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  • Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy
  • Dene Grigar
Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy by Carolyn Korsmeyer. Cornell Univ. Press, Ithaca, NY, U.S.A., 2002. 240 pp., illus. Paper. ISBN: 0-8014-3698-2.

Making Sense of Taste: Food and Philosophy, by Carolyn Korsmeyer, is a thorough and thoughtful treatment of the experience of "taste" (as in the gustatory sense) that challenges the very notions underlying objectivity in relation to the way we think about the senses and art, particularly the sense of taste and the art of food and wine. If ever anyone needed a book to explain the biases against the sense of taste, the reasons gastronomy is viewed as an elitist hobby, why—for some—the love of food and wine runs counter to a "life of the mind," or the reasons why some people are just better at nailing that 10% of Cabernet Franc in a meritage wine than others are, then this would be the book to do it. Even those readers who have never had a drop of 1978 Guigal Cote Rotie touch their lips will be interested in Korsmeyer's argument, so compelling, well researched, and philosophically sound it is.

Divided into six chapters, Kors-meyer's book begins with a discussion about the way the senses have been hierarchically organized in the philosophical tradition, beginning with Plato and Aristotle, and how they are still colored by that tradition today. As we learn, those senses that (1) function at a distance and thus provide a seemingly larger, more complete amount of data about an object, (2) are not in any way embodied (that is, they do not require an object to be in close proximity to the body to work effectively) and (3) are perceived as being durable are traditionally valued more highly than those senses that do not fulfill the same criteria. With this evaluation, Korsmeyer sheds light on the reasons why taste has been relegated merely to subjective pleasure and explains why collecting wine and tracking down a Michelin-rated restaurant in an obscure French village is tantamount to frivolity for some.

Chapter 2 looks at aesthetics in relation to taste, drawing historical distinctions between gustatory taste and the "evaluative assessment about the immediate object of experience" (p. 41) that we think of as "aesthetic taste" (p. 38). [End Page 79] Challenging Kant and others who devalue taste because they describe it as practical (since we need it to survive), self-directed (because the focus of our perception falls upon the one tasting rather than the object tasted), and lacking in formal structures found in the visual arts (such as composition, harmony and balance), she further fleshes out criteria that have denied taste a place as a meaningful sense of perception.

In chapter 2, "The Science of Taste," Korsmeyer critiques previous views about taste from a scientific perspective and succeeds in showing the lack of objectivity in the assumptions about taste's limitations. The problem, she argues, centers on the framework we have used in evaluating the senses, in that it has been built upon a notion of senses working in isolation rather than in synthesis with one another. In the most compelling of the six chapters, she deflates claims about "the alleged poverty of taste," its reliance on smell and its primitiveness. In this regard, one only needs to remember the "wine wheel," a common teaching tool used in wine appreciation classes, with its 12 universal qualities that give way to 27 more distinct ones that themselves break down into 87 more particular qualities—certainly a tool that buoys her claims, since it shows that taste is neither meager in scope nor structurally undeveloped.

Chapters 4 and 5 focus on, respectively, the meaning of taste and the way taste and food have been commonly represented. Chapter 6 presents various themes and narratives found in fiction, such as "revenge cooking" in folklore, "the paradox of eating" in Moby-Dick, and the development of community in Babette's Feast and To the Lighthouse, that "supply a network of factors relevant to moral assessment and furnish a wealth of detail that appropriately complicates and focuses salient facts and...


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