The elusive qualia of taste -- metaphysics and aesthetics in food comparisons
One of my favorite restaurants is Fleur de Sel and I've written some glowing detailed descriptions of my meals there and posted them to the Manhattan board. (See link below.) And, though many people agree, I got one or two replies like "I found Fleur du Sel to be pretty mundane in the cuisine department." Now such a difference of views fascinates me because it brings up fascinating problems of metaphysics and aesthetics. Specifically, how do we compare qualia (sense-perceptions)? How do we know what another person tastes? And is there a way to objectively rank and value them, or is the best we can hope for "I like that meal!" "Well, I HATE it!"
Let's dispose of the simplest and the hardest scenarios first. Simplest: we had different meals. My critic went on a bad day and was served bad food. Had I tasted it, I would have agreed with her judgment. This is possible, but uninteresting. Hardest: My critic (or perhaps I, for all you know) is what philosophers call a zombie, an entity that does not experience consciousness, sense-perception or qualia but is otherwise identical to me. This is interesting, but there's really no way to tell.
But there are so many other possibilities. One is that our qualia, our perceptions, are different. My experience of taste is as different from hers as sight is different from sound. Or one of us is taste-impaired, similar to the way a stuffed nose impairs taste. How to tell? An assumption, and a suggestion. The assumption is that humans with roughly similar minds have roughly similar perceptions. We can disregard all radical hypotheses (e.g. totally differing qualia) unless warranted by strong evidence. Suggestion: dialogue. I think some, but not all, of these differences can be resolved (or at least diagnosed) by dialogue. "Can you taste the three different flavors? "" Hey, I taste seven!" (And it might be interesting to classify the possible differences according to whether or not they can be ameliorated by dialogue.)
Of course, our taste experiences are not just raw perception. Even before they rise to the level of consciousness, the brain classifies them, stresses some notes, suppresses others. The more this higher-level brainwork is involved, the more there is a possibliity of education. The wine connoisseur, for example, is not so much born as made, by long study. If I explain to someone the reasons I like a dish, the flavors I taste, the care taken in preparation, they might appreciate it as I did.
And if they don't? Are there any objective standards? If A says "I like the veal confit with chanterelles at Fleur de Sel!" and B says "I LIKE SPAGHETTI WITH CHEEZ WHIZ!!!" -- is there a way to objectively judge the two dishes? I think there is. I think objective standards are possible, in terms of complexity, psychological resonance, harmony, daring, elegance. Perhaps there's a clue in the process of maturity. They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well. When I was a kid, my favorite dish was spaghetti with cheez whiz. But I outgrew it.
I wonder if different people experience totally different tastes when eating the same things, for example if you and I shared half a hard boiled egg then switched mouths so that I was tasting with your mouth, and you with mine, how would our experiences change? Would salty become sweet and sour become something else? How would perception of heat from spice change? Or would salty remain salty and sweet sweet, but I would no longer like salty and you would no longer like sweet? Are our preferences for flavor or spice connected to our tongues or our brains? How would we ever be able to tell without a moutherectomy?
On another note, there is currently a story in the news about a device that emits a high pitched and extremely annoying noise audible to teenagers only. If our sense of hearing changes as we age, does that mean other senses behave that way? I know that some people find that they like foods they never did before, is this because their perception of the food's taste changes? Or does the food taste the same and our preferences change?
I've come up with a few fairly solid ideas about how tastes vary, based on observations of my own and other peoples' reported perceptions of odors, which of course are a major component of taste. I have noticed that my wife, for instance, can barely detect a class of scent that I find extremely pungent: when the camphor trees that line many streets here are in bud, the peppery, resinous scent is overwhelming to me, but she can't even smell it unless I crush some of the seed pods under her nose. At the same time, I like the taste of raw or cooked green bell pepper, whereas she is repelled by even the mildest red or yellow ones, though she likes hot peppers well enough.
I think our olfactory receptors are set in a way similar to one of those graphic audio tuners, with the sliders set to receive the various wavelengths at different intensities. I do know that some of the tastes I could not abide in my youth have become acceptable or even pleasurable to me: I became able to eat a hard-boiled egg with pleasure at thirty or so, able to enjoy some browning on an omelet a little past fifty, and now that I'm approaching sixty-five perhaps I'll learn to like sweet custard! At least I hope so...
This is one of my favorite topics!
You cannot qualify taste because it's always evolving! I can find hints of soft aromas, essences of tantalizing tastes, and satisfying realizations of relish with dishes due to past experiences. I've often had someone of more-subtle taste teach me how to look, what to study, or how to differentiate.
These are not inate; they are learned.
It's like to master distiller at a single malt distributor; s/he doesn't just jump into the position of master distiller. They learn what to look for and how to discern the different scents and flavors. Some are _better_ than others but as one vintner stated to me, these traits aren't static; they're always evolving.
I submit that there are cultural and ethnic differences, which doesn't in any way negate your maturity theory of food, especially within the individual phylogenies, but brings to bear the qualitative issues that are argued here, such as the value of authenticity.
Is it heresy to say that Japanese are possibly more aware or interested in the quality aspects of food than Americans? I believe it's so - and I believe that nobody else would bother to take the time and effort to do things - not only to their native foods (although one would argue what is native), but to every food that has come to their island. This is the fanaticism that results in a great tempura restaurant using their special oil just once, reselling it to a 2nd tier restaurant that uses it and resells it to a more common restaurant who's claim to fame is that they are using the twice used oil of the most famous tempura place in the world! Does one actually learn to taste the difference, and move up the ladder to eventually eat at (deservedly) the best tempura restaurant in the world?
