Learning to experience: My Nephew’s Adventures in Coffeeland

My 2-year-old God-son loves coffee – He loves playing with it, smelling it, moving it in “huuuuuge scoops,” and most of all, he loves to “make” it for all family members. His barista skills include filling up filter cup, tampering coffee, pressing the espresso machine button, and “cleaning up the mess” he leaves behind. When the coffee’s done, he demands to drink it even though he knows he isn’t old enough. Sometimes, he’s allowed to lick a spoon that’s been dipped in coffee. He claims it’s very good and even makes the “hmmmm” sound to express his connoisseurship.


Trying to tackle the question of how to think of taste and the experience of taste, I couldn’t have a better case study. Coffee becomes an experience before it becomes a result of a contact of the liquid with taste buds. My nephew never extends his neck to reach for food as much as when he’s trying to lick a coffee spoon. Before he can taste coffee or understand the rituals around it, he has experiences that create and shape his desire.

“Becoming a marihuana user”

Howard Becker described the role that learning plays in the creation of experience. In “Becoming a marihuana user” (1953), he argues that learning to get high requires learning proper techniques by imitating others, learning to recognize the symptoms of marijuana, and learning to enjoy them. Becker points out that the experience of being high requires user’s active effort to recognize the symptoms caused by marijuana and to consciously connect them to the drug and to his or her previous experience. Becker says:

… being high consists of two elements: the presence of symptoms caused by marihuana use and the recognition of these symptoms and their connection by the user with this use of the drug. It is not enough, that is, that the effects be present; they alone do not automatically provide the experience of being high. The user must be able to point them out to himself and consciously connect them with his having smoked marihuana before he can have this experience. Otherwise, regardless of be actual effects produced, he considers that the drug has had no effect on him; “I figured it either had no effect on me or other people were exaggerating its effect on them, you know. I thought it was probably psychological, see.” Such persons believe that the whole thing is an illusion and that the wish to be high leads the user to deceive himself into believing that something is happening when in fact, nothing is. They do not continue marihuana use, feeling that “it does nothing” for them.

Bruno Latour, who is equally fascinating as he is challenging to social scientists, proposes that we see the body not as a substance, but an articulation of differences and a potentiality for learning to be affected. In his essay on “How to talk about the body” (2004) , Latour suggests that we think of the body as an

interface that becomes more and more describable as it learns to be more and more affected by more and more elements. The body is thus not a provisional residence of something superior – an immortal soul, the universal or thought – but what leaves a dynamic trajectory by which we learn to register and become sensitive to what the world is made of.

This is in opposition to a more traditional way of thinking about the body as a physical space where the immaterial mind is located. This division comes from René Descartes who divided the human into res extensa and res cogitans – the extended thing and the thinking thing, the corporeal substance and the mental substance. From this separation follows the type of thinking that sees the body as governed by the mind, or sees a conflict between the desires of the body and of the mind.

Cartesian Subject

Cartesian Subject

Latour does not separate between the two. The body is an interface with a trajectory. Learning and experience can only happen through the body when the subject is “put into motion.” Only when it stops being indifferent can the subject be affected by differences and be “articulate.” My nephew’s curiosity has already made him articulate about the smell and feeling of coffee as well as to the ritual around it.

Curiouser and curiouser

In her book Service Included, Phoebe Damrosch describes the philosophy of Chef Keller, the chef in the famous New York restaurant The French Laundry, and his “law of diminishing returns,” and “abundant extravagance,”

in which he reduces the size of his many courses to make room for a variety of flavors and textures. At the French Laundry, he constructs his menu in order to give only enough to “satisfy your appetite and pique your curiosity,” enough to have you beg for “just one more bite.” The other side of this law is the abundance of extravagance. “I want people to know what foie gras is all about,” he writes. “I go overboard with truffles and caviar too, so that people who have perhaps only eaten truffles in stingy quantities can taste them and say ‘Oh, now I understand.’”

The law of diminishing returns that Chef Thomas Keller follows is based on the realization that an excess of stimuli may lead to habitualization when the subject can no longer perceive and be affected by differences. Therefore, there needs to be space for curiosity. On the other hand, “abundant extravagance” gives the subject enough stimuli to learn to recognize their specific effects. There’s exclusivity as well as generosity – a well-proven formula.

A Mad Tea-Party in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

A Mad Tea-Party in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Who knows what goes on in the head and the body of a two-year-old when he’s playing with coffee. My guess is, both the law of diminishing returns and abundant extravagance are at work. He gets to participate in the full extravagance of the ritual and through his enjoyment of it, he expresses that he understands. But he, for sure, is growing “curiouser and curiouser.”

Related reading:

The Coursera course on The New Nordic Diet offers a lot of information on how taste is acquired, on taste learning curves and how they can be improved. They also mention various fascinating research projects on taste, diet and health. More information on that here: http://newnordicfood.org/projects/food-children/.

Posted in Food Scholar's Digest