The Interpersonal Variability of Gustatory Sensation and the Prospects for an Alimentary Aesthetics

Vaughn Bryan Baltzly
Texas State University

We all have different “tastes” for different tastes: some of us have a sweet tooth, while others prefer more subtle flavors; some crave spicy foods, while others cannot stand them. As Bourdieu and others have pointed out, these varying judgments seem to be more than mere preferences; often they reflect (and partially constitute) differences of class and culture. But I want to suggest that we’ve possibly overlooked another important source of these divergent gastronomic evaluations, other than hierarchy and caste: mere interpersonal variability with respect to brute gustatory sensations. After all, we all know about “supertasters and cilantro-haters”; how likely is it, though, that the interpersonal heterogeneity of gustatory sensation is limited to this one dimension? In this paper, I make the case that we should take this possibility more seriously, and offer some thoughts on how we might start getting a better handle on the nature and scope of interpersonal gustatory variability—including by suggesting some diagnostics that can help us get at (what I call) some of the “non-flavor dimensions” of our gustatory experience. I conclude by developing some implications for the prospects of an “alimentary aesthetics”: namely, that—should our gustatory experiences turn out to be quite heterogeneous—then they do not seem well-suited to serve as the basic ingredients of bona fide aesthetic judgment about food and drink.

KEYWORDS: Gustatory sensation, Aesthetics of food and drink, Inverted spectrum arguments, Gastronomy

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