History of taste. A table with the philosophers (2018) by Felice Bonalumi – Review

History of taste. A table with the philosophers (2018) by Felice Bonalumi – Review

Bonalumi’s agile and didactic recognition in his book Storia del gusto. At the table with the philosophers, he confirms that philosophy certainly did not love the sense of taste or the alimentary function, but as already observed by Brillat-Savarin (1825), food is a social pleasure par excellence.


There is not much difference between the iconography of Isis and those of Mary. For example, the Isis Lactans of the Pio Clementino Museum (Fig. 1) has extraordinary similarities with countless Madonnas of Latte of our Middle Ages and Renaissance. These last images, however, always contain an element of drama, some subtle symbolic allusion to the passion and death of Christ, precisely in the moment of breastfeeding, precisely in the condition of full bliss.

Moreover, in the Kleinian model sucking is the paradigm of all object relations – libidinal but also persecutory – of the child and the adult. The mother, who generously makes the white nectar available, is in this perspective the object of unsurpassable desires and enjoyments, with respect to which genital gratifications will only be a pale image.

The long wave of ’68 and a pervasive and systematic sexual liberation gave a tasteless taste to the libidinal itches that tormented our grandparents, with all due respect to the psychoanalysts still anchored to a rigid Freudian model. If genitality is a source of enjoyment that is increasingly tired and taken for granted in contemporary society, the interest in food is growing unstoppably. Diets are proliferating, based on the most disparate and bizarre principles, which guarantee beauty, health and youth. But above all, an almost compulsive interest in the drive component of nutrition, in flavors, has become socially established.

Fig. 1: Isis Lactans, Pio Clementino Museum, Rome

 Fig. 2: Borgognone, Madonna del Latte, Carrara Academy, Bergamo

Cooking broadcasts and editions of culinary repertoires multiply. Roman, medieval and Renaissance recipes are rediscovered and re-proposed. The hottest cooks are lining up now for novelle cuisine, now for molecular cuisine, now for pop cuisine. Everywhere there are ethnic restaurants where the patrons pursue the myth of traditional or even primordial flavors. In full coronavirus emergency, the government could not exempt itself from a progressive reopening of restaurants, places completely incompatible with the use of ritual protective masks but now essential to social well-being.

There is no doubt: the sense of taste plays a central role in our society. With his History of Taste: At the table with the philosophers, Felice Bonalumi tackled this special sense from a strictly philosophical point of view. In this specific context, taste has always been the subject of a decisive devaluation. A sense too tied to viscerality, to corporeality, taste has embarrassed the lovers of a philosophy that in the West manifests a precise preferential option for intellectual and abstract processes. The numerous chapters that Bonalumi dedicates to ancient philosophy are but perhaps somewhat sterile lists of philosophical classifications and perspectives that have judged taste to be an insignificant or even dangerous sense for philosophical reflection.

For example, in Roman philosophy, taste risks compromising the ideal, both ethical and aesthetic, of moderation. For Cicero, Bonalumi observes, ‘food is only something necessary for the body and for life and, referring back to the ancient virtues, the watchword is moderation. The phrase ,food condimentum esse famem / the condiment of food is hunger, has become famous in the controversy against the Epicureans’ (Bonalumi, p. 15). Indeed, for Seneca greed compressed the austere ethics of primitive Roman times to the point of affecting the health of the body: “The diseases were simple and originated from simple causes: the multiplicity of courses caused the multiplicity of diseases. […] Therefore our diseases are new, as new is our way of life. ” (ibidem, p. 17)

In late ancient and medieval Christianity, the conflict between fasting and binge eating, between thin and fat, between carnival and Lent is a fundamental axis, around which the whole cycle of the year and seasons is organized. In De Fasting Augustine notes: ‘This is an observance, a virtue of the soul, an advantage of the spirit at the expense of the flesh, and cannot be the object of an offering to God by the angels’. There can be no true holiday without preparation of the soul and body. And fasting is an indispensable component of it.

Kant was convinced that human nature could count on intrinsic qualities that made possible a cognitive and ethical path inaccessible to the lower animals. This specific potential of the human could redeem even the most visceral of functions for him. From his point of view – observes Bonalumi – ‘voracity distinguishes the man who’ is not a slave to that ‘from the beast that’ throws himself on the prey ‘and establishes’ a moral and rational relationship of man with his stomach’ so much so that ‘leave a man his brain, but give him the stomach of a lion or a horse: and he will certainly cease to be a man.’ (Bonalumi, p. 48).

On the other hand, the position of nineteenth-century materialism is more ambiguous. Feuerbach made himself famous by declaring that ‘Man is what he eats’ but it is not clear whether he intended to grasp the value of food in human education and moral development, or simply deny any meaning to emotional and social experiences.

In short, Bonalumi’s agile and didactic recognition confirms that philosophy certainly did not love the sense of taste or the food function. But beware, it can be easy to devalue this special sense and identify the complex system of libidinal fantasies and motivational forces associated with the pleasures of taste with a concrete and autistic level of psychic functioning: a force oriented towards the dissolution of the social bond.

This is not the case: the images with which we opened our short talk already suggest a different perspective. Furthermore, as Brillat-Savarin (1825), the first philosopher of the Gourmandise, already observed, food is a social pleasure par excellence. With the partial exception of contemporary North American culture, the meal is always a place and moment of encounter. From the Greek symposium to the Spartan sissices, from medieval banquets to elegant bourgeois dinners, sharing food is the specific foundation of sociality.

In the private and family dimension, then, the common meal is the moment of sharing and communication. After all, laid tables still gather entire extended families for festive rituals from Christmas and Easter or on the occasion of the celebration of weddings.

The Isidic and Marian iconographies that we recalled at the beginning of this review call our attention to the extraordinary emotional value of the ritual meal. The meal, each meal refers to this primary situation, to the symbolic encounter with the mother.

Moreover, in ancient cultures there was no meal, vegetable or meat that was not preceded by a sacrifice to the divinities. Only consecrated food was consumable. By offering himself on the Cross, Christ definitively renews the sacrifice, but even in this new, more abstract form there is no sacrifice without a nutritional process, at least symbolic.

Materialism deceives us. Dissatisfied with the daily soup, we crowd exotic or gourmet, neglecting that every food refers to the bliss of breastfeeding, and is nostalgia for an increasingly evanescent function in contemporary society.
While power and control grow in culture as well as in politics, in hygiene as in the economy, in families the ability to nourish, to generate and to feed appear more and more the legacy of a past that is now unattainable: the unstoppable demographic decline that afflicts the West does not reflect only social problems or ideological and cultural pressures.

In the 17th century the great powers faced each other in the oceans for the control of spices, a source of inestimable wealth and power. Today, we’re chasing cheaper culinary myths. But we will never be able to regain possession of what time has taken away from us forever. We will no longer enjoy breast milk.