The sense of taste and taste have to be taken together in their differences in order to really understand the complexity of our bodily relation with food and see how culture, society, the self and the body are integrated. We cannot really understand and explain our relation with food only in sociocultural terms. There is no simple causal relation between culture, society and the body because the body is indeterminate, and so can react or respond differently to culture and society. For instance, when a food is socially or culturally seen as distasteful, repulsive or disgusting, this does not mean that one bodily experience it like that and/or avoid it. It can actually provoke the opposite reaction. We can enjoy the food presented as repulsive, and avoid and dislike the one presented as tasty and delicious.
Taste versus the sense of taste
The most direct embodied experience with food is through its taste in the process of literal incorporation. As Lupton puts it, food and food practices are central to ‘our experience of embodiment, or the ways that we live in and through our bodies’ (1996:1). In fact, nowadays, taste, namely the sensation or feeling of a food or drink in the mouth (Lupton 1996), appears to be one of the most decisive factors of food preference, selection and incorporation. But taste has been also ‘marginalized’ and associated with baser or more animal-like qualities (Lalonde 1992).
According to Fischler, by prioritizing taste, a regression is at work because archaic traits are reactivated and reinforced. He claims that, ‘the disintegration of gastronomy and the ever-growing availability of basically preferred taste stimuli, such as those of sweetened or salted snack foods, allow primordial, ‘primitive’ cravings to come freely into play and be constantly satisfied’ (1980:947).
Increasing availability and ingestion of snacks and beverages reveal that taste is not dependent on the composition of food – its very materiality – but rather about food’s texture and feeling in the mouth. No one likes cold and soft fries or warm bier. Yet to be incorporated, really enjoyed and liked, food has to also look good and be tempting. The appearance and presentation of food affect its palatability, pleasantness, agreeability and in fact its taste. This proves that not only literal incorporation is intertwined with symbolic incorporation, but also that taste cannot be understood separately from the sense of taste.
Critiquing Douglas’ structural analysis of meal, Lalonde (1992) tries to show the importance of the sense of taste in understanding of the meal as lived experience. He argues that ‘in order to clarify the unique role of taste, one must consider its function in relation to the other senses’ (1992:76). This means to show that the division of the senses into contact (lower) and distant (higher) is misleading, and that the sense of taste also engages higher brain functions. Interconnectedness of the sense of taste with those of smell or sight is obvious from how a blocked nose diminishes our sense of taste, or how smell or even a glimpse of a food can evoke its taste, and lead to its ingestion.
As Lalonde stresses (1992), taste can be a conscious act; we can be aware or conscious of taste, learn to understand it better or consciously shape it. In a word, the sense of taste can be rationally shaped, ‘educated’ or ‘disciplined’. All this suggests that the sense of taste is, as Lalonde contends, ‘less a matter of sensation, and more a matter of perception’ and ‘perception concerns the reception, cognition and interpretation of a complex experience, while sensation refers to the simple reaction of the subject to the stimuli’ (1992:77). The sense of taste seems to act not only ‘as a fulcrum for our sensory and cognitive experiences of a meal (1992:77) but of food as such. The sense of taste, seen as a complex synesthetic perception linked to other senses and cognitive abilities and functions, plays a crucial role in food identification and incorporation.
Hunger versus appetite
The vital role of taste and the sense of taste, their intertwinedness and connection with the other senses are also manifested in their connection to hunger and especially appetite. Contrary to the Cannon’s observation that hunger and appetite usually appear together (1963a), it rather seems that appetite has been quite divorced from hunger. This is another reason why one needs to distinguish between taste and the sense of taste. Although they can stimulate each other, hunger is more of a physiological need, when we cannot really evoke hunger as much as we can appetite. We can be hungry, but lack appetite, and so not eat. And quite often people eat not because they are hungry, but because they have appetite.
Food stimulates appetite, and appetite causes food cravings and food ingestion. When we follow appetite, we do not eat because we really need food, but rather because we want to experience its taste. As Cannon points out (1963a), appetite is related to previous experience with food – its taste or smell. So rather than focusing on the relation between hunger and appetite, it appears more important to focus on the relation between appetite and taste. They both can be produced or conjured up by a thought or an image, which proves why food (re)presentation is so important, and why food advertisements are so powerful.
Disgust and nausea
Food and eating, as Lupton writes, ‘are intensely emotional experiences that are intertwined with embodied sensations and strong feelings ranging the spectrum from disgust, hate, fear and anger to pleasure, satisfaction and desire’ (1996:36). But disgust and other bodily reactions are not just sensations or feelings. They are important bodily mechanisms which help us to identify food and determine whether we accept or avoid it, like or dislike it. Although disgust is provoked or triggered by an object, and so in a sense comes from outside (Kolnai 2004), it is still a psycho-somatic or bodily reaction.
Even though disgust can be aroused by a food that is socially or culturally seen and represented as disgusting, or the disgust aroused by food’s texture, taste, smell or appearance can be overcome, it still does seem that an embodied experience of disgust is the most significant determinant of food incorporation and avoidance. It is easier to incorporate food that is represented as disgusting or looks disgusting than the one that is experienced as disgusting.
This point is even more obvious when it comes to nausea. As Rozin and Vollmecke observe, ‘there is no single factor that clearly causes acquired likes in the way that nausea causes dislikes’ (1986:442). Nausea plays a special role in the acquisition of food dislikes, when it is ‘both a potent agent for affective change and a means of changing the intrinsic value of objects’ (Pelchat&Rozin 1982:348). Even if it can be socially and culturally provoked, nausea is still a bodily reaction, and, like disgust, it cannot be reduced to its causes or triggers.
However, disgust and nausea are reactive mechanisms. We do not have biological mechanisms to tells us beforehand whether food is edible (safe) or inedible (dangerous). For example, without any knowledge of mushrooms, we cannot tell whether a mushroom is toxic or not. We can learn and experience it only after its ingestion. This shows the importance of symbolic incorporation, and its crucial role in coming before literal incorporation.
Simple logic surely does not apply to our relation with food. It follows that sociocultural classifications, representations or definitions do not really account for people’s bodily relation with food. Even if they play a role, they can rather distort this relation when it is approached through them. Indeed, a focus on food should start from our concrete and direct bodily relation and experience with food. This relation and experiences arising from it shape and are shaped by the body, the mind (self), culture and society. In their interaction or ‘negotiation’, one’s relation with food is played out.
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This blog is a slightly adapted part of my thesis What is your relation with food like?: Examining the embodied relation between people and bio food in Belgium (Master of Social and Cultural Anthropology); References available upon request.