In a thoughtful essay about taste, one that takes in morality and psychology along with aesthetics, Julian Baggini says that many top-quality restaurants now serve coffee made with the Nespresso machine — and that many diners prefer its consistent quality. This is not surprising, he says, given that coffee-making is one of those activities that really can be standardized and mechanized to a high degree of quality. If the experience of coffee-drinking is only about the taste of the drink, then there’s no problem with this. Baggini asks us to think more deeply about the matter, though:
One day it might be possible to produce mechanically the coffee that is just right for you, even perhaps for you just now rather than yesterday.
The only way truly to defend the artisans against all that technology might put up against them is to give up the entire premise of my blind tasting, that is, the idea that it does not matter how the coffee came to be, all that counts is its final taste.
Surely we appreciate the handmade in part because it is handmade. An object or a meal has different meaning and significance if we know it to be the product of a human being working skilfully with tools rather than a machine stamping out another clone. Even if in some ways a mass-produced object is superior in its physical properties, we have good reasons for preferring a less perfect, handcrafted one.
Corporations know this, which is why they will often use bogus personalisation to make their products seem more appealing, like putting a picture of a farmer on the label, or giving the product the name of a person or place. But do we have good reasons for this preference, or is it just romantic nonsense? I think we do. We live in a world of humans, other animals and things, and the quality of life depends on the qualities of the relationships between them. Mass production, like factory farming, weakens, if not destroys, these relationships. This creates a kind of alienation, where we feel no genuine, human contact with those who supply us with what we need.
We are not simply hedonic machines who thrive if supplied with things that tick certain boxes for sensory pleasure, aesthetic merit, and so on. We are knowing as well as sensing creatures, and knowing where things come from, and how their makers are treated, does and should affect how we feel about them. Chocolate made from cocoa beans grown by people in near slave conditions should taste more bitter than a fairly traded bar, even if it does not in a blind tasting. Blindness, far from making tests fair, actually robs us of knowledge of what is most important, while perpetuating the illusion that all that really matters is how it feels or seems at the moment of consumption.
Baggini says that we must judge not only by the results, but how those results were achieved. His point reminds me of a thought I had the other day at a social event. I saw an attractive wooden salad bowl on a table. It reminded me of the wooden salad bowl I gave to Julie for Christmas. It didn’t really look like it, but the bowl was beautiful, and admiring it made me reflect on how gratified I was by the bowl I had bought my wife. That bowl, as you may recall, was made by Lambert Louviere, a local artisan, out of wood from West Feliciana Parish, in his own garage. If I wanted a beautiful wooden bowl in which to hold salad, I could have bought one like the mass-produced bowl I admired at the social event. For me, though, a big part of the joy of owning that Lambert Louviere bowl is knowing that it was made by a man who is my neighbor, from a tree in our backyard (so to speak). I’ve been in Lambert’s garage workshop (okay, nobody calls him Lambert; everybody calls him Chinky), and seen bowls at the earliest stage of turning, so I have an idea of how much hard work and skill go into producing the beautiful bowl that now sits in our kitchen. It gives me such pleasure to look upon it. It’s a beautiful object on its own, but knowing the story behind it makes me appreciate it on a deeper level.
Does having all this “narrative” attached to Chinky’s bowl increase its utility at a salad bowl? Of course not. But knowing that this bowl is the result of one man’s mastery of his craft, a man who is my neighbor, versus a stranger’s knowing how to program a machine to produce something just like it, makes it more dear. This principle has a lot to do with why a painting is much more valuable than a mechanical reproduction of the painting.