtle but sure joys of French cooking—was a gastronomic landmark, since for perhaps the first time in the English language a popular and talented writer dealt with cuisine in the full range of its interrelated literary, historic, aesthetic, and autobiographical contexts. Given the state of theory at the beginning of this millennium, an argument for the role of personal voice within critical discourse no longer implies a radical epistemological position. As many of the major “crises” in the humanities have been articulated in works written, fully or partially, in the first-person singular (Nietzsche, Freud, Artaud, Bataille, Barthes, Geertz), the rhetoric of the intimate has become an integral part of contemporary hermeneutics. The reason that this is crucial in the gastronomic sphere is that it permits us to situate and express that most elusive of qualities, taste, with all of its psychological, symbolic, and sociological implications. Only then can a common ground be established for gastronomic discourse, and, more immediately, only then can we match our taste against another’s, and establish some meaning in our praise and disputes. For taste constitutes a sign of individual style, a mode of constituting the self, a mark of social position, an aesthetic gesture. While inaugurating the most intimate pleasure, cuisine simultaneously offers an incontrovertible cultural façade. Hence, against the solipsism, narcissism, and phantasms of what would be the incommunicable idiosyncrasy of pure subjective taste, must be counterbalanced the communality, seduction, and mythology of gastronomy. In order to reveal the discursive basis for their evaluations, food critics should therefore be required to submit such a culinary alphabet.


Aversion would seem to indicate the antithesis of gastronomy. As a small child I did not want to eat at all, except for a very few favorite dishes. The favorites or nothing. As my culinary field expanded, certain foods incited conscious aversion, establishing personal taste, protected by a borderline of rejection. (Of course, many things edible in certain cultures and contexts are unimaginable in others. There was no question about even thinking of eating locusts, for example, thus no rejection. I had yet to learn the joys of asceticism.) The major instance of such aversion was my profound disquietude, indeed anguished repulsion, at seeing beef tongue. For years I had innocently enjoyed this cold cut, even calling it by name, but, in a strange feat of dissociation, I never managed to relate word and object. When I finally saw one, a whole one, in the butcher shop, recognition coincided with the crushing weight of retrospection, and I almost fainted. Afterwards, the very thought of eating tongue gave me the chills, and triggered a choking reflex. This disgust certainly had multiple psychological roots, probably not without interest concerning my subsequent career as a writer and public speaker.

Aversion, like passion, is the very guarantor of taste, marking its limits and establishing the borders of the personal gastronomic field through hyperbole and inversion. Taste is simultaneously subjective, objective, and qualificative. According to context, taste variously signifies: the sense by which we distinguish flavors; the flavors themselves; an appetite for certain preferred flavors; the discriminative activity according to which an individual either likes or dislikes certain sensations; the sublimation of such value judgements as they pertain to art, and ultimately to all experience; and, by extension and ellipsis, taste implies good taste and style, established by means of an intuitive faculty of judgement. Taste is a dynamic principle—not a static qualification or attribute—the origins of which are lost in pure contingency. Ultimately, the most satisfying means of estimating gastronomic values, of considering the question of taste, is through a “Proustian” digression: lengthy, sensual, detailed, eloquent, seductive, and most especially contingent. Gilles Deleuze claimed that his preferred foods were brain, tongue, and marrow. This, coming from a philosopher, seems too perfect. There is no need to seek a rational, coherent structure to taste; what is crucial is to identify such boundaries, and establish techniques for exploring culinary immanence and transcendence.


Blanc d’Abymes. White of the Abyss. This oenological entry is here for its name alone, irresistible in all that it evokes, a veritable epigraph to the author’s philosophical project.


Cookbooks. Given the fact that they are read far more for pleasure than for practical reasons, may certainly be considered to constitute a literary genre, however minor. Therefore, all hermeneutic techniques should be applied in their analysis (semiology, deconstruction, reader response, etc.)


Decoration. Probably the most visible new style of culinary decoration during the past decade was the dusting of all sorts of powdered spices across very large, very white plates—paprika, chili powder, chopped nuts, sea salt, exotic pepper, dried crushed herbs, powdered crystallized citrus peel, cocoa, flavored sugar, etc. If one were to trace modern culinary decoration from the epoch of Antonin Carême through to the present, the comparison between a (maximal) nineteenth-century decorative piéce montée and such (minimal) fine dusting would perhaps be equivalent to comparing art pompier to modernist abstraction, white background (wall, plate) and all. Even admitting that there is much bad abstraction, it is difficult to understand why this dusting technique has raised the ire of so many food critiques; and it is even more difficult to understand the general lack of comprehension of its vast practical benefits. Many food professionals to whom I have spoken see this as pure decoration, and never imagined that these dustings may simply be used as a less rigid means of seasoning. For one of the most delicate gustatory thresholds relates to salt and spices. Whether a chef might wish to utilize subtle nuances or to foreground the flavor of a certain spice, the optimal dosage differs from person to person, due to differences of taste (physiological, psychological, sociological). The salt and pepper shakers that are nearly ubiquitous in European and American restaurants take into account this very small realm of culinary virtuality. The field is often expanded, however slightly, with paprika shakers in Hungarian restaurants, jars of chicken fat in Eastern European Jewish establishments, bottles of nuac mam in Vietnamese restaurants, salsa in Mexican luncheonettes, etc. The dusting technique simply expands such virtuality.


Eloquence. Consider the following qualifications: “flavor-packed,” “rich, lusty,” “a showstopper,” “a flamboyant statement,” “an earthy enchantress,” “a tangy succulent delight,” “lip-smacking,” “more refined but equally appealing.” The stylistic paucity of much, even most, food criticism suffers from an overdose of hyperbole mixed with an occasional zest of irony (for the negative moments) and a plethora of clichés. The rhetoric of this discourse is highly dependent upon adjectives, which are most often facile substitutes for knowledge. The above quotations, quite typical in both tone and vocabulary, come from a single review! Though the “but” in “more refined but equally appealing” gives a sense of the reviewer’s populist sensibility, this should not be taken as a marker of class, for the adjectival riot is typical of all levels of restaurant reviewing. A very modest proposal: either limit the number of adjectives in food reviews, or eliminate them altogether. This practice has been of inestimable help to modernist poets.

In both Kantian metaphysics and everyday discourse, the ellipsis “taste” always implies “good taste,” never “bad taste.” The question of taste therefore entails the existence of a discursive community motivated by an aesthetic imperative, and not the sheer negation of value (couched in a naive relativism) so often imposed by the tasteless. Taste demands engagement, not disengagement. It is precisely at the intersection of rhetoric, poetics and philosophy that a new sort of culinary expression “defamiliarizing and destablizing” will reveal unexpected depths and possibilities of taste. In The Critique of Judgement, Kant proposes a solution to the problematic of taste (i.e., the antinomy of the judgement of taste), most useful in an attempt to answer the frustrating commonplaces posed by the tasteless: “each to his own taste” and “there is no disputing taste,” or “I don’t know if it’s good, but I know what I like,” and “it pleases me, therefore it is good.” Kant’s theory is based on the notion of a subjective universality: the claim that beauty functions in a rhetorical mode as a demand, establishing a universal validity which is nevertheless without any regulating concept. Taste thus becomes a universal voice speaking in the imperative mode, implying the possibility of communicating private sensations, representations, and judgements; it proffers the seemingly paradoxical universality of a singular judgement. Yet Kant’s examination of judgements of taste, while being logically subtle, is rhetorically and lexically impoverished: the question of taste is in fact considerably more complex, admitting the intricacies of monologue and dialogue, theory and poetry, explication and seduction, obscurity and contradiction. Kantian aesthetics must be supplemented by a historicized rhetoric, in order to integrate the singularities of enunciation and situation into aesthetic judgment, all the while weighing the structures of the aesthetic (culinary) object and its variegated history. Subjective universality must be counterbalanced by an existential historicity; taste must indeed be discussed and disputed, as it is a profoundly dialogical form of experience.


Fire. One evening I received a bill at Quilty’s, an excellent upscale-downtown Manhattan restaurant, on which the first item was: 1 Fire—$0.00. Computer error or Nabokovian joke on the chef’s name, Katy Sparks?


Gardens were the sites of the first veritable Gesamtkunstwerk, the great courtly festivals in which all the arts were staged in complex interaction. In this context, a history of the great garden feasts and famed picnics is yet to be written. Such a study would transform both the history of gardens and that of gastronomy. Consider, for example, one of the most celebrated meals in courtly history, that offered by Louis XIV at Versailles on 18 July 1668, where during the course of an entire night his guests were entertained by promenades, theater, ballet, water- works, fireworks, and a sumptuous feast. This baroque intermingling of the arts (described by André Félibien, the court historiographer, in Relation de la fête de Versailles) implied an aesthetic logic revealing the synaesthetic essence of all art, thus suggesting a reordering of the relations between the five senses, and consequently a more noble role for the “arts of the table.”


Herbs. In the U.S., one recent change in food presentation is emblematic. For decades, the most common culinary decoration was that infuriating, inedible sprig of parsley set alongside the main dish. In recent years, this herb is often presented deep-fried (a Southern touch), transmuting scant decoration into delightful food. This transformation of the commonplace reveals a vast range of possibilities. There exists the exotic in space and the exotic in time. During the Renaissance, spices constituted the point at which rare, exotic ingredients entered French cuisine, to a great extent as a sign of ostentation, given their exceedingly high cost: they tended to be used flauntingly and in complex mixtures. As spices became more readily available at the time of the Enlightenment, their role diminished, only to recently reappear, either in more simple uses designed to foreground their distinctive qualities, or in multicultural postmodern mélange. Today, herbs, flowers, and rare species of wild vegetables play a similar role, in which the symbolic register of ecological exoticism is not without a certain influence. (Bras, Marcon, Roellinger, Veyrat, Vongerichten...)

What is wrong with the preceding paragraph? Quite simply, that it serves as a culinary screen memory. One should remember that the first Spring menu of The Four Seasons, which opened in New York in 1959, offered nasturtium leaves, dandelions, primrose beignets, and rose petal parfait—all written (more or less) in English!

Allen S. Weiss’s gastronomic alphabet will continue over the next two issues of Cabinet.

Allen S. Weiss teaches at the Performance Studies and Cinema Studies departments at New York University. He is the author of numerous books, including Phantasmic Radio. He is Cabinet’s editor-at-large.

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