The (Extensive) Pleasures of Eating
In a recent review of vegetarian cookbooks for his magazine Cook's Illustrated, editor Christopher Kimball writes,
Vegetarianism as a lifestyle ain't what it used to
be. Deborah Madison, the reigning queen of this culinary niche and
author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (Broadway Books, 1997), admits to a taste for red meat and has, on
occasion, been seen consuming a sizzling steak in public. Mollie Katzen, author of The Moosewood Cookbook (Ten
Speed Press, 1977), espouses wholesome cooking, "whether that contains meat or not." And Madhur Jaffrey has now
turned her considerable talents to the subject of vegetarian cooking, but from an international perspective, bringing
numerous ethnic specialties together in one giant tome. Vegetarian cooking is growing up, shedding tie-dye for L.L.
Bean and taking on a more sophisticated, less politically sensitive palate. At last, it seems, vegetarian cooking can be
welcomed into the fold of legitimate culinary pursuits now that it is first and foremost about taste and technique rather
than health and politics. (Kimball 31).
This passage drove me nuts the first time I read it.
After thinking about it for a while, I came up with a whole set of
interconnected reasons why. Dismissing the first four, which are the most trivial and the most tangential to this paper, I
begin with reason #5.
5. Kimball implies that vegetarian cooking has actually
been thwarted aesthetically by its practitioners' (read: devotees'?)
emphasis on political concerns such as the welfare of animals, and health concerns such as an interest in reducing fat
consumption. Such concerns, extraneous to the proper aesthetic appreciation of food, have made vegetarian cuisine
unsophisticated and, well, just plain bad-tasting. Vegetarianism was immature (aesthetically immature) precisely because
it was politically sensitive.
This view of vegetarian food probably sounds quite
familiar. Since at least the sixties, vegetarian food has had a
reputation in this country as the food of health faddists, anti-war hippies, humorless feminists, and cloth-shoe-wearing
tree-huggers; so-called vegetarian staples like tofu and brown rice have been the butt of innumerable jokes.
"Everybody knows" that vegetarians don't care if it tastes good, so long as it saves the earth. "Everyone knows" that, at
the very least, political commitments leave vegetarians unconcerned about whether the foods they create and eat are
aesthetically pleasing; at most, those commitments actually prevent the vegetarian from producing aesthetically desirable
But now, according to Kimball, vegetarian food has
an opportunity to become "a legitimate culinary pursuit," as it loses,
or at least loosens, its political commitments.
6. In making his pronouncement about the bright future
of vegetarian cuisine, Kimball presumes a dichotomy between
"culinary sophistication" and "political sensitivity"--between "taste and technique" on the one hand and "health and
politics" on the other. Vegetarian cooking, by choosing to emphasize politics, health or religion, places itself on the
wrong side of the divide. It isn't just that aesthetic and political/moral concerns are completely different concerns; it is
that the pursuit of one spells the ruination of the other. You cannot both produce sophisticated cuisine and pursue an
ethical, social or political agenda. The proper relationship between aesthetics and ethics/politics is clear to Kimball;
place "taste and technique" at the forefront of culinary art, and minimize, ignore or deny, concerns of an ethical or
political nature, unless they can actually be shown to have a direct bearing on taste.
How well does Kimball's dictum serve or account for
our actual aesthetic appreciation of food? How well does it
describe or account for the kinds of aesthetic decisions that a cook makes? If adhered to, would it improve cuisine--and
enlighten our experiences of it? My answers are, "poorly," "poorly," and "not likely." Why?
Adopting a sharp dichotomy between aesthetic and ethical
considerations would impoverish our aesthetic experiences
of food, by drawing our attention away from the very things that give food its significance. An aesthetic of food ought to
be able to help us reflect on aspects of Thanksgiving dinner or a Passover seder or a meal at the local organic vegan
restaurant other than the fluffiness and savoriness of the respective mashed potatoes, matzoh balls, and kelp puffs. It
ought to give us tools for reflecting on the ways history, heritage, religious conviction--and, yes, environment and
ecology--enter into our experience of the meal. After all, most of us are mostly not ashamed to admit that such
"extra-aesthetic" elements enhance our aesthetic appreciation of paintings, poems, musical compositions, even
constitute an essential element of them.
More pointedly, why does Kimball denigrate the role
of political, social and ethical commitments in cuisine? Why does
he see them as a contaminating influence? I think Kimball criticizes what might be called "political vegetarianism" out of a
sincere desire to shore up the aesthetic legitimacy of food. Kimball obviously believes that food can be an object of
aesthetic appreciation--even, I think, believes a stronger claim, that food is an actual art. But of course not everyone
agrees with him--food is on decidedly shaky ground in most aesthetic theories. And so, food loyalists like Kimball,
eager to prove to the dubious that food is an art form, engage in self-policing in order to negotiate food into the category
of fine art. Carolyn Korsmeyer, in her book Making Sense of Taste, discusses several such theorists. Their arguments
tend to be characterized by very narrow readings of both aesthetic criteria and the activity of eating.
For example, Korsmeyer notes that most defendants
of food as art focus their attention very narrowly on the sensory
qualities of food--primarily its taste, but also its smell and appearance. And they end up resting their defenses on such
extraordinary instances of "eating" as wine tasting, in which the potation is literally spit out after it has been tasted. But
even using this stringent (and bizarre) conception of food and eating, even those who defend the art-ness of food
describe it as a minor art form, since (among other things), taste is a lower sense than hearing and seeing, and since food
doesn't seem to refer--doesn't seem to "mean" anything outside of itself, an accusation that leaves taste stranded in the
realm of the utterly subjective (Korsmeyer 104-14).
Kimball's position is characteristic of those that
reduce the aesthetic appreciation of food to its sensuous qualities alone.
But why take this approach? As Korsmeyer says, "it would be a sacrifice of richness and breadth for the significance of
foods if this were the only grounds on which it could be aesthetically justified" (Korsmeyer 142). To restrict our
aesthetic appreciation of food to "the savor of the tastes themselves" means that we lose access to "the terrain of deeper
aesthetic significance that foods display in their practical contexts, including ritual, ceremony, and commemoration"
(Korsmeyer 143). Thanksgiving, Passover and vegan restaurant meals are significant for reasons beyond fluffiness and
savoriness--or even fluffiness, savoriness and a pleasing golden-brown color. There is more to the aesthetics of food
than meets the tongue--or even the tongue and the nose together! Kimball is missing the point of 1960's style vegetarian
food, if he writes it off as aesthetically unsophisticated because its practitioners were motivated by deep political
Korsmeyer herself is actually deliciously uninterested
in arguing food into the category of art, per se. Among her
reasons: "the concept of art, dominated as it is today by the idea of fine art, is a poor category to capture the nature of
foods and their consumption" (Korsmeyer 141)--poor precisely because fine art exists in a climate deeply influenced by
the idea that "aesthetic qualties of works of art...inhere in the works themselves, free of surrounding context"
(Korsmeyer 143). Making the argument that food is art requires her to adopt just the impoverished set of
aesthetically-relevant criteria that someone like Kimball adopts. It's too big a sacrifice, for too little gain.
On the other hand, Korsmeyer is interested in making
a case for the aesthetic significance of food; she develops a
notion of the aesthetic that is rich, complex and contextual--the very antithesis of Kimball's. It is a notion of the aesthetic
in which the ethical, political, social, religious aspects of cooking and eating are anything but irrelevant to aesthetic
I am interested in Korsmeyer's theory because it more
fully represents the kinds of aesthetic experiences of food I
actually have, when I experience food aesthetically. Korsmeyer's theory pushes me to expand the scope of the
aesthetically relevant. I want to consider the possibility that at least sometimes, the presence of moral commitments is
actually a necessary condition for certain kinds of aesthetic value. To lay the groundwork for this argument, I'll begin by
explicating key aspects of Korsmeyer's theory.
A. The single most important feature of Korsmeyer's
theory is its cognitivist approach. Most theorists writing about food
have argued that taste "tells us something only about the subject doing the tasting. It yields no information about objects
in the world" (Korsmeyer 99). Food, these theorists further explain, doesn't "mean" anything beyond itself--it does not
refer. Korsmeyer disagrees. Food does have meanings; it connects to objects in the world in all sorts of ways. If this
seems implausible, consider two of her minor examples. Croissants were invented to represent the Austrians' defeat of
the Ottoman Turks in 1683, and chicken soup expresses comfort to someone suffering from a head cold.) Borrowing
from Nelson Goodman's cognitivist theory, she invites her readers to consider food as one of Goodman's symbol
systems. She argues that food is pervasively symbolic--croissants and chicken soup only begin to tell the story, a story
that also includes everything from candy corn to the bread and wine of communion to the bear meat eaten by a
character in the novel Cold Mountain.
She uses this starting point to show how food means
something beyond itself--and how understanding the multiple
layers of food's meaning can enable us to plumb its full aesthetic depths. Rather than "zeroing out" the political
commitments of vegetarians, the environmental commitments of organic vegetable farmers, the religious commitments of
cooks in a glatt kosher restaurant, or the family history of the diner eating kimchee, this method invites us to take them
into account as sources of meaning--meaning that can deepen and enrich the literal savor of the food in our mouths.
How does the theory accomplish this? Symbol systems
function as "systems of meaning that have obvious cognitive
functions" (Korsmeyer 115). By "cognitive" or "symbolic functions" Korsmeyer and Goodman mean the various ways
that symbols symbolize--the ways they point to something outside themselves. As Korsmeyer notes, Goodman's theory
does not sharply separate the aesthetic from the non-aesthetic. Korsmeyer writes that "rather than presenting necessary
and sufficient conditions to define the aesthetic, Goodman identifies five `symptoms' of the aesthetic" (Korsmeyer
118)--five different cognitive functions that aesthetic objects tend to manifest. Three of them are particularly significant
for food; they include representation, exemplification, and expression (or "metaphorical exemplification"). I'll sketch out
her descriptions of each, as a way to show how an aesthetic experience is constituted out of layers of meaning.
1. First, representation. A candy skull represents
the real thing to a Day of the Dead celebrant. Korsmeyer lists
dozens of such foods that represent something outside themselves--generally by simply looking like something else.
(Other examples I thought of include ginger pigs, Hanukah geld, and a cake made in the shape of Mount Ranier.) Such
resemblances generally do not amount to much aesthetically (we might be amazed by the inclusion of astonishingly
realistic glaciers in the appropriate places on the faces of the carrot cake Mount Ranier, but they won't bring us to rank
the cake with the Mona Lisa), but the sheer number of representations points to "the pervasiveness of meaning in food"
(Korsmeyer 118). Those who argue that food doesn't refer beyond itself will have to somehow account for the fact that
"an enormous amount of what we put in our mouths represents (in one sense or another) something else" (Korsmeyer
119). And they'll have to come up with a different ground for denying the aesthetic relevance of food, since many foods
meet this criterion, but meeting it alone is not a sufficient condition for making a food aesthetically significant or valuable.
So, if the actual fact of visual representation is
of no particular aesthetic consequence, then of what aesthetic interest is
representation in food? Korsmeyer's answer points to context. She suggests that reflecting on a familiar reference, or
coming to understand an unfamiliar one, can and often does add a layer of aesthetic meaning to a food. For example, in
coming to learn that a pretzel was originally shaped to look like the arms of a monk in prayer, "the experience of eating a
pretzel is transformed very slightly and perhaps achieves the aesthetic predicate `witty'" (Korsmeyer 119). And for a
patriotic Austrian, learning that the shape of the croissant was inspired by the crescent moon on the Turkish flag (so that
they are symbolically relishing its defeat each time they eat one), adds a layer of meaning to the food that makes the
experience of eating a croissant considerably different from, say eating a bagel. (For me, the aesthetically pleasurable
experience of biting through buttery, papery layers of a well made croissant and finding its soft, yeasty interior has been
altered somewhat bitterly, by knowing that even this wonderful delicacy is a kind of war memorial. Does it still taste the
same to me? Well, no. Or, more accurately, the complex aesthetic experience of eating a croissant--of which literal
tasting is only a part--has been altered with the introduction of this new information.)
As Korsmeyer points out, representations of these
sorts generally depend upon vision for their effect--not taste. But
whereas others might see this dependence on vision as a reason to discount the aesthetic significance for food of such
representations, Korsmeyer argues that it instead "illustrates the unremarkable fact that the experience of eating involves
more than one sense" (Korsmeyer 127). Eating also engages our senses of smell, sight, touch, even sound. (Listen the
next time you bite into a croissant.)
Korsmeyer acknowledges that representation constitutes
a fairly limited aesthetic element of food--even the elaborate
stunt baking represented by the Mount Ranier cake serves a chiefly decorative function. Nevertheless, it's worth noting
that attention to food's representative properties already moves us beyond the sphere in which Kimball is comfortable
making aesthetic judgments about cuisine. Kimball would not, in general, regard resemblance as contributing any
aesthetic value to a dish qua cuisine. Kimball pares away aspects of our experience of food, to get at an aesthetic core
of "taste and technique"; Korsmeyer builds up the aesthetic significance of food out of just such rejected aspects.
2. The next cognitive function Korsmeyer discusses
is exemplification. An apple may exemplify redness, crispness,
tartness. Chicken soup exemplifies saltiness, blandness. A bowl of cereal exemplifies breakfast to an American
eater. Stated most plainly, exemplification attends to the fact that foods possess particular qualities--taste qualities, as
with the apple, but also qualities like belonging to a particular meal, as with cereal. Exemplification describes the fact that
the eater's attention is drawn to these qualities.
As Korsmeyer notes, most aesthetic writing about food
focuses on taste exemplification--on the ways food manifests
the qualities it is expected to have. Kimball, for example, would probably focus his critique of vegetarian food on just
the ways in which its techniques fail to allow the exemplary qualities of different ingredients to speak--dishes aren't
designed in such a way as to highlight the tartness of apples or the sharpness of arugula. Or, he might focus on
vegetarians' tendency to select ingredients that exemplify unappealing qualities (like blandness), because they meet some
set of political criteria, and to eliminate all kinds of ingredients that exemplify wonderful qualities, simply because those
ingredients fail to meet the criteria.
While most aestheticians focus on taste exemplification,
Korsmeyer's reading of exemplification goes deeper than this,
as her inclusion of the cereal example illustrates. Here we can see why Korsmeyer understands exemplification as a
cognitive function; foods come to "`mean' the meal that they provide" (Korsmeyer 129). Cereal exemplifies breakfast
for an American because it possesses "implicit properties" as a result of its location within a particular social context.
It may include elements of religious practice, food availability, ethnic heritage, constraints of work life, ethical
commitments, or any number of other aspects of one's surroundings, all of which combine to make certain foods
embody--mean--particular times and/or places. While a caramel roll meant breakfast to me, to my Swedish college
roommate, it threatened violent illness--to her, flourescent pink, salty, fishy caviar in a tube spelled seven a.m. Foods
possess properties as a result of occupying "a particular place in the rhythm of nourishment that is represented by
mealtimes" (Korsmeyer 131-32).
While such exemplified properties regularly go unnoticed
(who recognizes the ubiquitous?), a change in the context
brings them into sharp focus. Being in the presence of my roommate made it very clear to me that the connection
between caramel rolls and seven a.m. was all about context. Ditto when I visited her in Sweden, and was confronted
with what looked, in the morning hours, like a tube of toothpaste on the breakfast table. Tastes, Korsmeyer concludes,
are always embedded in meaning--foods exemplify different properties as a result of the different contexts they come to
3. Apples may exemplify crispness and tartness, but
in other contexts, they may express--or meataphorically
exemplify--anything from temptation to poison to motherhood to appreciation for a teacher, depending, of course, upon
the contexts in which they are embedded. Metaphorical exemplification is the third symptom of the aesthetic particularly
important for food. Sometimes we identify an expressive function in foods because of a natural property they
possess--bitterness and sweetness are two common examples of flavors that come to express experiences that we
describe with the same adjectives. Any number of common metaphorical expressions attest to this cognitive feature of
food--eating crow, sour grapes, the sweet taste of victory, etc. But Korsmeyer takes us into, and beyond, the everyday
level of food's expressiveness, to reveal the aesthetic potential of this cognitive property. She illustrates the depth of
"complex propositional understanding" that even a simple flavor like salt can possess, by retelling an old English fairy tale
in which the relationship between salt and meat comes to stand for a daughter's love for her father. In the story, the
father comes to understand the depth of his daughter's love (which she describes as "the way fresh meat loves salt"),
when he is served a meal without any salt. The father comes to understand his daughter's love with his very body, as he
takes the savorless meat into his mouth. Korsmeyer concludes, "This is the force of `aesthetic' apprehension: that some
truth or realization of discovery is delivered in a way that touches one intimately, that focuses and concentrates insight
with the poignant immediacy of the blind father's taste of saltless meat" (Korsmeyer 134).
It is not difficult to multiply examples of food's
expressiveness--and it is also not hard to notice how deeply contextual
such examples are. For example, while chicken soup might express thoughtfulness and comfort to someone whose
mother made it for them as a child when they had a cold, to a vegetarian that same soup might express violence and
wanton cruelty--the taste of the soup becoming inseparable from the life of the chicken who flavors it. Similarly, the
smell of bacon might, for some, evoke the love of the grandmother who made BLT sandwiches, during summer
vacations, while to someone who keeps kosher, the smell of such trayf meat might make them literally ill. And while a
meal in an Ethiopian restaurant might spell comfort to both my New York-raised Jewish friend Naomi and my Somali
friend Lul, their experiences of comfort will probably bear little resemblance to each other, rooted as they are in such
dramatically different contexts.
