The Aesthetic Landscape of Culinary Tradition

When deciding what to eat, aesthetics should hold no less important of a place than nutrition, even for the utilitarian. The artistic presentation of food not only provides the connoisseur with an outlet for pleasure, but also provides the dryly practical individual with valuable information. The presentation paints on the outside an aesthetic which reveals to the cultured mind what exists within the internal substance.

A ruthlessly pragmatic man may argue that it doesn’t matter what tableware we use, what room we consume our food in, or how our waitress treats us when she takes our order, as the nutritional value consists in the physical content of the food itself and not in its surroundings. When looking not for entertainment but instead for fuel for one’s daily routines, it might seem reasonable to dismiss the Epicurean mindset. Nutrients are nutrients, no matter what plate you put them on. Food is food, whether or not the restaurant has beautiful paintings on the wall. But this is a misunderstanding. How the food looks when it’s served, along with any other aesthetics involved, are what indirectly tell you exactly what you’re putting into your body. It provides your mind with something symbolic to latch onto when making judgments. The outward presentation is a system of hard-to-fake signals of the food’s nutrient profile.

Developing taste in cuisine is like learning a natural language. You learn what everything means. You learn to connect the symbolic appearance of any given form with the semantic meaning of that form. While the utilitarian puts function over form, I argue that form provides you with your only opportunity to reliably interpret how functional something is for a given purpose. Without the artistic presentation of food, you lose your bearings. You have nothing you can use to orient your action.

A restaurant still brightly lit at midnight suggests something different about its food than a restaurant dimly lit at noon. A restaurant employing staff who speak only in the most formal of terms implies something different about its food than a restaurant where the staff speak casually. Food served beautifully is bound to have a different effect on your body and mind than food served haphazardly, not because of the appearance itself but because of what that says about the people who make it, the people who order it, and the market process that created it. The kid’s menu has a different aesthetic than the rest of the menu, the food on the kid’s menu tends to look childish even at a glance, and you’re unlikely to find an adult that eats that kind of food who isn’t predictably childish.

You are what you eat, not only in terms of physical health but also in terms of mental settings. How you eat contributes to how you behave. If you eat a lot of foods traditionally considered masculine, you’ll actually become more masculine. Red meat has a lot of zinc, and zinc is critical for testosterone production. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to science explaining what was already understood by tradition, namely that the red-blooded man is a man who eats a lot of red meat. On the other hand, if you eat foods served with a feminine aesthetic you’re likely to make yourself more feminine over time. Cute pastries won’t help you keep a steady hand in the face of danger. For that you’d do better taking a few sips of whisky served neat.

Do a Google-Images search for “man eating cake”, and then one for “man drinking whisky”. Whether or not science can tell you the mechanisms involved, you’ll see that culture understands that different foods have different effects. Follow the aesthetics, and you can become who you want to become. Eat and drink like the type of person you’d like to be. Embodied in culture we can find what takes science a century to prove.

While the price system coordinates the allocation of resources in society, the aesthetic landscape of culinary tradition coordinates a different form of action in society. Just as prices in the economy carry information that the individual uses but doesn’t understand, the aesthetics of food also carries information that the individual uses but doesn’t understand.

The aesthetic landscape of culinary tradition runs on the interplay between personal identity and cultural tradition. Each individual develops their taste in food and drink over the course of their life, and each person finds their role in society. These two processes are intimately tied together, in that an individual’s identity indirectly impacts not only their culinary taste but also their comparative advantage in society. A masculine man not only prefers certain foods over others, but does better in certain roles in comparison to others.

While the cuisine of a nation offers a wide palate of options, each person tends to restrict themselves to a specific subset of the possibilities. This is then reflected in their specialization in society, where they become the sort of person who does well in a certain sphere. Growing up is a matter of developing one’s taste in food, drink, and many other things, and finding one’s role in life.

To illustrate my point, consider how a beehive works. Different types of bees have different roles. Once an egg is laid it’s already determined whether the bee will be male or female, but it’s only after a female has hatched that it’s determined whether they become a worker (tasked with collecting food, among other things), or a queen (tasked with laying eggs). Female bees fed a smaller amount of royal jelly over a shorter amount of time become workers, and female bees given a larger amount of royal jelly over a longer amount of time become queens. In the same way, human society has different types of humans who have different roles. And although some differences in function are determined at birth, others are determined by how they’re raised. Just like royal jelly with bees, feeding an individual a certain diet from birth may contribute to making them into a certain type of person.

There are even people who argue that it’s being fed a certain diet from birth that leads an individual to develop autism, and far from being nothing more than a pathological condition it’s the high-functioning autists who often assume certain roles in society, such as that of the engineer, mathematician, or computer programmer. Humans have their own array of royal-jelly-like substances.

While most people aren’t conscious of this process and mostly just allow society to mold them through processes outside their own awareness, it’s possible to become aware of how this process works and then go manual in order to make yourself more into what you personally want to become.

In order to change yourself, you must change your preferences. You must acquire new tastes. When you’re deciding whether to eat something, ask not: “Do I like this sort of thing?” Ask instead: “What will become of me if I consume this on a regular basis, and is that what I want out of life?” Following your current likes and dislikes will simply further entrench you in your current path in life. If you endeavor to become more masculine, for instance, then you must simply fake it till you make it. Develop a masculine identity, consume substances associated with masculine men, and do things associated with masculine men. Eventually you’ll find that you’ve made it. Similarly, if you endeavor to increase or decrease any autistic traits you might have, then it’s time to change your identity and with it your diet and lifestyle.