Pleasure and Food

views updated


PLEASURE AND FOOD. The pleasure of food is the sensation of well-being that derives from the fulfillment of a natural instinct. Two essential elements are involved in food pleasure, the emotional and psychological tension created by the initial impulse or desire and the subsequent consummation of that inner need. Thus eating pleasure clearly corresponds with the two basic requirements of life, replication and sustenance.

Along the thresholds of pleasure, two distinct worlds intersect, the internal and the external. Pleasure from within is derived from a desire to satisfy the basic necessity of existence, while pleasure from without corresponds with the means of achieving that satisfaction. Both worlds are connected by the senses. Eating pleasure acquires enormous existential importance when confronted by the problem of the sensation or experience of living. This category of pleasure belongs to an area of the senses that is most basic and primal to the concept of happiness. In classical Greco-Roman culture it was consummated in the Greek symposion, where primal pleasure was linked to a Platonic communication of ideasin other words, the intersection of physical pleasure with spiritual pleasure. The biblical Book of Ecclesiastes also arrives at this conclusion, where the pleasure of feasting and the pleasure of friendship are found to be the only human alternatives to the vanity of existence.

The superiority of eating pleasure over all other forms of pleasure is obvious, for it is related to needs that are more long-term and vital, embracing the entire life span, from feeding at the mother's breast to the final moment of existence. In human beings the pleasant necessity of eating is renewed daily, and because it is ineludible, it also transcends any moral code. On the other hand, since the human animal is omnivorous, the sensory stimulation must be infinitely varied to accede to this kind of pleasurable experience. This same rationale collaborates with hedonism so fantasy can develop its maximum potential. From this comes the popular expression of "creating a need from pleasure," which, when reworded in a more precise manner, ought to become "creating pleasure out of necessity." Is this necessity a requirement for pleasure? Pleasure is one of the rewards for eating.

In the initial approach to the pleasure of food, the first signal comes in the impulse or need to eat. Later the bodily senses direct the person to a means for satisfying this impulse. Finally, distension is created in the act of eating itself. Yet culturally this simple phenomenon becomes more complex than that, since the stimulation deriving from food directly intervenes in the need to eat to the point of provoking it. Consequently the pleasure of eating has evolved into an art, the art of food consumption, with the goal to contain, draw out, and direct in a more focused and concentrated manner the primal necessity of nourishment. Unquestionably the need for satiety and for satisfying the senses plays a role in the pleasure of eating. Human and cultural contexts also add to this. Out of these conflicting sensations evolved the perceived ties between the pleasure of eating and the source of the food (such as climate and geography) as well as diverse cultural ideas defining it.

Pleasure and Culture

Contrary to popular belief, the determining factor in the importance of food pleasure is not derived from the taste of foods produced in a given place but from their cultural contexts or definitions. For example, it is not the intense flavor of a homegrown orange that pleases, rather the idea that it is homegrown, which is a cultural value. Taste is chemical and biological; food pleasure is perceptional. Although pleasure derived from the act of eating is beyond question, its importance also competes with other forms of pleasure or other forms of interest current in a given social context. The availability of time, the relationship to other forms of pleasure, its ritualistic value, and its connection to health all help to define the hedonistic role.

Using Western civilization as a point of reference, the excess amount of food available creates a problem in selecting and determining the line of preparation a person should follow with any given choice, which is one reason for the proliferation of cookbooks. All of this may increase the pleasure of creativity in the kitchen but not the actual act of eating. Cultures in which the sources of nutrition are more limited exhibit a realization that consumption must take place as soon as time and circumstance will permit. Indeed in primitive cultures hunting, gathering, and eating all day long was a necessity. Thus in those cultures all the potential for pleasure was concentrated in the act of daily nourishment, even if it was just one meal from a common pot.

In non-Western societies the act of eating is sometimes occasional because of the sporadic nature of food gathering as well as the difficulty of conserving food in areas of high temperature and humidity. When the sources of food become secure and predictable, the food itself propitiates the ritualization of meals at fixed times. Mediterranean culture is paradigmatic in this regard, since daily, family-oriented meals take place at set times. These times are referred to as "sacred" because changing the fixed pattern would cause an imbalance within family relationships and personal well-being. The intimate relationship between pleasure and necessity makes it difficult to know to what extent pleasure affects such eating habits, since it is normal for pleasure to accommodate itself to all nutritional possibilities.

Appreciating the determinate element in pleasure requires an analysis of all gratuitous and extraordinary factors that intervene in the refinement and culinary expression of food. Unusual or complex methods of preparation not justified by any other reason, the inclusion of spices and additives that are purely hedonistic, extraordinary ingredients, and the presence of stimulating beverages, such as wine and liquor, are all elements clearly associated with food pleasure.

Cultural Differences

The islands of Asia, especially Japan, have developed the visual elaboration of food to an art form. In continental cultures the importance of taste acquires greater emphasis. In the cultures of coastal regions with a mild climate, spices and herbs magnify the aroma of food. In the industrialized West closely managed food production and fixed times of consumption have altered pleasure with precooked or packaged meals. While this promotes growth for the food industry on a mass-market level, the elements of pleasure derived from the time devoted to preparation and consumption are diminished. Some examples of these elements are visual, as in Japanese dishes that resemble ikebana; intense flavor, as in the excessive heat in many tropical cookeries; the rich aromas of Mediterranean home cookery; and the infinite varieties of elaborate desserts available in all cultures. Yet food pleasure is mutable, and an inherent contradiction derives from the fact that even microwave popcorn eaten in front of the television is pleasurable.

