- Taste as Experience: The Philosophy and Aesthetics of Food by Nicola Perullo and Massimo Montanari
The philosophical debate about the value of eating is ongoing. Since Plato first rejected the senses as reliable sources of knowledge, only a handful of thinkers have vouched for their epistemological importance, and fewer still claim any positive value for [End Page 494] physical taste. Even Descartes, who by his biographers' accounts knew how to make a mean omelet, could not blend eggs into a philosophy of existence. While anthropology, sociology, psychology, and history have recognized since the early twentieth century that food is of paramount cultural and intellectual importance, philosophy has been slow to dig out from under its dualist heritage. Modern philosophers only intermittently include food in their accounts of the body and its crucial roles in thinking and being. Recently, however, Lisa Heldke, Carolyn Korsmeyer, Michel Serres, Elizabeth Telfer, and Karen Barad, to name a few, have developed bodily taste as a serious philosophical concept.
Add to this list the delightful, erudite, and original work of Nicola Perullo. A professor at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Italy, Perullo has been toiling in the realms of culinary philosophy for over a decade. This volume, the first of his works translated into English, should grant him the wider audience he deserves, and promises to change the conversation around aesthetics and physical taste. Arguing forcefully, but somehow gently, that taste must be seen as a kind of philosophical experience par excellence–an experience that grants us knowledge from the inside out–Perullo seeks to overturn Kant's distinction between bodily and aesthetic taste, showing that bodily taste grants us an avenue to knowledge of oneself, that Platonic grail of philosophical pursuit.
Perullo's argument is reminiscent of the most humane of philosophers, Michel de Montaigne, who devoted much of his magnificent essay "Of Experience" to an intimate account of his gustatory and digestive peculiarities. Like Montaigne, Perullo proposes to use experience to arrive at knowledge. His goal is a "philosophy with food rather than of food" (viii), one that thinks through food in order to make claims about thinking in the first place. Declaring further that "the problem of taste is the problem of the subject" (viii), Perullo suggests that we cannot even know what a subject is until we know the role taste plays in the development of selfood. After all, one of the most primal ways in which the human being encounters the world is through eating: initially through the placenta, and then through the breast or bottle. These acts of eating and tasting are formative; Perullo shows us how to take them seriously as metaphysics.
Also like Montaigne, Perullo relies heavily upon imaginative writing to develop his arguments. While Perullo's choices are modern and idiosyncratic (Italo Calvino, Amélie Nothomb, Chuck Palahniuk), he reads fiction with the sensitivity of a literary critic. He keeps philosophical jargon mostly at bay, leaving his essay accessible, if not to the non-academic, then certainly to the non-philosopher, while leaving signposts for those trained in debates about aesthetics. It is a wonderful model for writing philosophy to be read outside its discipline, and I was gratified to see literature addressed with such gravity and skill.
Afer an introduction outlining the main challenges to thinking meaningfully about taste, Perullo introduces his approach by means of three "modes of access." The first is "naked taste," which is rooted in infantile nourishment and is deeply connected [End Page 495] with pleasure. Naked taste is the most discussed of the modes of bodily taste, usually along the way to dismissing it as merely animalistic. Perullo, conversely, argues that bodily taste functions more as a gateway to aesthetics than an infantile rejection of it: "Human experience starts with a relationship, since pleasure is born from the contact between two beings, and this relationship is aesthetic, since hedonic input is involved" (32, italics in original). Access to naked, unadulterated pleasure is what opens humans to aesthetic appreciation...