A Taste like No Other

For some, food is nothing more than sustenance for life, driven by the pangs of hunger. But for others, food is a matter of enjoyment driven by personal preference, to the extremes of transforming the act of consumption into an endless quest to fill the mental emptiness created by gluttony. The extreme unveils its existence in Tanizaki Junichiro’s short story “The Gourmet Club” beyond the mere sense of sight, manipulating all five basic human senses to heighten the act of consuming food and create an experience that can be classified as “exotic”. The immediate definition of the term “exotic” usually has some relation to something foreign and rare, but Josée Johnston and Shyon Baumann take the discussion further through a culinary perspective in “The Culinary Other: Seeking Exoticism” by arguing how “exoticism” acts as an umbrella associated with the ideas of norm-breaking, foreign, ethnic, socially and geographically different and distant, and exciting. These conceptual ideas perpetuate themselves as criteria in Count G.’s subconscious as he journeys to discover his “orchestral cuisine”.

Overexposed to the flavors of Japanese cuisine, Count G. is immediately lured by Chinese cuisine, a craving conjured by the sound of the Chinese violin and by the subtle scent of shao-hsing rice wine. Upon discovering the Chechiang club in addition to being stirred by these two senses, he pictures the ethnic region as “a mystic realm of scenic beauty on the banks of Western lake” (112), painting an image of an unfamiliar yet alluring territory. Within the mysterious allure, however, there remains the sense that the region and the meal at hand are only somewhat socially and geographically distant. He shows some familiarity in being able to illustrate and recognize its characteristcs through past experience, paralleling an observation that people tend to “like [their] exoticism somewhat familiar, recognizable, controllable” (Johnston and Baumann, 114).

As expected in describing the food, there is emphasis on sight imagery in dramatizing the rarity of the meals, to the extent that the ignorant Count G. begs to “at least see what the meal’s like” (126).Yet ironically, it is revealed that the secret behind the exoticism is “gastronomical magic…tast[ing] with their eyes, their noses, their ears, and at times their skin…every part of them had to become a tongue” (131). In utilizing such descriptive textual imagery to stimulate the senses, Tanizaki intertwines Count G.’s fantasies with the reader’s while still leaving room for the reader to be the subject of his or her own figment of imagination. Although the idea of exoticism lies in the eye of the beholder, Tanizaki highlights the alliance formed over a mutual culinary fanaticism between the Chinese acquaintance and Count G., creating a sense of “equality to multiple ethnic cuisines” without leaving behind the “postcolonial ideologies of status and distinction” in the contrasting tension between epicures Mr. Chen and Count G (Johnston and Bauman, 125).

In “The Gourmet Club”, the fine line between interesting and unusual, overexposed and mainstream, is manipulated to generate an atypical experience, one completely dependent on the mind through the unification of the five senses. In essence, the food acts as the driving force in the epicurean quest for the fragments of “exoticism” defined in the article, dramatized through the descriptive imagery received by the five senses and the characters fueled by gluttony.

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