By Aaron Slater, published on January 1, 2012 - last reviewed on March 13, 2012
A perfectly ripe strawberry, vivid and fragile, its early-summer sweetness tickling the nose before its taste blossoms in the mouth. The luxury of cream lapping the lips as a plump pouch of burrata yields its liquid surprise. One sun-burnished peach drenching the palate in juices.
Such are the pleasures of the tongue. They were limned most comprehensively if not most indelibly nearly 300 years ago by the French lawyer-politician Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin in his classic work, The Physiology of Taste, Or Meditation on Transcendental Gastronomy, which has been in print ever since. "The discovery of a new dish," he declared, "does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star."
Pleasure has that force—transcendence. Elevating. Surpassing its own material qualities. Opening us to pure joy. Stimulating and rewarding in the same mouthful.
Food is one of the few things we partake of routinely that can please all of our senses at once. From the sizzling in the pan to the artful arrangement on the plate to the savory scents that urge themselves on us to the texture on the tongue and the tastes that awaken our palate, food promises a heightened sense of liveness and a bite of euphoria, if we allow ourselves the time and freedom for appreciation.
A predisposition to enjoying food is built into our genes. We are wired to take special pleasure in specific tastes, notably the fatty, the sweet, and the salty—and especially all three combined (hence the eternal appeal of real caramel). Such taste preferences had profound survival value in our past, when getting enough to eat and enough to sustain fertility were never assured. That such preferences are complicated by modern industrial agriculture and refrigerated life, yielding an excess availability of food, in no way diminishes their ability to make us feel good.
Case in point: A recent study in Germany in which normal-weight women were given a chocolate bar to eat in the course of their everyday life. After consuming the chocolate, their mood soared, compared with those who were given an apple or nothing at all. The women reported feeling happy and energized.
The benefits kicked in immediately and persisted for over half an hour—when guilt about eating chocolate began to mount. It was, the researchers report, chocolate's sensory qualities—its taste and the pure experience of eating it, as opposed to any neurochemical changes it might have induced—that created such delight. Moreover, the sensory qualities, all by themselves, reduced further craving for chocolate.
The enjoyment of food qua food, quite apart from the nutritional and utilitarian value of eating, brings with it a host of physical and mental benefits. Researchers find that pleasure stimulates an array of physiological processes directly affecting neuroendocrine, inflammatory, immunological, and cardiovascular systems. It lowers output of the stress hormone cortisol, dampening responses to acute stressors and minimizing anxiety. Pleasure relaxes blood vessels, decreases blood pressure, and reduces load on the heart. In short, neuroscientists report, it is "an important predictor of health and longevity."
Here's the delicious irony: Research shows that enjoyment actually affects the nutritional impact of food. The greater the pleasure, the greater the absorption of key nutrients, such as iron.
It's not just what we eat that makes eating enjoyable, it's how we eat it. As Brillat-Savarin declared, "Pleasure is enjoyed in almost all its extent when the following conditions are united: good cheer, good wine, a pleasant company, and time."
Much as wine may maximize the pleasure of eating, we in the United States use wine almost medicinally, as a private prescription for stress relief so that we can take time to sit down for a meal at all.
Not that wine doesn't have medicinal virtues. The Society of Medical Friends of Wine will be happy to recite them. For over 70 years, the California-based organization has existed to stimulate scientific research on the health benefits of wine—as if appreciation of the taste and the conviviality that generally accompanies its use were not enough for Americans.
Social creatures that we are, conviviality at the table enhances our sense of well-being. With or without wine, the sharing of food—a ritual with extended roots in our hunter-gatherer past—brings deep gratification. It is the way most people in most cultures still welcome friends and strangers; it is a declaration of intent to establish rewarding relationships.
So powerful is the good will established around the sharing of food that it can accomplish for families the most sophisticated goals of child-raising without effort or a stick. As studies by Columbia University's Suniya Luthar have shown, the simple act of eating dinner en famille most evenings predicts both adjustment and school performance among both affluent and poor children. It's the closest thing there is to a guarantee of success.
Sharing food around the family table is how love is communicated, where curiosity and intellect are nurtured, and where the desire to be an effective adult is bred. It lays an unshakeable foundation for a positive parental relationship.
As Miss Manners said, the dinner table is the boot camp of civilization. And shared pleasure is the main course.
Wine is a classic component of the pleasures of the table. Leave it to the Italians, who know a thing or two about eating and drinking (think: Brunello, Pinot Grigio, Chianti, Barolo), to ask its citizens to rate a bunch of adjectives in relation to wine drinking, and to select the emotions associated with it. Of the 16 emotion-related terms the Italian participants said were elicited by wine consumption, most fell into the pleasure category.