“This is not an olive.” In 2011, Ferran Adrià came into fame in both the culinary and non-culinary worlds for his latest dish, Olive-S. Using his knowledge of molecular gastronomy, Adrià debuted his Caviaroli Olive Oil caviar, made by dropping Spanish olive oil into a bath of sodium alginate to create a thin film around the oil. Olive-S was served to look like a regular green olive and surprise guests. What was expected was a firm, salty green olive; however, guests received a pleasant surprise when the taste of pure Spanish olive oil filled their mouths instead. Are Adrià’s liquid olives a fancy culinary trick or works of art? UTM Professor Mohan Matthen tends to agree with the latter, using a philosophical perspective to define “art” and how cooking should be considered an art.
Professor Matthen of UTM’s philosophy department specializes in research on aesthetic pleasure, the philosophy of perspective, and the philosophy of the mind. Having graduated with an Honours Bachelor of Science in physics from the University of Delhi, Professor Matthen decided to shift his focus to philosophy. He earned his M.A. in the subject from the University of Delhi and his Ph.D. from Stanford. In 2007, Professor Matthen released his first book, Seeing, Doing, and Knowing: A Philosophical Theory of Sense Perception, and is currently working on his second, with the tentative title, Sensing Space. He also currently holds a senior Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto.
Hosted monthly by the Mississauga Library, the virtual “Lecture Me” series invites UTM professors to present their research to the community on the Virtual Library Webex platform. Topics have ranged from “Pathologizing Iran and Islam” with Historical Studies’ Professor Tavakoli-Targhi to “Tales of Three Women Authors from Quebec” with Language Studies’ Professor Hong. This month, Professor Mohan Matthen presented “How Cooking is Art,” a philosophical perspective on culinary art that questioned the boundary between identifying as an artist and a cook.
Traditionalists in the culinary and art worlds have struggled to declare intersectionality, with many claiming that art is not something you should taste. But why is that? Can’t the act of cooking be seen through its complexity and aesthetics? Cooking is a primal way of expressing love and creativity. Is the expression of love and creativity not a key characteristic of art? Art may be difficult to define; however, most would describe it as a form of creativity that expresses some kind of cultural or emotional meaning through aesthetics that can be experienced through our senses. More questions arise when involving our senses in the discussion of art. Why is the use of our senses limited when it comes to cooking?
“Flavour is richer than taste,” says Professor Matthen. The term “flavour” holds much more complexity in its definition than you may think. Professor Matthen explains that we should not use the terms “flavour” and “taste” interchangeably, as many do, because they are not the same thing. Taste is merely a sense that enhances a food’s flavour. It is only the sensation we feel on our tongues. Our tongue can only perceive fives tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. But how can we recognize foods if our tongue can only perceive these characteristics?
Professor Matthen proposes the following activity to discover how your other senses influence the way you perceive flavour. With your eyes closed and your nose pinched, reach into a bowl of assorted jellybeans, and chew one. Most likely, you will not be able to decipher the flavour of the jellybean right away and may only perceive its sweetness. Don’t worry, though; this is completely normal! Now, un-pinching your nose while still chewing the jellybean, can you identify the flavour you chose? The rush of flavour you may experience is due to your retronasal olfaction — the perception of smell that emanates from the back of the mouth and up into your nasal cavity when eating.
This suggests that multiple senses, in this case, your sense of taste and smell, work together to develop flavour. However, taste and smell are not the only senses at work when you are eating. You may anticipate the flavour of a particular food by seeing it, and your sense of touch can decipher temperature and texture. Cooking cannot and should not be reduced to such a simple notion of being something to experience through taste. This is insulting to modern culinary chefs, like Ferran Adrià, who dedicate their lives to give others life-changing experiences through food. Rather, cooking should be seen as an art form that is heightened through culminating senses.
Like art, the meaning and aesthetics of cooking will be appreciated differently by individuals. Professor Matthen presents three types of eaters that may help in deciphering those who see cooking as an art and those who just eat to sustain themselves. The first type of eater is the ascetic eater, who eats only to satisfy hunger and ignores any flavourful components of the dish. This is essentially the equivalent of people who will hang up a random painting purely to fill in blank space. Next is the voluptuary eater, who eats to feel the joy that good food brings, and the equivalent to those who have art in their lives to brighten their day. And finally, the foodie, who eats to wholly concentrate on the flavour of food, similar to a critic who visits a new art installation to write a review.
Now, a final question remains. Can your family’s humble yet traditional home-cooked meal be considered a work of art? Absolutely. What makes art beautiful is its complexity and its ability to reference things in the outside world. Your mother’s traditional curry or your father’s pho recipe passed down through generations holds cultural reference and allows for aesthetic appreciation. The complexity of flavour in these traditional meals is an art in itself.
The last scheduled “Lecture Me” event of the academic year will be hosted by recently appointed Vice-Principle, Academic and Dean of the University of Toronto Mississauga, and Professor of New Media & Communications Dr. Rhonda McEwen. She will present her lecture, “Communicating during COVID-19: China and the diaspora,” discussing people’s uses of technologies during a pandemic. The event will be held online on Tuesday, April 6, 2021 at 7 p.m.