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Comparing food, music and other arts


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#1 Jonathan Day

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 08:19 AM

In a previous thread, I suggested that "counterpoint" might be a useful idea or metaphor in menu construction.

The suggestion received a thorough roasting (more on that metaphor later) from some thoughtful Symposium contributors. First, from Cape Cod via London:

Having declared my loyalty to Western music’s greatest composer, I must nevertheless question his relevance to cuisine, of whatever ethnic origin. ...

Efforts to mix methods and formal structures from different disciplines, thus converting them into metaphors, can be amusing ... but the novelty soon wears off.  ... To compare one’s successive mouthfuls with the structure of various art forms would, I think, verge on the precious.

I don't think that "counterpoint" contributes anything in the way of understanding or clarification.

[Contemporary chefs' use of novel language to describe their dishes] relates to the use of musical terms when talking about food. There is an inexorable trend, born of advertising, to invent catchy new words for familiar concepts. It's called jargon, and there are dictionaries devoted to it which become obsolete as soon as they are published. But it's not surprising that a public which demands endlessly new sensations would want new words to describe them -- or new words for old sensations when inventiveness is exhausted.

Then Pan and Oraklet weighed in:

Music and food are both pleasures of human existence, but they are quite distinct from each other and each must be understood and enjoyed in its own terms.

the theoretical apparatuses of music or the visual arts are, as far as i know, pretty well advanced compared to that of food and wine. so, when trying to describe what's going on in a fine meal, it's tempting to use the vocabulary of music or visual art. it's never the less inadequate, and probably wrong. gastronomy will have to find it's own ways of theorizing - without analogies. it will perhaps be developed, now that accademia seems to have finally discovered it.

And finally Ian offered a perspective from the far reaches of Kansas -- or perhaps it's kansas, another place entirely.

i still have a hard time swallowing the comparison between music and food, which is OK, since i'm from kansas.  the reasons for my hesitation have been vented here before, especially because i think there's a lot to be learned from pretty much all artistic media; nor do i find there to be such a degree of similarity between the two that music should be the most oft-paralleled art form.

Your collective point, as I understand it, is that comparisons across the arts, the use of music as a way of theorising about gastronomy, in Oraklet's words, are inherently suspect.

My question and challenge to you: why? We often use gastronomic metaphors to illuminate other domains of existence: a crisp statement, a sour expression, a bitter utterance. Ian couldn't swallow the comparison offered between food and music. People hunger for love or companionship. I'll switch off the metaphor mixer now.

Obviously all cross-domain comparisons are limited. Music seems somewhat appropriate to food, though, because of the time element involved (a painting can hang on the wall for a long time; a sonata or a bouillabaisse each last a limited time); also because of the element of performance by cooks, waiters, diners.

Yet many commentators in the previous thread found the comparison distasteful (there we go again). Again, I ask why. And, if musical performance is an inappropriate metaphor for cooking and eating, what metaphors should we be using?
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#2 Fat Guy

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 08:55 AM

Perhaps it would make sense to make a brief detour at this time to discuss the meaning and significance of metaphor.

Who has seen the episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation called "Darmok"? Paul Winfield (Captain Dathon) and Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard) play brilliantly against one another as two captains who must learn to communicate or die. The trouble is, the langauge Captain Dathon speaks is 100% metaphorical. Everything is by reference. He keeps saying things like "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra" to Picard, with increasing evident frustration, but Picard has no frame of reference for understanding the metaphor. Of course all goes well in the end, but it underscores a point about metaphor.

A more detailed summary of the episode can be found here:

http://www.ugcs.calt...isodes/202.html

One Trekker has gone so far as to create a glossary of metaphors based on the episode. Here's a selection:

Dathon and his First Officer argue. The following new phrases are introduced:

DATHON:  Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.

