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The Pleasure of Knowing: Comments on Sarah Worth’s Taste
In Taste: A Philosophy of Food, Sarah Worth explores the aesthetics of food through the philosophy of slow food. She discusses the relationship between the pleasure we take in our food and our knowledge of what we’re eating; on Worth’s view, taste is both a source of pleasure and a source of knowledge — provided we cultivate the skill of tasting in the right way. Here, I discuss Worth’s account of gustatory knowledge and suggest some complicating factors: in particular, not everyone has access to the sorts of foods required to cultivate the skill of taste and our food environment is full of misleading information about what we’re eating.
aesthetic knowledge; aesthetic testimony; aesthetics of food; food epistemology; slow food; taste
Sarah Worth’s Taste is many things: an in-depth examination of the aesthetics of food; a discussion of the significance of our sense of taste and its relative neglect in Western philosophy; a love letter to food and cooking. Perhaps most importantly, it is a book-length elaboration and defense of the slow food philosophy. In a world where food is increasingly expensive and time is in short supply, slow food may seem like an indulgence. But Worth shows why it’s fundamental, both as a way of eating and as a way of resisting an industrialized and homogenized food system that threatens to deprive us of much more than just aesthetic pleasure. Indeed, one of the lessons of this book is that finding aesthetic pleasure in our food is not a luxury, but a pre-requisite for other, more essential forms of engagement, like knowing what we’re eating.
As our point of departure, consider the opening lines of the Slow Food Manifesto, from which Worth quotes at length: “Our century, which began and has developed under the insignia of industrialization, first invented the machine and then took it as life model.” This theme of variation versus standardization runs throughout the book, underwriting Worth’s discussion of the relationship between taste, pleasure, knowledge, and health. This is what I’ll focus on.
The industrialization and standardization of food explains why, according to Worth, “In the 21st century, much of the Western world seems to lack knowledge of how to eat” (94). On Worth’s view, variation is a precondition of aesthetically and epistemically valuable experiences of food: a feature, not a bug, of our experiences of food. The worry is that our increasingly standardized food undermines our ability to know; the remedy is to develop our sense of taste. As we’ll see, knowledge is tied to pleasure, but the relationship is complicated. Knowing how to taste involves appreciating the pleasures of food, but it might also mean appreciating the complexity of food’s aesthetic properties, which is not always a straightforwardly pleasant experience.
Worth distinguishes two paradigms of knowledge about food. The “epistemology of vision paradigm” describes a kind of propositional, cognitive, objective knowledge. It aims to represent the external world and succeeds if and when it does. In the case of food, we get this knowledge from labels and packaging information; from testimony; from knowledge about a dish’s history, cultural context, and preparation. This knowledge applies to what Worth calls “generics” and also to some particular instances. Generic foods are kinds like mangoes, or sangiovese, or Cornish pasties, and particulars are specific instances—this mango, the pasty in my lunch bag, this bottle of 2021 Coffaro Sangiovese.
Propositional knowledge might seem fairly straightforward; I think the analogy with vision-based epistemology suggests a kind of direct access to the objects of knowledge. But, as Worth shows, this can go wrong. Using the case of olive oil, she demonstrates how a reliance on testimony and propositional knowledge leads us away from knowledge of what we’re eating and into a false sense of familiarity.
It turns out that up to 80% of the world’s olive oil supply is adulterated or outright fraudulent (126). Some of it is cut with other oils; some of it isn’t olive oil at all; some of it is low-quality olive oiled mislabeled as extra virgin. Many of us have never tasted true, unadulterated, extra virgin olive oil. I can form all kinds of beliefs based on the olive oil bottle on my counter, but these will be either false or unjustified or both. This has some rather startling implications: I don’t know there’s olive oil on my counter, and my beliefs about what olive oil tastes like are also false.
This isn’t just an olive oil problem — seafood mislabeling is rampant, in both sushi bars and chain restaurants: there’s very little lobster at Red Lobster. And Kobe beef once referred to a highly specific breed raised according to strict standards, but has been diluted to the point of being meaningless, as one might suspect based on the proliferation of Kobe beef hot dogs and burgers on restaurant menus.
In light of examples like these, one might worry that the vision paradigm of knowledge, with its emphasis on belief and propositional knowledge, sets us down the path to skepticism — or at least, it forces us to place our trust in untrustworthy sources. Given the extent of food fraud, bullshit labels, and the opacity of ingredients and production, one might worry that when it comes to most processed foods, we don’t know what we’re eating, because propositional knowledge is untrustworthy as a guide to the nature and content of our food.
Worth offers an alternative. Her paradigm of gustatory knowledge treats taste as “a source of knowledge that is deeply aesthetic… completely derived from the senses, and also deeply dependent on experience” (132). On the gustatory paradigm, knowledge of food is nonpropositional, involving the skill of making discriminations and distinction about quality and taste. Gustatory knowledge gives us knowledge of particulars and their characteristics through tasting, not testimony; it requires direct experience.
This seems promising: the solution to worries about ignorance (or even skepticism) arising from food fraud or mislabeling is relying on taste — on gustatory, not propositional, knowledge. As Worth writes, “without the knowledge gained from a refined ability to taste, we are more susceptible to false beliefs about all kinds of foods, drinks, or tastes. If we become easily fooled then we miss out on something important, just as we do with art when we buy a fake thinking we are buying an original” (143). If relying on propositional knowledge and the testimony of others leaves us vulnerable, taste seems to offer a way out. Knowing how to taste can put us back in touch with what we’re eating. Because it relies on direct experience rather than the testimony of labels, gustatory knowledge is resistant to vulnerabilities involving food fraud mislabeling and corruption.
The problem is that in those environments where propositional knowledge is likely to fail us, so too will taste. For example, take Worth’s discussion of the tomato: “If supermarket tomatoes are all we know, then the variety of flavors is lost. A tomato then merely appears as a tomato…” (150). What we have is not a tomato, really, but something cleverly disguised as a tomato. It’s fake tomato country. The propositional model of knowledge, “appeals to a notion of food that is highly standardized… created to have the same taste across regions, states, and continents.” These foods resist gustatory knowledge precisely because of the “reliability and consistency of [their] taste.”
One option would be to say that different ways of knowing are suited to different objects. The supermarket “tomato” I know is different from the heirloom tomato you know, and we don’t pick out the same thing when we say “tomato.” Nor do we know them in the same way. In that case, we end up with gustatory relativism, picking out different things via our taste claims — and our knowledge claims. This would have some consequences for disagreement, since it would imply that when we disagree over the taste of tomatoes, we’re talking past one another, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I think there are a number of cases like this, some of which involve reference to flavors via foods that no longer exist. For example, I’d always been puzzled by the apparent disconnect between grape flavored gum or soda and the taste of the grapes I was buying at the supermarket. When I finally tasted a Concord grape, the mystery was solved: there was a whole other flavor associated with the term ‘grape.’
Grapes aren’t the only example. For many of us, the exemplars on which we base our judgments of what the food itself tastes like, and the flavoring that claims to resemble that taste, are disconnected through contingencies of agricultural history. The banana is another example: in the early twentieth century, when banana flavor was developed, the market was dominated by a cultivar, the Gros Michel, that was subsequently wiped out by a fungus, to be replaced with the milder-tasting Cavendish banana we now know. In this case, it’s not that banana flavor is wrong, per se; the standard against which we judge it has shifted from one monoculture to another. In other cases, the disconnect between what we think a food tastes like and what the real thing tastes like results from something more nefarious: bullshit, adulteration, or outright fraud.
These cases raise interesting questions about the semantics of taste terms: When we talk about the taste of grape, to what does the “grape” in “the taste of grape” refer? Which fixes the reference of “banana flavor” — the artificial flavor, the Gros Michel, the Cavendish, or any one of these depending on context? These are not the issues Worth is interested in, but they point to the role that our categories play in setting the standard against which food knowledge is assessed — the flavor becomes “banana” rather than a specific cultivar thereof; “grape” stands in for Concord grape (how many of us could identify the particular grape in our supermarket by name, rather than color or seediness?) — and the way in which our increasingly standardized food environment undermines our capacity to develop and exercise that knowledge. To return to the tomato, Worth argues, “If we do not have access to heirloom tomatoes, then the knowledge of their taste evaporates” (150). Notice that this knowledge requires genuine heirloom tomatoes, not the “heirloom tomatoes” now sold in my supermarket throughout the year. As the supermarket heirlooms come to dominate, will it be correct to say that a few years from now, the Hannaford shopper knows the taste of the heirloom tomato? This is where organizations like Slow Food play an epistemic role: by preserving the original referents of our taste claims, in all their messy variability.
The problem isn’t just that there’s a disconnect between one kind of taste (heirloom tomato) and another (supermarket tomato), leading us to have false beliefs about what a tomato tastes like. That is a problem, in the same way that expecting olive oil to be mild and neutral leads us to have false beliefs about what olive oil tastes like. But this way of framing the issue is based in a propositional, vision-based paradigm in which we see knowledge as a matter of correctly representing facts about the world, rather than as an exercise of skill. Worth’s proposal is that gustatory knowledge involves not just perception, but discrimination, difference, nuance. And that is precisely what standardized, industrialized food does not allow for. The problem with industrialized food is not (or not just) that it leads to false beliefs about what foods taste like; it’s not that these foods taste worse than others. The problem is that if we only engage with highly processed foods, we can’t exercise our capacity for taste. To be clear, that last part is not something Worth states explicitly. But I think it’s implied by her account of knowledge: “people with gustatory knowledge can discriminate between musty oil and fusty oil, and they can experience the peppery burn of good oil as something positive.”
