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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 451-453
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Jocelyne Kolb. The Ambiguity of Taste: Freedom and Food in European Romanticism (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995). Pp. xiii + 346. $52.50 cloth.
Rebecca L. Spang. The Invention of the Restaurant: Paris and Modern Gastronomic Culture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000). Pp. vii + 325. $35.00 cloth.
Both Jocelyne Kolb and Rebecca Spang are aware that their field of interest--the history of food and its place in Western European culture--is a somewhat neglected one, and, furthermore, that this neglect is symptomatic. Given the prevalence, even universality, of food in everyday life, it must be significant, they concur, that academic culture has somehow steered clear of this topic, despite its otherwise insatiable appetite for new fields of inquiry. The difference between these two books can be seen in miniature in the different explanations these two authors provide for the virtual silence that surrounds gastronomic and culinary history.
For Kolb, food is and remains a "low" topic, too low for the attention or taste of academic critics. As an object of study, it requires "legitimization" (9). The subject of her book is the unprecedented--even "revolutionary"--presence of images of food in the traditionally elevated genres of tragedy and lyric poetry in the romantic period. Kolb draws an explicit parallel between the "poetic revolution" (Schlegel's term) emblematized by references to food in the six authors she studies (Molière, Fielding, Byron, Heine, Goethe, and Hugo, with passing reference to Proust and Mann) and her own critically revolutionary act of writing a scholarly monograph concerned with gustatory matters. "What to the Romantics was a breach of literary decorum," she writes, "persists as a breach of scholarly decorum" (19).
Spang's approach is quite different, a difference perhaps in part attributable to the fact that she is a cultural and social historian, rather than a literary critic concerned with the most canonical of literary oeuvres. Where Kolb finds a critical status quo conspiring to keep taste off the table, Spang is more interested in the ways in which gastronomy has deliberately held itself apart from academic inquiry. One of the main aims of her book, in fact, is to document "gastronomy's success in defining a realm of 'taste' widely accepted as autonomous and unsusceptible to external comment" (5). By focusing on the development of gastronomy as a discourse, and by analyzing that discourse's constitutive claims to autonomy, Spang offers a more nuanced understanding of what makes her study important and new, if not revolutionary, than that offered by Kolb's insistent rhetoric of legitimization.
In addition to their shared contribution to the general history of food, these books both offer a much-needed analysis of a crucial and genuinely neglected problem in the history of aesthetics: the relationship between the judgmental faculty of "Taste" and the gustatory sense of "taste" (as they are usually differentiated), especially in the literature on the senses that revitalized European aesthetic philosophy in the late seventeenth century. Kolb's book is in fact almost exclusively [End Page 451] concerned with the ways in which, in the literature of the romantic period, references to the sense of taste--to food or to eating--cannot help but evoke Taste as well. She traces what the title, with a nod to the New Criticism, calls "the ambiguity of taste"--that is, the ability of references to gustatory taste at once to reference the high cultural vocabulary of aesthetics and at the same time to undercut the most cherished notions of that aesthetic realm. The book is at its strongest in describing the challenge posed to neoclassical decorum by references to eating and to food. On the one hand, such references invoke the "lowest" of the senses, a sense forever tainted by its association with the necessity of appetite. On the other, they depend upon a pun (taste/Taste), the literary device most anathematized by neoclassical aesthetics. In her reading of Byron's Don Juan, the strongest chapter in the book, Kolb amply demonstrates the poet's own self-conscious and...