How do we experience taste when we eat a Michelin-starred dinner, an all-star diner breakfast, or a can of chicken and stars soup? Nicola Perullo nimbly endeavors to answer this question in Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food, published in April 2016 by Columbia University Press. Presenting not a philosophy of food, but rather a philosophy with food, Perullo examines food from the inside out, privileging the eater’s perceptions over the critic’s observations as he dismantles the hierarchy of the senses.
While his text flows smoothly as a single essay over 135 pages, Perullo also willingly condenses his thesis into a “short and somewhat arcane formula:”
taste = situation + circumstance + ecological experience
As I read Taste as Experience, these are ten points that I highlighted and stopped to ponder:
1. “A philosophy of food, to the extent that it is a philosophy with food, depends on a transformational interrogation and not only on a descriptive one” (p. viii). Throughout his analysis of taste, Perullo emphasizes the phenomenological experiences of those doing the tasting over observers. This move destabilizes the hierarchy of the senses, which traditionally subordinates all senses to intellect and marginalizes taste as an inferior sense.
2. “Because the specifics of our daily relationship with food happen through processes, ordinary gestures, and incorporated memories, identifying ‘experts,’ in the most complete sense of the word, becomes extremely problematic.” (p. x). Perullo defends the study of food as far more than a quotidian material required for sustenance and survival. At the same time, he purposefully studies taste from below and emphasizes what he calls “naked pleasure”—a nearly instantaneous sensation that is distinct from the trained palate of the expert and the esteemed context of haute cuisine. In this way, a fine dining restaurant and a roadside diner both provide pleasure. Even a sandwich that doesn’t taste particularly delicious is pleasurable if it assuages one’s hunger.
3. “One needs to understand taste as an ecological system” (p. xi). Perullo asserts that taste—as a concept that depends upon an individual’s perception, pleasure, and knowledge—emerged within the specific historical context of modernity. He seeks to place taste within a context that is wider, perhaps older, and “systematically holistic,” which he calls an ecological relationship.
4. “Taste as an experience of pleasure, knowledge, and indifference espouses a dynamic conception of aesthetics” (p. 8). Perullo organizes his text into sections that address these three modes of experience, each an approach to understand and theorize taste. Interpreting and experiencing how pleasure, knowledge, and indifference “intertwine, overlap, and reshape themselves” sets the path toward gustatory wisdom.
5. “In the present age, technology can also allow for a fulfilling and intense quality in the aesthetic relationship between human beings and food” (p. 23). Arguing that industrial food is “neither good nor bad in itself,” Perullo asserts that a deeper and more systemic understanding of taste provides a path forward for thinking about the connections between production and consumption, perhaps alluding to potentially more beneficial relationships within the food system. This is an underdeveloped but quite intriguing proposition.
6. “Changing the signs on the marginality of taste perception means accepting its paradoxically parasitic nature; taste is the paradigm of embodied knowledge, which originates and develops in and through the body, and which is not conceivable otherwise” (p. 25). Perullo both accepts and refutes the binaries and hierarchies that typically organize taste. He examines how gastronomy and taste are always at once intellectual and corporeal, serious and light, high and low, exceptional and mundane, memorable and perishable, cultural and natural.
7. “The pleasure of food is always ambivalent” (p. 40). Throughout history, food has been considered laudable and suspect—even dangerous or pathological—for its ability to incite desire. While classist constructions of “good taste” attenuate this ambivalence and render it acceptable in particular contexts, Perullo argues instead for a democratization of taste. This strategy still endorses taste cultivation, but also emphasizes an instinctual and intuitive response to pleasure.
8. “Taste is a multimodal device, embedded, relational, flexible, and potentially skilled at sorting out very different and even opposite situations” (p. 74). Again proposing a more populist understanding of gastronomy, Perullo says taste reflects “both a deeper and more open, amateur, inclusive, and aware look.” He summarizes the fluid dynamic between pleasure and knowledge with a visual metaphor: “nude pleasure gets dressed.”
9. “The mindful comprehension of eating experiences comes by way of understanding their entire ranges and processes” (p. 89). While Perullo analyzes pleasure and knowledge as unsurprisingly intertwined concepts within perceptions of taste, he concedes that indifference may seem a bizarre addition. This is perhaps his most novel contribution, however, as he analyzes indifference as an essential component of the “experiential blueprint” that constructs taste. Perullo writes that indifference is not emblematic of lack, whether lack of thoughtfulness, attention, or ability. Instead, indifference is required for creating gustatory wisdom.
10. “Conviviality can therefore represent a gym for refining the wisdom of taste” (p. 131). The wisdom of taste, as Perullo defines it, is not static or rigid; not guided by rules, canon, or standardized expertise alone. Hospitable exchange is what creates the situations and circumstances in which taste can thrive and transform. The openness of these interactions ensures the dynamism of the system and the connectedness of its ecology.
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Perullo concludes that the wisdom of taste requires a specific attitude and set of behaviors. We would all do well to embrace Perullo’s advice from the end of his first chapter to “start observing and perceiving our daily food with open-mindedness, patience, and confidence” (p. 26).
I was fortunate to receive a review copy of Nicola Perullo’s Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food from Columbia University Press. Taste as Experience is part of Columbia’s series “Arts and Traditions of the Table: Perspectives on Culinary History,” which features dozens of must-read titles. Perullo is a professor of aesthetics at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy.