Kant’s Hosting Advice

Akos Moravanszky, begins the essay, The Reproducibility of Taste by quoting a passage from Kant’s Anthology from a Pragmatic Point of View:

There is no situation where sensuality and reason, enjoyed conjointly, can be so long continued and so often repeated with satisfaction — like a good meal in good company. (…) The aesthetic taste of the host is manifest here in the skill of making universally valid choices; but he cannot effect this through his own senses.”  Since different dishes pleases different palates, the host must invest in variety, so that “there is something for everyone according to his taste; which results in comparative general validity.”

Comparative general validity is nowhere more difficult than the family dinner. Thankfully, Kant is talking about hosting guests. I suppose, as the cook, I theoretically can impose my own subjective taste as generally valid for my family. However, as hostess, I must choose carefully. My choice would have to involve reason. Just because I enjoy broccoli, I cannot rationally assume that all my guests will enjoy broccoli. This works if me and my guest have a general cultural consensus about what is delicious. Does the principle of comparative general validity hold if the group’s taste too diverse for general consensus? For example, I’m a Bengali throwing a dinner party for a group of non-Bengali’s in Indiana. My choice of menu items based on general consensus would have to exclude my culturally derived palate. I cannot begin the meal with bitter melon. I might however choose a dish, like shrimp in coconut milk, that has vaguely familiar tastes for a Western palate. Do I offer two different menus? One with familiar items of steak, pasta or pizza and another with rice, lentils and spiced meats. Or do I construct hybrid dishes? In the past, hosting a group of ethnically diverse graduate students, I have served chicken in two different sauces, a spicy Asian sauce and a barbeque sauce. That worked well except I had only made rolls and the Asian chicken would have been so much better with rice. My point is, achieving “comparative general validity” is difficult and depends on a solid understanding of what might be generally valid without limiting the possibility of experimentation. The “basic know your audience” adage might work. Some of my guests are more adventurous than others. In such cases, a pot-luck allows for both personal reassurance (at least I can eat whatever I make) and experimentation.  Sometimes deconstructed meals work, similar to a Bibimbap, fajita bar, burger bar or pasta bar. Consensus and choice.  These are all practical strategies of negotiating unity and difference in our daily lives.  There are still subjective limits that include allergies, dietary and religious restrictions and strong preferences to consider. In the end, its the thoughtful effort that counts, right?

In the essay, the author offers the bento box as an example of diverse tastes taking up space together. Thinking of food beyond ethnic derivations but rather embodied derivations of taste sensations may be one way to approach cultural diversity and aesthetic consensus. That might be a dinner philosophy project worth experimenting. What has been your experience with “other” foods at dinner parties?

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