Eating and the Tasteful Subject

One of the more fascinating books I’ve read recently is Lauren F. Klein’s An Archive of Taste: Race and Eating in the Early United States. Klein writes that “in the late colonial era and into the early republic, America’s cultural and political leaders identified a causal relation between the cultivation of the American palate and the cultivation of a republican citizenry.” (23) The founders were encouraged about the future of the nation because they believed people’s taste can be refined, and, by extension, their virtue and morality. But they held onto pernicious beliefs about who could be a tasteful subject and exercise good taste.

This book should appeal to those interested in aesthetic taste and especially gustatory taste, as she explains how taste was woven into the mindset and practices of leading figures in the early United States. Here, I present comments focused only on the second chapter, “Appetite: Eating, Embodiment, and the Tasteful Subject.” Klein uses this chapter to help illustrate that eating has been a historically overlooked entryway into theories of taste, but it is important because eating, which is a universal activity and necessity, illustrates an instinctual and accessible aspect of the human experience. However, while eating plays a role, the key ideas of this chapter revolve around how (and which) people could become tasteful subjects. 

By tasteful subject, Klein refers to people who have a developed taste, and she frames the narrative of this chapter around three of those people and their different perspectives: Benjamin Franklin, Alexandre Balthazar Grimod de la Reynière (known as Grimod), and Phillis Wheatley. Franklin, who once dined with David Hume, asserted the importance of controlling one’s appetite with reason. As a key contrast, he recounts a time when he planned to meet Samuel Keimer for dinner one evening. Franklin was experimenting with being vegetarian, and Keimer agreed to also be vegetarian. However, on this night, Keimer arrived early, ordered a roast pig, and then consumed all of it. According to Franklin, Keimer was controlled by his appetites, acting more like an animal than a person. Looking to animals as examples, Franklin changed his mind about being vegetarian; specifically, he was influenced by noticing that fish eat each other. But we should not follow every aspect of their examples. Our taste must be restrained by reason, in order to develop civility and virtue, but it is not possible for animals to control themselves. 

Like Franklin, Grimod had privilege as a white man, but he was also born with a condition, known today as Cenani-Lenz Syndrome, which causes the fingers to be fused together. In an effort to explain his condition as an accident, rather than a biological weakness, Grimod’s parents concocted a story that he was dropped into a pen as an infant and hungry hogs chewed on his fingers. This story would influence his future actions, such as his so-called “funeral dinner.” On this night, guests arrived for the feast and performance. They moved through dark corridors, and eventually ended up in a dining hall with incense burning, choir boys singing, and a coffin as the table’s centerpiece. One participant recounts a pig at the head of the table dressed in clothing as Grimod’s father. Grimod used this dinner and his writings to pronounce that the body and its pleasures are an essential aspect of the sense of taste. Contrary to Franklin, Grimod thought that reason should not (and cannot) control one’s appetite.

Phillis Wheatley was enslaved most of her life, which precluded her from entering the full discourse on taste and from directly criticizing her would-be interlocutors. She used the medium of poetry—rather than engaging directly with gustatory taste—to illustrate that Black people were capable of developing good taste, and being tasteful subjects. While Wheatley had to veil criticisms in poetic language, her life itself was the most profound critique “as she models her ability to adhere to the highest standards of taste—and to participate in lofty philosophical conversations about same—with the subtext of her race, her gender, and her enslaved status deliberately, even tastefully, unnamed.” (72) She demonstrated the refined taste that white people didn’t think she was capable of attaining.

The founders subscribed to the belief that “expressions of gustatory taste—by which I mean acts of eating that indicated an ability to subjugate appetite to reason, and consequently to elevate the cause of the public good over personal interest—were understood as expressions of civic virtue.” (24) However, this belief was brought in direct tension with those enslaved people, like James Hemings (Thomas Jefferson’s chef), who played large roles in shaping the cultivated tastes of their white owners. In this chapter, Klein presented three people who could count as tasteful subjects, those who have a refined taste. Through their respective writings we know that Franklin claimed to develop his taste through reason, and Grimod through appetite. Wheatley demonstrated her refined taste through her poetry. While the emphasis was mostly on gustatory taste, the inference to draw was that this literal taste influenced the metaphorical taste of individuals and their participation in civil society, even as they rejected some people, like Wheatley, who clearly demonstrated such refined taste.

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