Wednesday, January 1, 2014

The Pleasure Principle

If you want to understand that most cuisine is not about sustenance but pleasure, you don't have to look further than "spices".

Spices, by their very definition, are basically useless when it comes to sustenance.

However, they have been craved since time immemorial for the singular reason that humans crave novelty. They want things that taste "interesting" and different.

Humans crave novelty.

That should be tattooed onto every single critic's forehead when they discuss painting, music, theater, film or food. Such a monumental failure of imagination in so many different domains that it boggles the mind.

The same-ol', same-ol' didn't work three millennia ago and it won't work now, and given that we have fairly stellar memories connected to our senses, we demand that novelty not only reproduce the best of the past but surpass it.

However not too much novelty.

Take someone who's only eaten American food into a Sichuan restaurant and you are going to have an epic meltdown. The rules are different, the standards of excellence are different, and the entire experience is completely and utterly different. They are simply not relatable in any meaningful way unless a copious amount of explanation is forwarded.

And yet Americans do learn how to love Sichuan food. In fact, many become connoisseurs and go on to being passionate about it even though the foods are not "adjacent".

(This also explains the great difficulty that many people have in understanding the great modernist enterprise in art — literature, music, painting, theater. It's adjacent ironically but not "adjacent enough".)

Cuisines may be far apart and you may have to learn the rules of a new game like an experienced tennis player encountering rugby for the first time but it can be learnt. Different rules, different forms of engagement, and different skills of expertise.

Even the most ardent pork lover (or Ulysses-fan!) is unlikely to fall in love with huǒ bào yāo huā — fire-exploded kidney flowers (火爆腰花) on the first shot but it can be learned which brings us to:

Pleasure is a learned concept.

There is not a child in the world that is born loving red wine, blue cheese or stinky tofu. These are all acquired responses.

A baby will eat exactly one kind of food — anything sweet. Even salty is a bit of a stretch but they will eat it if accompanied by sweet food. These are genetic responses. These were the two safest kinds of food available to humans back when we still foraged for food. Foods with these properties (sweet, salty) are guaranteed to be safe to eat and so we are programmed to like them.

However, we don't stick to that stuff because as pointed out, we crave novelty. In time, we come to appreciate tastes that are astringent, bitter, pungent, metallic, stinky and sour.

The CC has always been wary of people who talk about food like its "just about sustenance". (Hint: Never ever date these people.)

Cuisine is about pleasure and the way to pleasure is through the brain. We learn new things and we experiment based on the solid knowledge of the cooks of millennia past. We are absurdly privileged to live in a world where one can have Turkish for breakfast, French for lunch, and Japanese for dinner.

So step out there whether it's the kitchen or the world and get your own personal slice of the pleasure pie!

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