The meaning of this phrase is explored fully in the episode, but for those who haven't seen it recently, a summary. The story is set on the planet Chantil III. Darmok of Kaza, a hunter, sails alone to the island continent Tanagra, where he meets Jalad of Ikiteo, of whom we know nothing. The two encounter, and apparently vanquish, a creature known only as "the beast of Tanagra." Having forged a friendship through their struggle, they leave Tanagra together.

The thing to note about this translation is that it's impossible to sum up the meaning of the phrase in a single word; it's a quite complex comment on an entire situation. The other phrases that we can reliably translate can, in fact, be summarized in a word or two--"Shaka, when the walls fell" means "failure." But the example of "Darmok" hints that this simplicity is an illusion, born of our limited knowledge of the language. For a Tamarian, "Shaka" would connote not just "failure," but a specific failure, in specific circumstances which you and I can't know. Consider Counselor Troi's example, "Juliet on her balcony." Dr. Crusher glosses this as an image of romance--true enough; but of course the phrase connotes much more than that. We are aware that the love of Romeo and Juliet is star-crossed; that it will end in tragedy; that it is love at first sight; that it is the love of youth and not of maturity; that the scene alluded to is a clandestine second meeting between the two lovers; that in it, Romeo is looking up at the Juliet's tantalizing backlit silhouette, while she sees him unclearly against the darkness; and so on ad infinitum. Every Tamarian phrase should be presumed to be this rich, though the richness is hidden from us.

http://www.chaparraltree.com/sflang/discurs.shtml

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#3 hollywood

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 09:18 AM

Do they eat any decent food in Star Trek?
I'm hollywood and I approve this message.

#4 Jonathan Day

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 10:56 AM

I am told by reliable sources that they press a button and order whatever food they want; a computer synthesises it out of energy or plasma or something. Hence they never worry about seasonality, poor service, earning VIP status in order to get that extra amuse-guèule, regional foods or any of the other topics that occupy us here on eGullet.

Perhaps it would make sense to make a brief detour at this time to discuss the meaning and significance of metaphor. ... Of course all goes well in the end, but it underscores a point about metaphor.

But to return to Earth and this discussion: FG, what is the point about metaphor that you are using this story to illustrate? Is it that metaphors are inherently unreliable and should be avoided?
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

#5 Fat Guy

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 11:06 AM

Not at all. The point I was trying to make -- and I was, perversely, trying to make the point metaphorically -- was that metaphors don't work unless we're all referring to a common pool of experience and understanding. Otherwise we're speaking different languages.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)


#6 Lord Michael Lewis

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 04:06 PM

When talking about food it's easy to articulate the processes of preparation. But when it comes to saying what something tastes like or why it tastes as it does (good or bad), language lets us down. Life is not experienced on a linguistic level, indeed we don't actually smell or taste or even 'think' in words or sentences. Poets have for millenia sought, often vainly, to linguistically encode experience, and let's not forget that similie (isn't this what is actually under discussion) and metaphor are sometimes the only way to do this.

However, I agree when Fat Guy says; "metaphors don't work unless we're all referring to a common pool of experience and understanding". But at the same time we're often speaking of experiences outside that pool and thus the more workaday similie is not up to the job. This kind of expression involves sticking one's neck out as metaphors/similies/analogies become ever more esoteric. In the long run though it's worth it. When I write, I seek precision from the words I use, this means that I will reject metaphors/similies/analogies that don't express what I wish to say. It's preferable to communicate an idea clearly, albeit to a limited audience, than to say an inaccuracy to allow the listener the semblence of understanding. No doubt this sounds contradictory, probably because it is; often, comparing food to artistic endeavours appears pretentious and ambiguous, but I think it's clear too, when it is well intentioned.

Metaphors/similies/analogies are not an opportunity to pointlessly show off erudition. However, one does owe it to oneself to marshall every scrap of information at one's disposal if one wishes to communicate with any degree of precision.

#7 Pan

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Posted 20 February 2003 - 11:20 PM

Your collective point, as I understand it, is that comparisons across the arts, the use of music as a way of theorising about gastronomy, in Oraklet's words, are inherently suspect.

