On Saturday, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) hosted “The Place of Taste: A Symposium on Food, Culture, and Community,” co-sponsored by Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture to mark the publication’s 10th anniversary. Held at the ’62 Center, events of the day included lectures and various artistic exhibitions.
Speakers ranged from artists and faculty to chefs and writers, each discussing a different aspect of the world of good eating. WCMA Director Lisa Corrin and Darra Goldstein, editor-in-chief of Gastronomica and professor of Russian, kicked off the day of discussions.
After three dialogues, participants were treated to a delectable architectural dessert – which employed four types of chocolate to reflect the landscape of the Berkshires – by Joshua Needleman of Chocolate Springs, Lenox, Mass. Two discussions followed; then came an interlude by the Williams Chamber Choir before the final speaker. The program finished with “A Taste of Place,” an outdoor farmers’ market of gourmet cuisine with local origins, including the College’s own garden. “The Place of Taste” concluded with a limited-seating benefit dinner at Mezzé.
In the openings remarks, Corrin and Goldstein shared stories of food memories: Corrin’s of her mother rhyming to spoon-feed her as a baby and Goldstein’s of veal disguised as “city chicken.” As Corrin stated, “food elicits stories”: Goldstein set out with Gastronomica precisely to share the joys of exchanging personal and critical experiences of food; it was conceived to unite academic inquiry with popular writing.
Goldstein mentioned the multidisciplinary facets of food by highlighting two different interpretations of “taste”. One interpretation is through complex concepts of terroir and goût de terroir, or “the taste of the land.” This French gastronomic term denotes the relationship of food to its regional origins. The second interpretation is the idea of taste itself as sensory and aesthetic and as a base for memory and connoisseurship.
Goldstein cited the word “tasteless” as a descriptor for gastronomic and aesthetic experiences and the different uses in between. She then compared the food philosophies of Foucault’s “truth of taste” with Kant’s “sense versus reflection” to access a common ground between the two.
Monel Chang, contributing writer
“On Taste and Desire”
White House Executive Pastry Chef since 2007, Bill Yosses did not find love in food until after matriculating. Yosses fell in love with pastries and desserts in Paris. Yosses supported his discussion of taste and desire through scientific findings, such as a 1995 report stating that olfactory senses made up 3 percent of the entire genome of certain species. Olfaction, Yosses stated, is such an important part of taste that through absorbing the smells through skin, some species can taste their food before eating it. “Scent molecules are heavier and drop to the ground,” Yosses said. “That’s why … we, as becoming upright homo sapiens, may have lost much of our olfactory senses.”
Smell might not even matter in our day and age with the “nightmare of fast food” preventing us from experiencing the “value of true taste.” Yosses went on to discuss the “botany of desire,” including complications for what is generally believed to be the all-American apple. The original “pippin apple,” says Yosses, came from Kazakhstan and was later hybridized to produce the apples of today. And even though Johnny “Appleseed” Chapman may have grown apples to feed his alcohol addiction to apple cider, Yosses says that his example is a “prototype of desire … of food as the soul-satisfying ideal as rapturous experience.”
Monel Chang, contributing writer
“On the Dimensions of Taste”
Have you ever wondered if you could ever taste your favorite meal again? What constitutes that experience? Carolyn Korsmeyer, professor of philosophy at the University at Buffalo, questioned whether there was “such a thing as an authentic taste,” reminiscing about her grandmother’s cooking and pondering if trying to recreate that would be deceptive.
John Finn, professor of government at Wesleyan, countered that it matters how you go about making the meal. If the meal is made in the context of a deep personal relationship to the process, the meal and taste will end up having an authenticity.
Finn claimed that recent attempts to make food into a ‘fine art’ have merely subjected it more to social statuses. He even went so far as to describe the French Laundry, a three-Michelin star restaurant in California, as “fascist” and to say it merely excluded certain social classes from entering discussions of food.
The moderator, Mitchell Davis, concluded with a story about how cultural differences and expectations play pivotal roles in taste. Davis, the vice-president of the James Beard Foundation, bluntly described the Japanese delicacy ryokan, which requires a fine green tea and delicate taste palette to fully appreciate, as a “jelly brick with no flavor and [an] … interesting texture.” His Japanese host, meanwhile, had eaten it slowly “as if it was the most wonderful thing in the world.”
Davis wondered if an outsider would ever be able to appreciate the food of another country as much as an insider.
Kaison Tanabe, contributing writer
“On Taste and Sustainability”
The final talk by Dan Barber, executive chef of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns, was meant in part to “bridge between the symposium on ‘taste of place’ to the ‘place of taste.’” Barber is a Berkshire-reared chef but also a writer and researcher on sustainable agriculture. He shared a question often to put to him: What is your favorite food or favorite? Since some meals cannot be compared to others, as “it is impossible to separate food from feeling,” said Barber. He cited differences between homemade scrambled eggs to a first-class dinner from a French restaurant, but eventually, Barber answered. His favorite food of the moment is a fillet of white sea bass from a fish farm known as Veta la Palma.
Barber summarized his recent experiences with Veta la Palma and its head biologist, Miguel, in the course of his research into the best and most sustainable food sources. Found at the southern tip of the Guadalquivir River, Veta la Palma is a fish farm that does not supplement the diet of its fish.
This sanctuary annually sacrifices 20 percent of its profit to the naturally occurring bird population and does not pollute.
Barber offered up Veta la Palma’s focus on encouraging a thriving, healthy ecosystem as a model of “technology in the service of sustainability.” Barber made the point of that “more of the same” technology that works towards producing cheap, plentiful food will hurt in the long run because “it leaves out nature.”
In the Q&A session, Barber offered advice for those looking to make basic positive changes. Start at the dinner table, and look to local community growers while encouraging producers who are using truly eco-friendly methods of production.