So, while there’s a sense in which we can “know” the taste of an Oreo, this isn’t gustatory knowledge because that taste never varies. There’s no nuance, no room to compare; the food is designed to be uniform in taste and appearance. As a result, our encounters with highly processed foods don’t amount to exercises of knowledge: there’s no judgment involved, no exercise of skill. Worth considers Meskin & Robson’s theory of “taste-imony” — the view that testimony is sufficient to justify our beliefs about the aesthetic properties of food. But, as Worth argues, the foods most conducive to being known this way are those same highly processed, standardized foods that preclude the kind of engagement central to Worth’s gustatory paradigm of knowledge.
Fraud, mislabeling, and the general opacity of ingredients and processes complicate claims to know processed food via propositional knowledge. But because of standardization and lack of variations, these foods are also not amenable to being known via gustatory knowledge. In fact, the more we eat these foods, the less we exercise our capacity for gustatory knowledge; we end up reliant on propositional knowledge at the expense of gustatory skill. The problem, of course, is that this is an untrustworthy source of information, deceptive and misleading. We risk ending up in a situation where we genuinely don’t know what we’re eating.
The obvious solution is to avoid processed food and seek out foods that exhibit the variation conducive to gustatory knowledge. This offers a response to the question of whether and why we have an obligation to eat local foods. While Slow Food emphasizes local foods and the idea of terroir, Worth argues that the reasons for locavorism are primarily aesthetic. And since she denies the existence of aesthetic obligations, she can’t characterize our reasons to eat local as obligations. But I wonder whether we might think of them as epistemic obligations instead. That is, if knowing what we eat requires gustatory knowledge, and that in turn requires unprocessed, local food, then we might think of our reasons to seek out flavorful, local, minimally processed food not as an aesthetic obligation but as an epistemic one. Optimistically, we might simultaneously characterize eating local as a route to fulfilling an epistemic obligation and aesthetic pleasure.
But matters are not so simple. One worry is that we will end up with a two-tier system of knowledge: some of us will enjoy gustatory and aesthetic knowledge, and some of us will be stuck in fake tomato country. And I suspect that these divisions will tend to track others: socioeconomic and geographic divisions. That’s bad. It might seem to represent a kind of epistemic injustice. And one of the lessons of Worth’s book is that in virtue of doing so, it is also a kind of aesthetic injustice. When we are unable to cultivate gustatory knowledge, we’re unable to take pleasure in its exercise. The upshot is that while gustatory pleasure — aesthetic appreciation of our food — might not itself be an obligation, it might be the result of fulfilling an epistemic obligation.
The problem is not just one of knowing what to eat: it extends into the question of how to eat. Worth points out that we are surrounded by digitally manipulated images, but she helpfully reminds us that the depiction of unrealistic meals is nothing new. Even in Western European oil paintings, “the most frequently depicted foods are not frequently eaten foods” (167). Our current obsession with Instagramming elaborately garnished milkshakes and rainbow bagels is an old message dressed up in new media, presenting us with an idealized reality in light of which, “we are bound to be disappointed when we get the real thing” (170).
This discussion of food media might seem like a digression, but it’s part of the same problematic homogenization of experience. Just as our experience of taste itself becomes one-dimensional and unvarying, leaving us unprepared to detect differences, our expectations regarding the emotional and affective experiences of eating are likewise flattened out. We’re fed the idea that food is comfort and pleasure, and in many cases it is. But food can also be challenging, even threatening; we can (and should) be made uncomfortable by aspects of our food system. As we look to address some of the more problematic aspects of food production, we may come across solutions that challenge and discomfort us: eating insects; ‘cultivated’ meat; fertilizing crops using recycled human waste. The point is not that we have to adopt any of these practices; rather, it’s that a food system that conditions us to see the primary dimension of food experience as unmitigated pleasure leaves us unprepared for the complexity of the actual eating of actual food, in all its wonderful, sometimes bitter, messiness.
Alexandra Plakias is Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Hamilton College. She works on moral psychology, disgust, and the philosophy of food, and is the author of Thinking Through Food: A philosophical introduction (Broadview Press, 2018) and Awkwardness: A theory, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
Published on October 4, 2023.
Cite this article: Alexandra Plakias, “The Pleasure of Knowing: Comments on Sarah Worth’s Taste,” Contemporary Aesthetics Volume 21 (2023), accessed date.
 Cited by Sarah Worth in Taste: A Philosophy of Food (London: Reaktion Books, 2021), 87. For the remainder of this article, the page reference from this book will be indicated in the text.
 Larry Olmstead, Real Food, Fake Food (Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2017).
 Aaron Meskin & Jon Robson. ‘Taste and Acquaintance.’ Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 73 (2) (2015): 127-139.