“Culinary Aestheticism – A Tale of Two Harmonies”
(I’m attempting to bring some challenging ideas from art theory to culinary. I’m also trying to limit the use of the complicated dialect of art academia. Please help me identify anything I should put in simpler language or elaborate.)
I have a problem. I’ve worked in a restaurant for ten years now and I’m running low on motivation. The old non-financial motivator used to be to invent new things and test them out on people, but I have probably tried about everything. I’ve definitely drank everything there is; certainly every wine and every classic cocktail.
In all these years I’ve sometimes thought of myself as an artist and I’ve definitely been called one a few times by others. One thing I’ve learned about artists lately is that they don’t just create works of art in a vacuum (art for art’s sake), they create art as a mechanism for change; a solution to a problem.
The idea of change (a cause, a job worth doing.., a revolution!) sounds rather motivating. If I knew what I wanted to change (solve a problem) I could happily labor at it until the end of my days.
I’m sure I could target multiple things to change, but I think my big target should be gastronomic sustainability and maybe a smaller short term target should be something like dispelling patron’s anxiety as a means of relaxation. What I don’t want to do is settle for something vague like making people feel good. People too often feel good via means that are not sustainable. The word good is too often a disgusting over simplification (almost as disgusting as balanced).
Change will be enacted by putting something beautiful (a work of art) in the market place. The theory is that this beautiful art experience will be consumed and my desired changes will hopefully be realized as a response to it. The plan might sound crazy, but it has been know to happen. If I want to increase my effectiveness I will probably need to start mapping beauty (deconstruction!) because one can only move around if they know the landmarks.
To paraphrase the author Leonard Koren, beauty is a composite of aesthetic and symbolic values which apparently gives me two things that need further mapping in this uncharted culinary context. Aesthetic values in this case refer to raw sensory experiences like the gustatory sweetness or acidity of food & drink. Symbolic values are names, brands, nationalities, connotations, and exemplary behavior attached to an experience. For example, Hennesey is a Cognac from France that it is often associated with wealth and refinement because of its price. I could attach exemplary behavior by giving you a taste before I make you commit to a $10 pour of the stuff.
Exemplary behavior is something that needs to be touched upon briefly. Good service, which is exemplary behavior, drives the success (financial?) of most restaurants, but believe it or not also strangles change. Many people who over emphasize the fact that they are in the “service industry” do it to maintain a status quo. These people are part of art critic Dave Hickey’s therapeutic institution. This institution down plays aesthetic values to instead attempt to control the meanings of things and therefore limit change. Those who profess too loudly that they are “in the service industry” are either brainwashed by the therapeutic institution, hiding shoddy aesthetics, or limiting the pace of change for their own ends. Now its finally time to state that service as exemplary behavior is the most powerful symbolic tool we have for expanding aesthetic harmonic range which is integral to gastronomic sustainability.
The aesthetic and symbolic sides of beauty both have harmony and disharmony which are constantly in flux. We can probably also say both sides have consonance and dissonance so that we can borrow from composer Arnold Schoenberg and re-apply the wheel instead of reinventing it. According to Schoenberg there is “no such thing as dissonance, but rather a further removed consonance that has yet to be absorbed.”
Fernet Branca is notoriously aesthetically inharmonious at first, but after a few rounds of it over the course of a few memorably positive evenings, Fernet grows on you, you metabolize the dissonance and it becomes harmonious if only at the edge. The symbolic side works in nearly the same way. True, chicken liver mouse can taste akin to peanut butter (harmonious), but it is organ meat and that is symbolically inharmonious to many. If you are hungry enough or have to eat it to be polite, liver can grow on you pretty fast.
The aesthetic aspects of a work are fixed while harmony expands and contracts around them. The symbolic aspects of a work are the inverse which means they move about within fixed zones of harmony and disharmony sitting beside other values. Harmony expanded around the aggressive aesthetic tensions of the Fernet while the symbolic side was already harmonious. The liver mouse was already aesthetically harmonious (you might like it if tasted blind) while it moved into a symbolically harmonious region. The livers no longer sits beside gross and instead now sits beside other harmonious values like sustainability or delicious.
In these examples taste is being cultivated and acquired tastes are being acquired. The mechanism is the duality, Janus quality, or two sidedness of beauty. We have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance (theory of cognitive dissonance) so if we can enfranchise people (show values in common) with one side, we can subversively stretch (or move within) their harmonic bounds with the other.
So if I enfranchise people with aesthetic sensory values, I can change their symbolic harmonic orientation. If I enfranchise people by manipulating symbolism I can change their aesthetic harmonic bounds. At the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen, Rene Redzepi is effecting sustainability (change!) by rendering symbolically bankrupt trash ingredients like seaweed, moss, and snails aesthetically beautiful. He is also attaching the positive symbolic value of his name (superstar chef) to aesthetically harmonious foods that previously held inharmonious symbolism.
I do not even have to use sustainably produced ingredients to impact sustainability. If aesthetic acquired tastes are important to sustainability, I can prime people for sustainable behavior by expanding their aesthetic harmonic boundaries. This is really important because as you add new food sources to your food shed, you cannot always abstract them to accepted aesthetic harmony. Goat meat will always have a gamey aroma. You cannot completely get rid of the aroma, but you can learn to like it. The cocktail is often the training ground of acquired tastes. He who revels in mezcal, grappa, and single malt Scotch will likely have no harmonic issues with goat.
Pushing aesthetic harmonic boundaries leads into the second goal for change that was stated in the beginning. Your head can get cluttered with symbols and concerns which lead to anxiety and prevent relaxation. Meditation may be one way to clear the mind, but aesthetically jarring experiences can also clear the mind, dispel anxiety, and create repose. Seeking out aesthetic experiences that lie at the fringes of harmony is therefore therapeutic and should be promoted.
Dispelling anxiety demands an understanding of acquired tastes. A
this essay is not complete and hopefully I will find the time to expand it shortly. in the meantime feel free to comment. EDITED TO ADD: APPARENTLY THIS WAS NEVER FINISHED, BUT I DID TOUCH UPON THESE IDEAS LATER IN MY THEORY OF ACQUIRED TASTES AND IN ADVANCED AROMA THEORY BASICS.