As Korsmeyer shows, aesthetic experiences happen where
the project of drawing out symbolic connections is the most
nuanced and layered--their multilayered character explains "the insight and emotional depth for which art is valued"
(Korsmeyer 117). Recognizing the similarity between a triangular orange-and-white piece of candy and a kernel of corn
is unlikely to be an aesthetically rich experience--not much room for subtlety and not many layers of meaning here. We
must look to much more complex and nuanced food experiences than this to see the aesthetic depths of which food is
capable. The fairytale points us in such a direction. Ceremonial meals present us with still more examples--examples in
which the various symbolic uses of foods combine in multiple ways to create events of considerable aesthetic weight.
Korsmeyer points to Thanksgiving dinner, the Passover seder, and communion as three meals that manifest, often in
deep and profound ways, all of the kinds of symbolic connections I've discussed--representation (wafer and wine
denote body and blood--even become them in some denominations of Christianity), exemplification (warmth, savoriness
and heaviness of Thanksgiving foods), and expression (salt water expresses the tears shed by the Israelites in captivity).
The fact that these symbolic connections are multiple, and encased in ceremonies that emerge out of, and take place in,
multilayered cultural contexts, all contribute to the aesthetic potential of such ceremonial meals.
B. That last comment about contexts hints at a second
central feature of Korsmeyer's aesthetic theory--her conviction
that food is communal, and that to understand it as aesthetically signficant requires attention to its communality. For
Korsmeyer, it is communal in at least two senses.
1) First, literal, sensory taste is a sense that is
both inward- and outward-directed; in her words, it is an "intimate"
The operation of eating results in external objects literally becoming part of oneself; given that the objects in question are
so often presented to us by someone else (and, in our culture, given that that someone else is often a total stranger
serving you in a restaurant or fast food joint), the activity of eating involves risk and trust (I have to believe that you
won't poison me or make me sick, intentionally or accidentally). As such, it is no surprise that many cultural bonds focus
on eating; when you depend upon another for your safe sustenance, the potential exists for a deep connection to that
other. Little wonder, then, that so many rituals of eating have grown up around this feature of it. Any aesthetic
understanding of food must always come back to, or remember its roots in, this fundamental fact about eating--that it
places us in intimate contact with any number of others. In the United States, and in fact in industrialized nations all over
the world, that ever-expanding group of others is, by and large, anonymous, so we tend to erase them from the story.
(We'd rather not be responsible to the folks who "share" the fruits of their labors with us, thank you very much.) But to
ignore the intimacy of taste as if it were aesthetically irrelevant is, in effect, to make wine tasting--tasting without
ingesting--the standard for eating.
Such intimacy is not only a burden, however. Participating
in this activity makes us vulnerable in a way that experiencing
arts based on the "distal senses" of hearing and seeing normally does not. You can literally die--or be horribly
betrayed--by taking into yourself something that you oughtn't. But Korsmeyer also points out that the possibilities of
horror are the flip side of the possibilities of community, friendship that food enables. (193) This is true of special as well
as mundane instances of eating. The Passover feast and a meal of the year's last garden tomatoes shared with a neighbor
both represent instances of the community that can form around, or be strengthened by, an eating experience. Eating is
rooted in this "profound foundation of trust." Surely that fact colors this experience in ways so profound that our
aesthetic system needs to be able to address them. (101)
2) Food preparation and eating are communal in a second
way. Foods exist in cultural contexts, and the symbolic
meanings they have are meanings they acquire in context. Aesthetic appreciation of any depth requires that we have at
least some access to this cultural context--to the community out of which this food has developed its meanings. This
might mean being a part of, or knowing something about, the religious practice, the historical significance, the social
convention, or the family tradition of a dish or a meal. It might mean knowing something about, or possessing, the
Scandinavian penchant for fish and caviar. Absent this understanding, the food becomes literally unintelligible (note the
cognition word), even if it tastes good in some one- or two-dimensional way. An example will illustrate the importance
of context more concretely. A student once came to see me about a paper over which she was struggling. I knew she
was from Japan, though I didn't know much beyond that. I offered her a cup of genmaicha, a green tea mixed with
roasted brown rice that I knew to be Japanese in origin. She accepted--something of a surprise to me, since she wasn't
eager to prolong the visit to my office--and then proceeded to drink the tea with obvious and deep pleasure. I asked her
if genmaicha was common in Japan. "Yes," she replied, "very common," but then said nothing more, as she closed her
eyes and drank. I felt oddly like a voyeur, and also strangely left out, watching this woman go on a little trip home while
drinking a cup of tea. I wanted to know about this tea--when would she typically drink it? how would it be prepared?
among whom was it common?--and worried about whether I'd prepared it at all correctly. (Was it too strong? Too
weak? Was it okay to give it to her in a mug? Was the water the right temperature?) Absent any knowledge of her
context, and in the presence of someone to whom this drink was as familiar as home, my experience of this tea suddenly
became both more frustrating and more full of potential--frustrating, because there was so much I didn't know, but full
of potential, because I was coming to see that it was there to be known.
Unlike Christopher Kimball, I want nothing so much
as a food aesthetic that draws upon all its potential layers of
symbolic meaning--including layers that are ethical and political in nature. As someone with a variety of ethical
commitments that I take very seriously, and that I nevertheless often have difficulty acting upon, I am interested in
increasing their hold on me, by situating them also within an aesthetic framework. As someone who is interested in
encouraging others to see the ethical consequences of their food choices I am frankly interested in the strategic value of
being able to plead my case on aesthetic, as well as ethical and political grounds. Therefore, I want to explore the
prescriptive power of Korsmeyer's theory.
In this last section of the paper, I want to think
about how to move from using her theory to describe aesthetic
experiences, to using it as a way to create, expand and enrich my aesthetic experiences of food. I would like to
increase my capacity for what Korsmeyer calls "aesthetic apprehension," for receiving those "truths or realizations" that
are "delivered in a way that touches one intimately, that focuses and concentrates insight" ( (Korsmeyer 134), as well as
my capacity to create the sorts of eating experiences that have the multi-dimensionality that will enable them to serve in
this capacity. And I think Korsmeyer gives me the tools to do so--the means I can use to begin to pay different kinds of
attention to my food experiences, and thereby begin to seek out particular kinds of food experiences and reject others.
A. I start with an idea from essayist and farmer Wendell
Berry--that eating ought to be an extensive pleasure. Berry is
useful because, among other reasons, he can move the discussion from description to prescription. Berry wants to tell us
what to do. In the current food system, which Berry describes as an "industrial food system," eaters are defined as
"consumers", and the pleasure (by which he means aesthetic pleasure) we are urged to take in our food is a very thin
pleasure indeed. Berry writes, "`Life is not very interesting,' we seem to have decided. `Let its satisfactions be minimal,
perfunctory, and fast.' We hurry through our meals to go to work and hurry thorugh our work in order to `recreate'
ourselves in the evenings and on weekends and vacations" (Berry 375).
In contrast, Berry urges us to see eating as a complex
relationship with soil, plant and animal--in short, an "agricultural
act" (Berry 377). When we do so, we come to take great "displeasures in knowing about a food economy that
degrades and abuses those arts and those plants and animals and the soil from which they come." (Berry 378). Seen
from the perspective of an agricultural eater, industrial eating stops being very pleasurable at all. For, the agricultural
eater cannot utilize the thin conception of pleasure engendered by the industrial view--a conception on which food
satisfies so long as it looks like the box, tastes salty enough, and doesn't take long to prepare. The agricultural eater
understands that eating is--or should be able to be--an extensive pleasure.
Here is Berry's first pass at an explanation of extensive
pleasure: "People who know the garden in which their vegetables
have grown and know that the garden is healthy will remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy
first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the
pleasures of eating. The knowledge of the good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater. ... A
significant part of the pleasure of eating is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food
comes" (Berry 378).
This is a wonderfully evocative passage; its imagery
has inspired me considerably over the past ten years. Understood
from the perspective of a fully fleshed out aesthetic theory like Korsmeyer's, however, Berry's notion of an extensive
pleasure is pretty bare-bones. It's not entirely clear how he is using the word "aesthetic", for example. And because we
don't know what he means by the aesthetic, it's also not entirely clear (compelling illustrations notwithstanding) why
anyone like Kimball should be persuaded to call the pleasure of eating vegetables from his own garden an aesthetic
pleasure rather than, say, a purely moral pleasure, an ecological pleasure, or even an economical pleasure. While Berry
powerfully suggests (to me, the converted) that there exists a class of food experiences in which aesthetic pleasure
cannot be divorced from ethical satisfaction, the prescriptive power of those suggestions needs some unpacking.
Korsmeyer's aesthetic account is ideal for this task. Korsmeyer's (p.117) suggestion that her aesthetic theory of food is
more robust than those that attend only to "discriminating and attending to fine distinctions" gives theoretical depth to
Berry's notion of extensive pleasure.
B. So, where to begin to fill out Berry's account?
1. I start by observing that Berry implicitly understands
what Korsmeyer makes explicit: eating is a communal, an
intimate act. I see the negative side of its communality in his observation that "we cannot be free if our food and its
sources are controlled by someone else" (375)--which is how he would describe the current industrial food system, in
which a very few corporations hold enormous control over the foods that eventually make their way into our
supermarkets. Berry understands communality to include not just other persons, but also the very animals and plants that
we eat; he wants to know that the "animal has [not] been made miserable in order to feed me" and that the fruits and
vegetables he eats "have lived happily and healthily in good soil..." (378). "A significant part of the pleasure of eating," he
writes, "is in one's accurate consciousness of the lives and the world from which food comes" (378). As Korsmeyer
might say it, that pleasure comes from reflecting--with gratitude, perhaps--upon those animals and plants which literally
become one, which is perhaps the most intimate connection of all. I would add that such pleasure would be enhanced
by knowing that those who prepared one's food did so uncoerced and safely, and were adequately compensated
(financially and otherwise) for their work.
2. A second important feature of Berry's account that
Korsmeyer can explain is this: the aesthetic pleasure I take in a
particular food can be diminished or increased as a result of my coming to know more about it--specifically, more about
its representational, exemplificatory and expressive qualities. Berry invites this approach, I think, by his use of words like
"knowledge" and "ignorance"; he suggests that an extensive pleasure requires us not to be ignorant in certain ways. (And
if we require ignorance of certain sorts in order to experience pleasure, then that counts as evidence that our pleasure is
of a considerably thinner sort.)
So, what do we do? We cultivate our capacity for experiencing extensive pleasure.
One way to do so is obviously to increase our attention
to, and understanding of, the number and variety of symbolic
layers on which we experience any given food. In his own list of suggestions, Wendell Berry urges us to learn a great
variety of things: the origins of our food, the economy of industrial food production, the best farming practices, the life
histories of food--and to make food choices on the basis of that knowledge (Berry 377). In Korsmeyer's language, we
might rewrite Berry's urgings as suggestions to attend to the exemplificatory and expressive qualities of foods, to render
explicit the implicit meanings of our foods by situating them in the contexts (both environmental and social) in which they
were grown, the ways in which they were grown, and the contexts (environmental and social) in which they were
prepared--and then making food choices on the basis of those meanings.
Through coming to learn about best farming practices,
for example, we might learn to see particular foods as
exemplifying not only particular times of the day (cereal in the morning), but also specific times of the year, and specific
regions of the globe. If I, a Minnesotan, start to understand strawberries as exemplifying late June (as they would, for
any Minnesotan rooted in an agricultural, rather than an industrial, understanding of eating), I experience considerably
less aesthetic pleasure from those big, bright red strawberries I find in the produce sections of my markets in January.
Rather than exemplifying a particular time, these industrial strawberries seem to exemplify a desire to get outside of time,
to make time irrelevant, to trick it. Once I start paying attention to their apparent timelessness, I might be led to inquire
into the farming practices that are used to create that appearance. Will the berries also come to express unjust working
conditions for farmworkers, petrochemical intensive agricultural techniques, and the exhaust fumes of thousands of
Furthermore, these berries' failure to exemplify many
of the sensory qualities I think of as characteristic of a
strawberry--juiciness, for example--also might lead me to explore the reasons that supermarket strawberries have
become woody, flavorless lumps. Contemplating my bowl of berries as having been bred to travel, ripen at a time
convenient for mass picking, and look uniform thus further diminishes my aesthetic pleasure in them. The superficial
pleasure I feel upon seeing something fresh and red in my January grocery stores might turn to deep displeasure, even
revulsion, as I attend to the layers of exemplification and expression in which they are embedded.
In contrast to the strawberries, a raspberry pie from
the berries in my parents' yard vibrantly exemplifies the qualities of
raspberries--their jewel-like color and tangy flavor. It also expresses--or metaphorically exemplifies--the love of my
mother and my father, because eating that pie conjures up images of them tending the raspberry canes in their yard
every spring, summer and fall, picking the ripe berries, freezing them in their coffin-sized freezer, and then bringing them
to me when they come to visit.
