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Foodwise creativity.

Aesthetics-bound food-related creativity

Grudgingly of sorts, Plato lets foods into his Republic, if for anything, for "peace and good health" in a city whose citizens "will need salt, olives, cheese, boiled roots and vegetables... figs and beans... myrtle and acorns" (1986: 372c-372d). Permission is granted by a side door, to be sure; the body, for whose maintenance food is of the essence, is certainly second to the self (reason), which is free from food.

The 'taste of sense' ('enjoyments of mere sense') is distinguished by Kant, in like manner, from the 'taste of reflection' (1987: 55-64), the imaginative experience of the beautiful; the former has only an individual application, the latter amounts to a universal form of appreciation, based on 'common sense' sensibility, on a disinterested approach to the object. The taste of sense implies a direct, hedonic, stimulated response to an object; the pleasure comes 'first,' and only then do we judge the object to be agreeable or disagreeable. Confronted with the object, we respond immediately, rather passively. The taste of reflection, on the other hand, takes some time because we are involved actively; the contemplative activity comes first whereas pleasure comes second and reflects the harmonious exercise of our imaginative and cognitive faculties, 'in free play' with the object now experienced as 'purposiveness without a purpose.' (1987: 65)

The assessment of the beautiful demands general, rather than personal, assent, and exhibits a disinterested attitude. The gustatory, consisting of a hedonic attitude, is thus driven off the beautiful and attached to the sublime which provides pleasure, as well--but a 'negative pleasure,' simultaneously one of attraction and repulsion, to be discerned mathematically and dynamically: the mathematically sublime--that which is 'absolutely large,' that which "in comparison with which everything else is small" (1987: 250)--is evidence that our mind transcends the sensory stimuli that surround us; the dynamically sublime (instilled by the experience of excessive power, and evoking feelings of fear and discomfort) is evidence that our physical selves could easily be destroyed by a superior power... still further, that notwithstanding our outright physical impotence, there is "in ourselves an ability to resist which is of a quite different kind" (1987: 261), not our physical strength, but rather our strength of spirit. With the sublime residing in our own selves, we can transcend our natural inclinations; we have just learned that part of us is strong and free. We thus gain confidence in ourselves and "regard nature's might as yet not having such dominance over us, as persons, that we should have to bow to it if our highest principles were at stake and we had to choose between upholding or abandoning them" (1987: 262). The superiority of the human above nature is now made manifest. Frustrated at the beginning, we have not run for cover but found within ourselves the resource to stand up to the threat.

Indeed, this capacity for the sublime is grounds for self-respect, all of this process being seen in the eating-disordered individual who, for a start, has a dualistic view of himself, seeing his body as 'other,' as something that can be dominated. In anorexia nervosa, e.g., the body is experienced as alien, as the not-self, as confinement "from which the soul, will or mind struggles to escape." Whether as an impediment to reason or as the home of the 'slimy desires of the flesh' (as Augustine calls them), the body is "the locus of all that threatens our attempts at control" (Bordo 1993: 144-145). The bulimic goes one step further, playing with the hunger, pretending to satiate it, only to abruptly and completely hold back.

To sum this chapter up, creativity considered. We have to admit that the 'taste of sense,' although coming complete with the sublime, does not qualify for what Kant labels as 'beautiful' and, by way of consequence, 'aesthetic.' Creativity, under the circumstances, will not be of high lineage, but rather common stock--in full recognition, however, of scholarly gastronomy textbooks that speak to the contrary.

Ethics-prone food-related creativity

Food is. bluntly speaking, the meeting place between the I and the Other, the relational dimension of consumption reaching out in several directions. There is the question, first, of with whom we are eating, which Epicurus considers to be even more important--"a dinner of meats without the company of a friend is like the life of a lion or a wolf" (Epicurus 1928: 101)--than the question about what we eat. Mention should be made that, with all this homogenizing impact of fast-food industry, sharing food with guests of choice is still important: joining families together at least on Christmas, keeping business relations, dating out, etc. It was much more important in archaic societies, in which hospitality was a 'must.'

Mihail Sadoveanu's Baltagul / The Hatchet bears testimony to this ancient cardinal-trait in more than one way: Vitoria Lipan has a strong feeling that her long-missing husband has come to a bitter end at the hands of crooks. She consequently takes her son along and the two of them are sworn to recuperate the body, give it a proper burial and, finally, restore justice by punishing the wrong-doers. They are now far from home, it is night-time and the weather is anything but friendly... when an old man comes out of nowhere and asks them in. Though "dry bread and a glass of water" is all that he has to give them, he will share them with his guests. It is actually more than that: his old woman will soon have the corn mush boiling... and he himself will shoe their horses in the morning.

How we eat also implies relationships to ethnicity, location and religion, the three of them frequently coming together, to soils (on matters like pesticides, corporate concentration vs. family farming), to animals (the extensive use of hormones and antibiotics), to the much debated-over issue of genetically modified organisms and, last but not least, to gender and age. Examples illustrating this last category abound in Ionel Teodoreanu's La Medeleni / One Moldavian Summer: "Danut was eating grapes quickly and in the plural. On his plate there were no stone and skin: only the green skeletons of the weeping bunch. Olguta was throwing the skin vehemently, as if insulting it, at the plate, concerned about the moment rather than the eating. Monica was taking off the skin of the grape delicately, peeling it off between her lips and, while the mouth separated the stones from the watery pulp, her fingers were laying the skin on the plate meditatively, as if playing chess: the holiday was coming to an end."

Danut (on the way to become a contemplative writer), Monica (a future scientist) and Olguta (a 'tough guy' avant la lettre, for whom "night will fall fast") are characterized by the way they eat--not in the least by chance:

Among our various sensations we are usually affected most by those that come from taste. A thousand things are indifferent to touch, hearing and sight but almost nothing is indifferent to taste. Moreover, the activity of this sense is wholly physical and material: it is the only one that makes no appeal to imagination. This might seem to make taste inferior to the other senses, and to render our inclination to yield to its more basic attraction, but I draw the opposite conclusion--that the best way to manage children is by the appeal to the mouth. (Rousseau 1973)

Food creativity, when it comes to questions like with whom and how or, come to think of it, when, why, etc. does not allow for a wide range of responses. It's a 'yes' or 'no,' when I stick to 'tradition' or respectively when I choose not to observe the moral duty. But the revolt is bound to be inconsistent and momentary, and it is highly likely that I myself will deny my initiative--the rebelling gesture involves, among many other rules, religious faith, and I need to be a highly charismatic leader to pick up enough moral stamina to make up a new, consistent programme. What to eat, on the other hand, does allow for a small-scale creativity--exemplified by the movement toward 'counter-cuisine' and 'ethical eating,' where people choose and reject foods according to a specified set of criteria: the food's source, the treatment of workers. The vegetarian diet, including personalities like Pythagoras, Leonardo da Vinci and Einstein, has a long history--and, it seems, an even longer future, if we consider its amazing diversification, richer by the day. Technically speaking, vegetarians eat no flesh; yet there are further categories such as lacto-vegetarians, ovovegetarians, or lacto-ovo-vegetarians (who will eat animal products like milk and eggs, respectively), pescetarians (who will eat fish), vegans--dietary vegans eat no animals or animal derivatives, but rely on animals' bodies in their commodities; ethical vegans refrain from using any animal product, and may even avoid medical services that involve animal testing (Wrye 2007: 49) -, fruitarians (who will eat nothing, plants included, that implies killing organisms)--sociodemographic research shows all of them to be mostly younger women, predominantly white, working in middle-class professions. (Maurer 2002: 9-10)

If, perhaps in order to please Brillat-Savarin and Radu Anton Roman, we insist on having some kind of food aesthetics, we should not construct it against the background of the beautiful, and neither shall we substitute the delicious for it--not that this latter term is compromised or anything, but it is too weak, too soft to admit of some solid framework above it. We should rather start in a manner that reminds of the utopia vs. distopia (counter-utopia, negative utopia) dichotomy; we will consequently capitalize on the opposite of the beautiful, the ugly, not only because we have been speaking since Poe, Baudelaire and Arghezi about the 'aesthetics of the ugly,' but because the equivalent of the ugly, the disgusting, is never soft like the delicious, but has a kind of aesthetic strength that makes it liable to sustain a philosophical construction.

As for what disgusting food is like, we could put forth six categories that fall into two groups, "one that singles out the taste experience itself, and the other that considers the nature of the object being eaten": 1) objects with 'repellent tastes' (cod liver oil), including objects that "retain a residue of a substance that is disgusting" (the decay still to be felt in gamy meat); 2) objects that are "tasty in small quatities but clay when one eats too much" (sweet things such as candy); 3) objects that are "too alien to ourselves" (spiders, snakes); 4) objects that are "too close to us, not alien enough" (another human being); 5) objects that are "insufficiently removed from their natural form," appearing to be "still alive and resisting" (brains, tongues); 6) objects that "have started to decompose." (Korsmeyer 1999: 90ff)

Class-biased food-related creativity

Returning to Kant, there is the taste of reason' and there is also the 'taste of sense,' the former being somehow out of the bounds of this paper, whereas the latter is right within our 'gastronomic' reach. And the case is that wherever they are applied to, there is 'good taste' (the taste of a dominant social class) and there is 'bad taste'--which provides the question of this subchapter: "what is it that makes taste be good?" It must be a commodity of some sorts; organized according to race, gender and mostly class, it is definitely in a position to shape upper- and lower-class trends, to set rules and make hierarchies:

Likewise, when you sit down to table and want to give the right place to your first-rank lords, and the second-rank lords, and to all of the others, have a good mind you never change their places because, if you give them one seat and next you place them lower, they will take it to heart. They each wanted to get a higher position and you, for someone you hold dear, are sending them lower. Their heart will then break, because man's heart is like glass which, if broken, how could you ever mend it anew? (Basarab 1971)

The answer to the question, then is the learned environment of a person, encompassing the entirety of his existential environment. Pierre Bourdieu calls it 'habitus,' and goes on to describe it as "both the generative principle of objectively classifiable judgments and the system of classification (principium divisionis) of these practices;" it is "not only a structuring structure, which organizes practices and the perception of practices, but also a structured structure: the principle of division into logical classes which organizes the perception of the social world is itself the product of internalization of the division into social classes" (Bourdieu 1984). Taste separates the upper from the lower classes and singles out, mostly with ironic effects, the nouveau riche country man who, in Nicolae Filimon's Ciocoii vechi si noi / Boyars Old and New, is obviously out of his league.

On the table there were plenty of saucers with all sorts of delicacies: lobster marinade, fresh sturgeon caviar, skinned eels, sardines soaked in Metilene oil, seasoned with pepper and Messina lemon juice, Tessalia sweet olives piled up pyramid-like, hard grey mullet caviar, Santorini figs, Adrianopole halvah; none of the East European gastronomic specialties were missing at that table, more resplendent than the boyar's table itself. All these delicacies were arranged in military order, having all along, every other ten inches, a carafe of Dragasani yellow wine, decanters of red wine from the vineyards of the Bistrita monastery, bottles of Eastern wines of various colours and flavours--there were also demijohns with Chios anisette and Corinth liqueur.

The fact is that eating habits are generated by the habitus, and the hierarchy of taste reflects class hierarchy quite faithfully. Creativity, in other words, is out of the question in a rigid, caste-organized society; in a democratic society such clashes are no longer the point, and gastronomic creativity is within easy reach, given the right individual and, to be sure, the right conditions.

Culture-embedded food-related creativity

Food is transitive, it is there to keep the body going and help the reflexive senses of sight and hearing do their job. According to a long tradition that ranks mind over body, the 'bodily' senses (touch, taste, smell) do not operate at a distance from their objects and need immediacy to be effective in any way--food, drink and sex are not for the philosopher, Socrates contends in Phaedo (64 d) and elsewhere. This is not to say that the gustatory is anything but a complex experience, involving as it does physiological elements like the basic tastes (saltiness, sourness, sweetness, bitterness, and the savouriness/umami promoted by Japanese and Chinese cuisine), other tongue sensations like texture, temperature, piquancy (spicy-hotness), minty-coolness, astringency, fattiness, and numbness (provided by the Sichuan pepper). 'Previous exposures and experiences' also play a role, like Marcel Proust's tea-soaked madeleine: "It is the same for our past. We would exert ourselves to no result if we tried to evoke it, all the efforts of our intelligence are of no use. The past is hidden outside its realm and its range, in some material objects (in the sensation this object would give us) of which we do not suspect." (Proust 1984: 59)

Indeed, food does not allow of a straight way to Aesthetics, but if we take this road we will eventually be in its close neighbourhood, as close to it as culture can get us. For one thing, we will certainly be quite ready for the ultimate revelation--the relational dimension of the gustatory has had a hand in our new open-mindedness, self-knowledge, accommodation and grace. Again, the sense of taste, with all its limitations that were already obvious for Aristotle, to say nothing of Kant and Hegel, is not at all dead and static, but has the ability to make changes on the habitus and even, more importantly, on itself. In Mihail Sadoveanu's Fratii Jderi / The Jderi Brothers, Ilisafta is very much against coffee, but her daughter-in-law has been won over by this 'filthy,' because 'heathen'/Turkish, habit. The sense of taste could well be the most convenient 'thermometer' when it comes (in Mihail Sadoveanu's Hanu-Ancutei / Ancutza's Inn) to 'diagnose' the Other:

"Who hasn't drunk any beer yet should not regret it. It is a sort of bitter wash."

"So?" the equerry rejoiced. "And they don't know what wine is?"

"They might; but I didn't taste any wine like ours and I missed it badly."

"So? And what did you eat? I think, Mr. Damian, that you kept away from cats, frogs and rats."

The shepherd spat aside and wiped both his sleeves across his mouth.

"I didn't keep away from them," the merchant said, "'cause I didn't quite see such animals. As for potatoes, plenty of them, and also boiled pork or veal."

"Boiled meat?" Captain Isaac wondered.

"Yes, boiled meat. And that beer I've been talking about."

"You mean to say," the equerry carried on, "you haven't seen chicken on the grill?"

"Not quite."

"What about broth and minced meat? Or barbecued fish?"

"Oh dear!" Leonte made the sign of the cross.

"Then," Captain Isaac went on, "if they have nothing of the sort, I don't give a damn about them. Let them have their trains while we'll be happy to be right here in Moldavia."

The thermometer is relative, because the 'other taste' is gradually assimilated, not without some feeling of guilt and shame, though--because we actually go astray and an age-old tradition dies, because, finally, eating means participating more or less voluntarily in acts of killing (which, especially in Japanese cuisine, is manifest)

If Japanese cooking is always performed in front of the eventual diner (a fundamental feature of this cuisine), this is probably because it is important to consecrate by spectacle the death of what is being honoured. (Barthes 1996: 20)

and sheer cruelty: the antibiotics-injected chicken, the hormone-injected cows, the tortured pigs, the live monkey with its head poking through a table, its brains out for us to eat. If aesthetics that may be, then it is sin-aesthetics, longing for food that comes complete with fear (in the case of the Japanese fugu, the puffer fish, so poisonous that only a licensed chef knowing what organs to remove and how to get rid of the toxins is permitted to prepare it), just like fulfilment in sex comes complete with mystery and danger. (Iggers 1996: 110ff)

A reversed ethics is then the food-oriented sinaesthetics, with an ethics that does not rely on the "innocent until proven guilty" presumption, but openly admits that the baggage of guilt is always there, unrelenting and ubiquitous.

At the frontier between the biological and the cultural, actually lying on moving sand and resorting to such actors as the proximal senses (which in a way are felt to be inhibitory factors because they are too subjective to deliver genuinely objective knowledge), food hardly seemed to qualify for the status of art. But a few enthusiasts, notably among them being Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin and Radu Anton Roman thought otherwise. So did Mircea Eliade who contended that eating is assimilating part of the Universe, or rather the mystic side of the Universe and, last but not least, Petru Ursache who--in such seminal anthropology books as Poetica folclorica / Folklore Poetics (1976), Titu Maiorescu, esteticianul / Titu Maiorescu, the aesthetics mentor (1987), Camera Sambo. Introducere in opera lui Mircea Eliade / Sambo chamber. An introduction to Mircea Eliade's Philosophy (1993), Etnoestetica / Ethnoesthetics (1998), Antropologia, o stiinta neocoloniala / Anthropology, a neocolonial science (2004), Mic tratat de estetica teologica / A treatise of theological aesthetics (2009), Istorie, etnocid, genocid / History, ethnocide, genocide (2010), Eros & Thanatos la Cezar Ivanescu / Cezar Ivanescu's Eros & Thanatos (2010), Bucataria vie. File de antropologia alimentafiei / Live cuisine. An introduction to food anthropology (2011)--held that the food code is ultimately a culture code whose identification tags draw on, and deal in the I, you, other triad, with a strong impact on culture and human behaviour. A neurologist and a neurophysiologist for twenty years, and a chef for six, Miguel Sanchez Romera has joined them recently and provided the missing link (between the proximal senses and the distal senses: vision and hearing, traditionally held to deliver more 'objective' knowledge, from a distance); with arguments from neuroscience he draws the conclusion that taste and smell have a strong impact on mental processes by way of memory which, while depending heavily on the body, is not fixed once and for all, ready to be accessed when needed but rather a creative and dynamic faculty that allows people to relive the past each time in different ways. (cf. Sanchez Romera 2001)

With non-representational memory as the ultimate rule-giving body, with the disgusting as the omnipresent reference point, food is thus apt to lay the basis of a special aesthetics, "sin"-aesthetics--with definitely higher than everyday creativity when culture comes into play.


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Bogdan C.S. Pirvu

Iuliu Hatieganu University

Doina Cosman

Iuliu Hatieganu University

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Title Annotation:Research projects
Author:Pirvu, Bogdan C.S.; Cosman, Doina
Publication:Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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