AESTHETICS FOR BIRDS

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone


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FOOD OF THE PEOPLE, BY THE PEOPLE, FOR THE PEOPLE: COOKING AS PUBLIC ART

What follows is a guest post by Andrea Baldini, Associate Professor of Aesthetics at Art Theory at Nanjing University, and Andrea Borghini, Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Milan.

In 2016, the American food magazine Bon Appétit named South Philly Barbacoa “One of the Best Restaurants in the Country.” First opened in 2014, this small and unassuming eatery quickly rose to national and international attention not only for the amazing quality of its barbacoa, consomé, marinated lamb tacos, and pancita, among others. For chef Cristina Martinez and her husband Benjamin Miller, who together run South Philly Barbacoa, cooking and dining are not only ways to delight one’s palate; they are also tools for speaking “to the larger immigrant experience whose labor is often exploited and forgotten.” Herself an undocumented immigrant who crossed the border from Mexico into the USA, Martinez turned a personal passion and talent for cooking into a political act. A culinary experience, in other words, becomes the occasion to stage an effective and far-reaching vindication of the pride and value of undocumented workers within the American economy – with particular reference to the food and agriculture business.

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Tacos at South Philly Barbacoa (2019); photo courtesy of Anisha Chirmule

In the era of the of the super-star chefs, cooking and dining have been often turned into spectacles that many wouldn’t find difficult to consider art. Food is by now regularly found in museums or exhibited and showed like artworks. As philosophers such as Dom Lopes and Yuriko Saito have suggested, indeed, it is difficult to see an essential divide between traditional art forms and cooking. Yet, the example of South Philly Barbacoa suggests an artistic dimension of cooking and dining that have been heretofore largely overlooked by aestheticians and philosophers of art. Continue reading


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THE ETHICS OF ARTISANSHIP: OR, NO, YOU MAY NOT PUT MILK IN YOUR COFFEE

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Sometimes I put milk in brewed coffee. I do so when I go to I-HOP for a plate of International Pancakes and a bottomless cup of diner swill. Sometimes I buy coffee at the airport. It’s usually godawful sludge that’s been over-roasted and brewed too strong before stewing in a hot coffee urn for god knows how long. You better believe I add some milk to this stuff; it’s too ghastly to drink black. Milk can make bad coffee less bad. It also of course has its place in a number of venerable espresso drinks.

But what about good brewed coffee? There are some coffees that you just shouldn’t add milk to. The term “Third Wave” refers to the movement that treats brewed coffee as an artisanal product. High quality, well-processed beans are sourced from small farms, roasted to exacting specifications meant to highlight the coffee’s origin character, and brewed precisely one cup at a time. Every step of the process is oriented towards doing justice to a high quality bean. Adding milk to Third Wave coffee is antithetical to this aim. Milk masks the origin character, changes the mouthfeel, drowns out the subtle details.

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A RAWLSIAN THEORY OF FOOD CULTURE

John Rawls said, famously, that the way to judge a society was to look at the condition of its worst-off.⁠1 It doesn’t matter how rich or well-educated the people at the top are. The best society is the one that best treats the people at the bottom.

Let me suggest a corollary: the Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture. The Rawlsian Theory of Food Culture says that, if you want to judge the quality of a food culture, don’t look at its finest restaurants and best food. Look to its low-end. Look to its street carts, its gas-station snacks. Look to what you can get in the airport at 2 AM. Any community can spit up a few nice places to eat, if they throw enough money at it. What shows real love for food, and real caring, is when people make good food when they could get away with making crap.

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This is a Jamaican patty I had for $2 out of hot cabinet in a mini-market in Toronto. It made me cry, it was so good.

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WHAT’S MISSING FROM COOKBOOK REVIEWS

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What follows is Part 1 of 3 in a series on the aesthetics of food.

Read enough cookbook reviews, and you’ll start to notice a curious gap. Cookbook reviews mostly focus on how the recipes turn out — how tasty the dishes are, or how authentic they are. Sometimes they’ll also talk about the quality of writing, or how much you learn about some region’s culinary history  or food science or the author’s childhood or whatever. But usually they leave out what it feels like to actually cook the goddamn things. Continue reading