My question and challenge to you: why? We often use gastronomic metaphors to illuminate other domains of existence: a crisp statement, a sour expression, a bitter utterance. Ian couldn't swallow the comparison offered between food and music. People hunger for love or companionship. I'll switch off the metaphor mixer now.

In my view, it's not that you can't use any musical terms to refer to cooking (I'll leave other arts aside for now), but that "counterpoint" is too specific a term to be useful outside of a musical or rhetorical context (in which "point-counterpoint" has a somewhat different meaning than in music). "Crisp," "sour," and "bitter" are all common adjectives, and "hunger" is a common verb - none are highly specific and narrowly-defined technical terms the way "counterpoint" is. So why don't we look at comparable musical terms that can be usefully used in describing cooking or serving? Consider "rhythm," "duration," and "tempo" as fairly unproblematic to describe service or how long a taste lasts in one's mouth (etc.). We can also speak of "loud" flavors, "fast" food, and "slow" food, but note that there really isn't much similarity between fast music and fast food. And "harmony," when applied to food by most people, would be unlikely to encompass a highly dissonant grouping, as it would in music (I'm guessing that "dissonant harmony" is an oxymoron only to non-musicians plus a small set of extreme anti-Modernist ideologues). Sure, there are exceptions, like "theme and variations," which could work well to describe a meal like the multi-course chicken meal my brother was treated to once in Tokyo, with each dish demonstrating yet another way to prepare chicken.
Nevertheless, do you see how, in general, the more technical the words get, the less likely they are to transfer effectively from one art to another, when the two arts are highly dissimilar to each other?

Conversely, how about considering the use of highly technical cooking terms in describing music? Shall we speak of flambeed music? Can we meaningfully refer to a fried or fileted musical work? How about a broiled sonata, a boiled cantata, a seared Adagio and frozen Allegro? Absurd, right? Indeed, all of those sound like titles of works by Erik Satie. Do you think that his Pair of Pieces in the Form of a Pear actually resemble the fruit in any way? Well, they don't. :biggrin: The point was to write a beautiful piece and give it a deliberately absurd title. Again, there are some exceptions. For example, calling a piece a "stew" could conjure up some more or less vague sound image of a disorderly melange, but that's pretty far from the technical meaning of "stew" in cooking, isn't it?

#8 Jonathan Day

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Posted 21 February 2003 - 07:30 AM

I do think that metaphor, in its broader sense of figurative speech, is the right term here. Sometimes simile is involved ("the consommé was like a song") and more rarely analogy ("Taillevent is expensive, exclusive and the customers wear elegant clothes -- and the food is delicious. Since this restaurant is expensive, exclusive and the customers wear elegant clothes the food will also be delicious.").

Here is an architectural example, drawn from lxt's recent review of Daniel:

Starting with the subject-matter of each course clearly conveying the innermost mind of the chef and his intentions through applying different element combinations, followed by this excellent draftsmanship involving not only dishes’ preparation but a geometrical precision of the architectural composition on each plate to involve all senses including visual perception in the utmost attempt to appeal to the diner’s feelings and emotions.

In this case, the writer is referring to the visual design of a single dish; she later comments that elegant visual form

adds another level of complexity to first engage one’s intellectual perception of the dish where long before the nose gets to sample the unexpected exotic smells and for each spice typical aroma, the eye takes an inventory.

I think this means that you can often see a dish before you can smell or taste it. Hence the language of architecture or art can be appropriate in aiding our understanding of the chef's intent and its realisation on the plate.

Now it seems to me that there are elements of pace and rhythm in dining. Perhaps dance or theatre, rather than music, is a more useful source of language. I agree with Pan that the more technical and specific you get, in either domain, the less easily the terms transfer to another.

When communicating with those less "well dined", we often struggle to speak with precision about food; a diner who has eaten at numerous high end restaurants (or pizzerias, for that matter) has a base of comparisons with which to speak of a new one. A diner whose experience is limited may have to draw on experience from other categories.
Jonathan Day
"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."