Both kinds of experiences can come to have a multilayered
character that enables some degree of the "insight and
emotional depth" that give aesthetic experiences their weight and value (117). But in the case of the strawberries, an
exploration of the layers leads me to an aesthetic experience that I would describe as deeply poignant, bordering on
tragic--in marked contrast to its pleasant surface appearance. In the case of the raspberries, my exploration of the layers
has (so far) only served to enhance and heighten that pleasure.
Korsmeyer suggests that not all eating has much cognitive--or,
therefore much aesthetic--significance. However, I think
that is to some extent a contingent, rather than a necessary, fact. While I don't mean to suggest that every meal can have
the rich significance of a Passover, communion or Hmong New Year meal, I do believe that many of our ordinary eating
experiences are rich in implicit meanings that could be made explicit, thereby enriching the aesthetic significance of those
experiences. Why do we tend not to do so? No doubt for many reasons--but surely one of them is that, in the industrial
food system so many of us inhabit, making those meanings explicit will almost guarantee that our eating experience is
less pleasant, not more so.
So why wouldn't we continue to be satisfied with thin
pleasure, if the alternative at least in the short term is extensive
displeasure? One reason surely is that even that thin pleasure is a very fragile thing, susceptible to being upset if our
consciousness is permeated by an unpleasant or inconvenient feature of the food we eat. (Such unpleasantnesses might
include seeing a chicken truck drive by, coming upon a migrant worker camp, reading a statistic about the average
distance travelled by one's food.) It takes some work to ignore these facts--and over time, it may become more work
than paying attention to them. Eventually, it may even require more work than does doing something to change one's
participation in this industrial system.
Another reason is simply that thin pleasure is just
that--thin. And if we have the capacity for aesthetic depth, and if
aesthetically rich experiences do, as Korsmeyer suggests, "deliver" a "truth or realization or discovery...in a way that
touches one intimately, that focuses and concentrates insight with poignant immediacy" (134), then it might well behoove
us to take advantage of the opportunities for aesthetically rich experiences where we find them. In other words,
multilayered aesthetic displeasure (to use a flat, inadequate word) might actually be far preferable to thin pleasure.
In her discussion of why food is not an art form,
even though it is aesthetically rich, Korsmeyer notes that the history of
food and the history of art are fundamentally different. "On its own, food is assessed only for a relatively narrow band of
exemplified properties; art is assessed for all symbolic function" (Korsmeyer, 143). In effect, what I am calling for is for
food to be accorded the same treatment--not so that it can become an art form, but so that our aesthetic appreciation of
it can attain whatever depth of which it is capable.
For a fascinating history of vegetarian food in the United States from 1966 to 1988, see (Belasco).
Carolyn Korsmeyer notes that what she calls the "strict
view" of aesthetic attention is fading from fashion. See
I cannot help but think that Kimball is depriving
himself--and attempting to deprive others--of the fun of vegetarian food,
by not appreciating the whimsy that inspired vegetarian cooks to create "turkeys" out of everything in sight--nut loaf,
tofu, mashed potatoes. Surely everyone eating such a turkey simulacrum had to remove their tongue from their cheek to
Indeed, as she notes, one needn't employ a cognitivist
analysis of food to understand the flavor properties of food as
A notion she borrows from Mary Douglas
I am interested in expanding this notion of exemplified
properties beyond the "rhythm of nourishment" that Korsmeyer
describes, to include what we might call the "agricultural rhythm" and the "rhythm of preparation." For, just as foods
occupy particular times in the day, they also occupy particular times of the year, and particular places on the globe,
among other things. And just as Korsmeyer suggests we can come to render explicit the implicit meanings lodged in the
structure of our meals, so too, I think, can we make explicit the implicit meanings buried in our agricultural and cooking
practices. Will we be able to taste them, the way we can taste the "wrongness" of caviar for breakfast? I don't know;
but fortunately, on Korsmeyer's account, tasting is not the end of the story. But am I extending the notion of
exemplification too far here, by extending it to qualities of a food that may not be literally perceptible by the tongue? I
don't think so--but I may be wrong, in which case I need another place to put them. And I'm not comfortable putting
them into the other possible category, the one I'll describe in a moment: metaphorical expression.
Extensive Pleasures 2
Berry, Wendell. Home Economics.
Kimball, Christopher. 1999[?] [Review title needed.] Cook's Illustrated. [Issue needed]: 31.
Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste. Ithaca:
Cornell University Press.