Each individual has his or her own pleasure values for food and alcohol, which for some is an actual addiction, such as chocolate, and for others a natural dimension of the extended food experience. The latter evolves into such things as wine as an aperitif before the meal, wine to embellish consommés, fish and meats, sparkling wines for celebrations, and sweet wines for dessert. Arguably wine is not necessary for food pleasure, for this is easily demonstrated in cultures that prohibit alcohol. The point, however, is that its pleasures are cultural, and where alcohol is perceived as part of the eating pleasure, it is employed to enhance it.

The evening meal has become by definition the most hedonistic, although the motives that give rise to this type of food pleasure may be quite diverse, such as business gatherings, a sentimental or romantic rendezvous, or celebrations and anniversaries. The classical symposium of the ancient Greeks has been preempted by restaurants and hotels, especially those meals of a ritualistic nature. An example is wedding banquets, which are common and are becoming more and more similar the world over. To this can be added specific religious life-cycle observances, such as baptisms, communions, circumcisions, funerals, and the like. In the more industrialized countries the pleasures of food and eating have been banished to the position of last, behind such factors as dieting for better health or weight loss, fear of contaminants, and minimal time in preparation and consumption. Much of this has been defined by the various artificial "styles" of consumption created by the food-packaging industry in such labels as "home style" and "Oriental style."

The Ritualized Pleasures of Food

Ritualized pleasure may be defined as the pleasure derived from the time designated for eating over the course of the day, and it varies greatly from one culture to the next. In Europe it is defined by breakfast, dinner, and supper, to which some cultures also add optional meals in between. Two of these would be the light aperitif and the late afternoon break or snack. Both follow purely hedonistic impulses, both are defined by economic status, and both are limited by such considerations as care of children, the sick, the elderly, or workers who may require more nourishment due to hard labor. The aperitif has a more social and hedonistic quality since alcoholic beverages play an important role.

The Pleasure of Beverages as Food

The problems alcoholic beverages pose derive from their double roles as mood-altering drugs and as hedonistic elements of food consumption. To begin with, the higher the alcoholic content, the more likely the beverage will be employed as a pleasurable drug rather than as an adjunct to food. Wine, with its infinite variations of aromas, tones, textures, and alcoholic content, is the beverage most used for pleasure at the table. Without a doubt it is also the beverage endowed with the most hedonistic associations, not to mention its intimate relationship with Judeo-Christian culture and Greco-Roman culture.

Liquors have a double origin in that they are often derivatives of other beverages of lesser alcoholic content, such as beer and wine. One of the major contributions of human ingenuity to the search for pleasure was the discovery that alcohol could be extracted from seemingly unlikely substances. Such is the case with liquors from cacti, milk, honey, seeds, or indeed any nutrient containing carbohydrates susceptible to alcoholic fermentation. These types of beverages with higher alcoholic content are the most distant from pleasures of the table because they are most like drugs, and many were in fact first employed as medicines. Wine alone is intimately associated with gastronomic culture.

Pleasure for Pleasure's Sake

It has been said that the human being is the only animal capable of detaching itself from the pleasures of the natural instincts that sustain life. In the case of food, since it is connected to a vital necessity, expectation induces excitement. Pleasure, separated from necessity, is aimed more at taste than smell, more to the scarcity and cost of the food item, and more to the capacity for satiety, including the dimension of danger.

The history of elegant and refined food is written with rare and costly materials, which become the criteria for cultural values. The Romans prepared dishes appreciated because of their rarity, such as peacock eyes, which later seemed absurd and repugnant. Some foods that were once scarce and thus greatly valued subsequently were later viewed as vulgar because they were everywhere accessible. This commonness lessened the pleasure of their consumption due to the loss of their exotic and sumptuous qualities.

Finally, the ultimate forms of food pleasure come to the element of extreme danger. Mushrooms have always posed a great risk due to the possibility of poisoning, especially in earlier periods. This fear has not detracted from their gastronomic interest, rather, the risk has made them all the more attractive. Risk has achieved an even higher level of refinement in the consumption of fugu, a Japanese fish that poses sudden death due to the presence of dangerous toxins its the entrails. A dish composed of this particular species of fish and prepared by a specially certified chef is a luxurious delicacy in Japan, a pleasurable mockery of fear that can be experienced in the intense tingling the fish causes to the lips and mouth. Here the delicate meal passes beyond the boundaries of mere satisfaction. It is no longer food; it is a victory over death.

See also Acceptance and Rejection ; Appetite ; Eating: Anatomy and Physiology of Eating ; Luxury ; Sensation and the Senses ; Sex and Food .


Bernhard, Thomas. The Cheap-Eaters. London: Quartet Books, 1990.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. The Physiology of Taste, translated by M. F. K. Fisher. New York: Harcourt Brace, 1949.

Derenne, Jean-Philippe. L'amateur de cuisine [The lover of food]. Paris: Harcourt Brace, 1949, 1996.

Logue, A. W. The Psychology of Eating and Drinking. New York: Freeman, 1986.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. Tastes of Paradise. New York: Pantheon, 1992.

Schwabe, Calvin W. Unmentionable Cuisine. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1985.

Tiger, Lionel. The Pursuit of Pleasure. Boston: Little, Brown, 1992.

Weinstein, Jeff. Learning to Eat. Los Angeles: Sun and Moon Press, 1988.

Alicia Ríos

Translated from the Spanish by Enrique Balladares-Castellón