The evolution of one's individual taste is learned - as with any endeavor, the more open and curious the mind, and the more the focussed effort, the more one learns (music, art, writing, whatever...). But people begin with the cultural baggage of their ethnic heritage - what mom and pop fed them. It's a long road to hoe if you grew up with hamburger helper and Swanson's frozen TV dinners. That could certainly explain the differences in perception of what's "good". People who think that Cheez Whiz is good on anything have simply not experienced much.
I know that the Chowhound perspective is supposed to be that it's all good - if it's good to you, it's good to you and don't let anybody tell you different... But there is objectivity - there is good, and there is bad. And there's a lot to be learned.
You raise interesting points. I spend a lot of time thinking about similar issues.
One avenue worth exploring further is the expert versus novice difference in aesthetic judgment, which you allude to.
Any guy off the street can probably taste a difference between Two-Buck-Chuck and a quality Bordeaux. He might not be able to articulate the difference, but he can perceive it. But unless you are a wine expert, you wont be able to pick the best among a cadre of top-notch Bordeaux wines. As you said, the wine connoisseur is not so much born as made, by long study. True, although I suspect that to be a truly top-notch wine or food connoisseur, you need to have an above-average ability to taste and to smell.
In you next sentence, you say: If I explain to someone the reasons I like a dish, the flavors I taste, the care taken in preparation, they might appreciate it as I did. They might. But dont hold your breath. Many people dont. You anticipate this in your next paragraph when you mention Cheez Whiz and spaghetti.
A lot of folks just dont care enough about food to develop any kind of expertise in evaluating it. They dont seek a higher plateau of gustatory pleasure. I know a lot of people in their 30s and 40s and 50s who are eating the same old stuff they liked as children. When they dare to venture out of their little realm of the familiar, they only do it if Oprah or the Food Network says its okay. For them, familiarity is what its all about.
And if it isnt about familiarity, then its about image. The food we eat, the restaurants we frequent, the brand of food we buy, is so heavily imbued with image and status, that a lot of people think about food in those terms. I know Chowhound tries to buck this trend by focusing on the gustatory merits, not image or trendiness, which is one of the reasons I frequent this site. But, unfortunately, many people are too focused on the marketing hype surrounding food and restaurants, so they base their decisions on it.
And then there are those people who just like to be curmudgeonly. If 99% of the people are raving about Restaurant X, the curmudgeon wants to be in the 1% who gripes about it. They like to be contrarians, just for the sake of being contrary.
I agree that objective standards about quality are possible and desirable, not just with regard to food, but with regard to other arts as well.
re: La Dolce Vita
Thanks for your long and thoughtful post and for taking the time to write it. I think I agree with just about all of it! The stuff toward the end also explains why I don't like a guide like Zagat, with rating determined by votes. Most people give highest rating to the most famous places, a few give those very places their LOWEST rating.
re: Brian S
Hey, glad you liked it.
Anytime you want to rant, you can email me. As I said, I think about this all the time, and sometimes I write about it, too. I think a whole book could be devoted to the various aspects of this topic. Maybe there already is a book, but I don't know about it.
I agree. And when I said..."Perhaps there's a clue in the process of maturity. They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well." ... this might be literally true. Cuisine has evolved from caveman to Rome to Middle Ages to Louis XIV... though the dishes served at Roman and medieval aristocrats' tables are far more sophisticated than most people imagine. I've lived in the New Guinea highlands and what people there love most is big slabs of pig cooked on hot stones and served bloody rare. (It was delicious, actually.)
>> And, though many people agree, I got one or two replies like "I found Fleur du Sel to be pretty mundane in the cuisine department." Now such a difference of views fascinates me because it brings up fascinating problems of metaphysics and aesthetics.>>
That type of difference of opinion does not need to be that complicated or puzzling. If I said a restaurant's cuisine was "mundane," I would mean everyday, run-of-the-mill. Nothing that unusual or inventive on the menu; nothing fabulous in terms of ingredients or the way they were prepared. This would not be a terribly negative judgment unless the restaurant was claiming to do something really fabulous or groundbreaking or cost so much that I would expect that.
Judging a restaurant in comparison with its peers in that area and at that price point I think it's a fairly straightforward type of judgment for an individual to make, although people may disagree with each other.
Objectivity in taste judgment requires an ability to recognize and divorce that judgment from the influences of cravings. Warm bread and good butter will be ambrosial to a starving man or Atkins penitent. As will spring water after a desert ordeal, or cheesy macs when comfort food beacons. To judge objectively, one must be free of hunger, nostalgia, and other distractions. There is magic in food and taste, but disconnecting it from need and romance is difficult.
"Perhaps there's a clue in the process of maturity. They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well. When I was a kid, my favorite dish was spaghetti with cheez whiz. But I outgrew it."
So you're saying that the human race--as a species--is evolving towards preferring veal confit over spaghetti with Cheez Whiz?
re: Rico Pan
re: Rico Pan
"They say that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny" ... the development of the individual recapitulates the development of the species. Maybe this is true in aesthetics as well. When I was a kid, my favorite dish was spaghetti with cheez whiz. But I outgrew it."
So you're saying that the human race--as a species--is evolving towards preferring veal confit over spaghetti with Cheez Whiz?"
Or perhaps it's in the other direction, assuming that the human progresses toward the divine. See below: