Composing a Gourmet Experience: Using Kenneth Burke’s Theory of Rhetorical Form

Hans Lindquist, Lund University (Sweden)


Kenneth Burke’s theory of rhetorical form has been applied to a variety of objects and areas. Beside analyses of texts, including Hamlet and Othello (Burke, Counter-Statement and Othello), it has been applied to the movie Jaws (Kimberling), the television miniseries Shogun (Kimberling), political debates on television (Conrad), newscasts (Gronbeck), and music (Bostdorff and Tompkins). These applications of Burke’s theory of rhetorical form have a focus on one or two of our senses, either sight and/or hearing. In this article I will demonstrate the relevance of Burke’s theory to an area which focuses on two other senses, taste and smell, although it includes all five senses: gourmet cooking or fine dining.

In this article I will first present Kenneth Burke’s theory of rhetorical form. Then I will demonstrate its relevance for understanding the creation of gourmet experiences by the Swedish chef Mathias Dahlgren. Dahlgren was the only Swedish gold medal-winner at the (unofficial) World Championship Bocuse d’Or, named after the French chef Paul Bocuse from Lyon. He has also been chosen “Chef of the chefs” four times during the last ten years. Mathias Dahlgren’s former restaurant Bon Lloc––which is Spanish for “good place”––was a top restaurant in Stockholm with a star in Guide Rouge for a decade. His new restaurant at Grand Hotel—the hotel where the Nobel Prize-winners stay—already is famous.

Kenneth Burke’s Theory of Rhetorical Form

Kenneth Burke’s theory of aesthetics and rhetorical form was first published in 1925 in two articles, “Psychology and Form” and “The Poetic Process,” which later became chapters in Counter-Statement. Burke defines literature as “written or spoken words” that can appeal to the audience either because of its information (content or subject-matter) or its form, or a combination of both(Counter-Statement 123). Burke did not want to separate form and information, only to emphasize form as a “Counter-Statement” to discussions about aesthetics that were so strongly influenced by science and journalism, “the movement of almost pure information” (Heath 62).

In some “literature” the information is, Burke writes, intrinsically interesting, as can be the case with backyard gossip and news (Counter-Statement 33). We might buy a newspaper so we can read the latest news about soccer’s World Cup, the trial of a celebrity or something else. But once we have read through it, the item loses its appeal and aesthetic value, much the same way as a detective story can be enthralling and entertaining, but when at the end we get to know who the murderer is we do not want to re-read it, at least not in order to find out who the murderer is, or how the murder was accomplished. According to Burke, the major devices for maintaining interest “most natural to the psychology of information (as it is applied to works of pure art) are surprise and suspenseeCounter-Statement 37; emphasis added). The latter, Burke writes, “is the concern over the possible outcome of some specific detail of plot rather than for general qualities. Thus, ‘Will A marry B or C?’ is suspense” (Counter-Statement 38).

Besides the interest in information and possible outcomes, literature can appeal because of its form, which Burke defines as “the creation of an appetite in the mind of the auditor, and the adequate satisfying of that appetite” (Counter-Statement 31). Thus, the focus is on the process of reading a text, which is a temporal, dialectical and rhetorical process, where the meaning is created. In order for the text to be appealing, the audience must have some experience which matches the text. Burke argues that literary forms, like crescendo and rhythm, correspond to human experiences outside the literary work of art. Even though no “crescendos” exist in nature, there are multiplicities of individual phenomena—the cycle of a storm, the ripening of crops, the sunrise and sunset, the spread of an epidemic, etc.—where growth is not a linear progression, but rather a fruition. Because of such natural processes, we can, according to Burke, “think” and experience a crescendo when reading a novel, watching a movie and seeing a theatrical play (Counter-Statement 45).

A person who has less experience and knowledge may need more obvious ramifications to be affected, whereas a person who has more experience and knowledge may find many such obvious ramifications too blunt. “Contrast talk between two experts with talk between an expert and a layman. In talking with a layman, the expert will necessarily stress some of the very points which he would be most likely to omit in talking with another expert” (Counter-Statement 173).

According to Burke the notion of “appetite” involves desires and expectations, which can be understood from other ways of defining the concept of form: “Form in literature is an arousing and fulfillment of desires. A work has form in so far as one part of it leads a reader to anticipate another part, to be gratified by the sequence” (Counter-Statement 124); “Form in literature is an arousing and fulfillment of expectations” (Counter-Statement 217).

Burke identified four types of form defined as four ways of arousing and satisfying appetites, desires and expectations: “progressive form (subdivided into syllogistic progression and qualitative progression), repetitive form, conventional form, and minor or incidental forms” (Counter-Statement 124). These forms, which are presented below, are interrelated and “necessarily overlap” (Counter-Statement 128).

Progressive form deals with development, for example, “the use of situations” which lead “the audience to anticipate or desire certain developments” rather than others (“Dramatic Form” 54). Syllogistic progression, the first variant, is “the form of a perfectly conducted argument, advancing step by step” (Counter-Statement 124). It is the form of a mystery story or love story, where everything falls together in the end. Burke calls it syllogistic because,

given certain things, certain things must follow, the premises forcing the conclusion. In so far as the audience, from its acquaintance with the premises, feels the rightness of the conclusion, the work is formal. The arrows of audience desire are turned in a certain direction, and the plot follows the direction of the arrows. (Counter-Statement 124)

Qualitative progression, the second type of progressive form, is subtler. Instead of one incident in the plot preparing the audience for other possible incidents (as when a murder “requires” revenge), the presence of one quality prepares the audience for the introduction of another quality (as when the calmness of one situation prepares the audience for the acts of violence that that will follow). “Such progressions are,” Burke writes, “qualitative rather than syllogistic as they lack the pronounced anticipatory nature of the syllogistic progression. We are prepared less to demand a certain qualitative progression than to recognize its rightness after the event. We are put into a state of mind which another state of mind can appropriately follow” (Counter-Statement 125).

Repetitive form, Burke explains, is “the consistent maintaining of a principle under new guises. It is restatement of the same thing in different ways. So far as each detail of Gulliver's life among the Lilliputians is a new exemplification of the discrepancy in size between Gulliver and the Lilliputians, Swift is using repetitive form” (Counter-Statement 125). Or if a character is a hero, each heroic act contributes to the idea of the character as a hero.

Conventional form, the last major type of form, constitutes “the appeal of form as form” and involves what Burke calls “categorical expectancy” (Counter-Statement 126). Any form or genre—may it be a Greek tragedy, a mystery story or a limerick—can become conventional, and be sought for itself. “That is, whereas the anticipations and gratifications of progressive and repetitive form arise during the process of reading, the expectations of conventional form may be anterior to the reading” (Counter-Statement 126-127). Categorical expectations and conventional form are, according to Burke, “the kinds of expectations which an audience brings to the theatre as an established institution” (“Dramatic Form” 55).

Minor or incidental forms come in many varieties. When analyzing a work, Burke explains, we may “find it bristling with minor or incidental forms—such as metaphor, paradox, disclosure, reversal, contraction, expansion.…—which can be discussed as formal events in themselves. Their effect partially depends upon their function in the whole, yet they manifest sufficient evidences of episodic distinctness to bear consideration apart from their context” (Counter-Statement 127). These forms may be looked upon as

minor divisions of the two major “forms,” unity and diversity. In any case, both unity and diversity will be found intermingling in any example of such forms. Contrast, for instance, is the use of elements which conflict in themselves but are both allied to a broader unity (as laughter on one page, tears on the next, but each involving an incident which furthers the growth of the plot). (Counter-Statement 46)

Rhythm is another important aspect of importance for the form of a literary work, just as it is for music: “A rhythm is a promise which the poet makes to the reader—and in proportion as the reader comes to rely upon this promise, he falls into a state of general surrender which makes him more likely to accept without resistance the rest of the poet's material” (Counter-Statement 140-141). However, rhythm can be explained within the different types of forms discussed above, namely, repetitive form, progressive form, minor forms like constancy and variation (Counter-Statement 130-135).

As noted above, the major devices of maintaining the reader’s interest in the information are surprise and suspense. Burke notes:

In the classic drama, where the psychology of form is emphasized, we have not surprise but disclosure (the surprise being a surprise not to the audience, but to the characters); and likewise suspense here is not based upon our ignorance of the forthcoming scenes.… It is the suspense of a rubber band which we see being tautened, we know that it will be snapped—there is thus no ignorance of the outcome; our satisfaction arises from our participation in the process, from the fact that the beginnings of the dialogue lead us to feel the logic of its close. (Counter-Statement 145)

The fifth stanza in a limerick, for example, is thus more a disclosure followed by affirmation rather than suspense followed by surprise—and that is why we can read a limerick over again, and still enjoy it.

Composing a Gourmet Experience

The chef and owner at the restaurant Bon Lloc and Grand Hotel, Mathias Dahlgren, has not read Kenneth Burke’s Counter-Statement. There are, however, many similarities between Dahlgren’s philosophy of gourmet cooking, as he presents it in his book Bon Lloc and Burke’s theory of aesthetic and rhetorical form. Bon Lloc is a cook book that includes both a philosophy of gourmet cooking and recipes. Dahlgren introduces his philosophy in the following way (all quotations in this section are my translations from Swedish):

My idea when composing a longer menu is that I will give the guest an experience as complete as possible of what the restaurant can offer. Composing a longer menu is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. One should not repeat oneself. It should be a variation of ingredients, involving, of course, elements of the season. There should be a spectrum of ingredients from different price ranges, varying techniques of cooking and forms of presentation. At the same time one should bear in mind that the different tastes ought to be intensified. And the size of the portions should be varied as well. No course should be grotesquely large and none awkwardly small. In order to demonstrate progress in the area of gastronomy some features of the menu should show signs of novelty. (Dahlgren 14-16)

Using the metaphor “Composing a longer menu is like doing a jigsaw puzzle,” Dahlgren starts by emphasising the importance of unity, that different courses in a long menu together should constitute an entity, “an experience as complete as possible.” Immediately thereafter he lays an emphasis on the importance of variation: “not repeat oneself,” “a variation of,” “a spectrum of,” “varying” and “novelty.” And as a principle for arranging the many courses he argues for the progressive form, “tastes ought to be intensified.” I will come back to the arrangement of the long menu, but first I will illustrate how the enjoyment of separate courses can be analyzed using Burke’s theory.

Mathias Dahlgren makes a distinction between “ladder of tastes” and “chain of tastes,” which is an example of Burke’s distinction between the two variants of progressive form, syllogistic progression and qualitative progression. A ladder of tastes means, according to Dahlgren, “going from mild flavors to intense flavors to the most intense. This way of thinking is useful when serving different kinds of cheese” (Dahlgren 25). In the same way as syllogistic progression, this proceeds step by step, that is, the flavor that follows “must” be stronger.

A chain of tastes is, in a way, the opposite to a ladder of tastes, according to Dahlgren: “A chain of tastes, to me, does not mean that everything ought to be sweeter and sweeter, saltier and saltier and saltier, more and more. Instead it means that one goes on and on” and that the “flavors are in harmony,” not more and more intense (Dahlgren 25). He gives the following illustration of this pattern: Mango tastes good with ginger Ginger tastes good with toffee Toffee tastes good with chocolate Chocolate tastes good with coffee Coffee tastes good with sweet sherry (Dahlgren 25)

By means of these six flavors and the relations between them, Dahlgren composes a course that consists of six different spoons, graphically presented in a row on a rectangular plate. Spoon 1: Thai-mango, natural and cut in cubes Spoon 2: Sabayon [a sauce made from whipped egg yolks and wine] with ginger Spoon 3: Dulche the leche [toffee with milk from South America] Spoon 4: Crème of chocolate Spoon 5: Syrup of coffee Spoon 6: PX Pedor Ximenz 1972 [sweet sherry from Spain] (Dahlgren 25)

This is an example of Burke’s qualitative progression; the presence of one quality (flavor) prepares the guests for the introduction of another quality (flavor). Furthermore, the guests are less likely to “demand” a certain flavor than to recognize its rightness after tasting another spoon. Moreover, the guests have no possibility—until tasting all six spoons—of realizing that this course, by itself, constituted a complete dessert including coffee and liqueur!

Dahlgren’s book also provides three illustrations of Burke’s repetitive form, where the same principle appears under different guises. One concept in Mathias Dahlgren’s philosophy, as well as in the world of gastronomy, that emphasizes the importance of repetition is reconstruction. Reconstruction means giving a new form to existing content. “The starting point is an existing dish…which is deconstructed into the basic ingredients and reconstructed with a new technique. The form of presentation should be different compared to the original, but the taste should be the same” (Dahlgren 22). At Bon Lloc, for example, the classic Croquet Monsieur ingredients are served basked in a gratin-dish for snails: “Changing the presentation can change the experience. When did you last eat a Croquet Monsieur with a teaspoon?” (Dahlgren 237). For a reconstruction to work, it depends on the guest’s being familiar with the original: “A fully successful reconstruction is dependent on the guests knowing the original and being able to relate to it and understand it” (Dahlgren 22). This notion is parallel to Burke’s point that, for a text to be appealing, the audience must have some prior experience with a text which matches its form.

Another example of repetitive form is found in the desserts. The sweet-salty chocolate-toffee wrapped up in greaseproof paper and the dulce de leche (with dark chocolate and sweetened milk) the guests are drinking from schnapps glasses, Dahlgren notes, are “exactly the same thing, but in different forms” (58).

A third and final illustration of the repetitive form, modified by qualitative progression, is that the guests do the same thing (eating) using different techniques: “eating the snacks with the fingers, drinking the soup, the main course with knife and fork, in between licking the iced-lollipop made of blood orange, and using a spoon at dessert” (Dahlgren 90).

In the same way as Burke sees unity and diversity as fundamental for aesthetic and artistic experiences, Mathias Dahlgren sees harmony and contrast as essential when composing gourmet experiences. When it comes to different senses of taste (saltiness, sweetness, acidity and bitterness) and the combination of food and wine, Dahlgren says: “Simply put, one can choose the principle of harmony or the principle of contrast. Fat food can be combined with a ‘fat’ wine, for instance a ‘buttery’ chardonnay that has matured in a barrel. When serving a creamy mushroom soup, a wine with much acidity would be suitable” (Dahlgren 110).

Rhythm is another essential principle when arranging a longer gourmet menu:

The rhythm of the meal is vital. … It is important to identify what the guest wants, if the guest wants a shorter or longer performance. That is something the waiter has to decide from the signals [s]he receives from the guest. The couple who have just fallen in love want it to go on for ever. But the group of businessmen, who have witnessed the performance over and over again, three times just this week, maybe want to cut the process short.” (Dahlgren 17

In order to create a good rhythm in a performance at Bon Lloc, be it long or short, and as a way of creating surprises, one treats the guests with “little pieces” having the size of a mouthful, for instance an “amuse bouche” before the first course. “We use these little pieces to create a good rhythm during the dinner. They are served before, during and after courses, partly as surprises, partly in order to make something happen at the table.... The little pieces are also time killers, giving the kitchen staff the minute extra they need for making the food perfect” (Dahlgren 22, 16). Experienced guests at gourmet restaurants, however, expect an “amuse bouche” before the first course, and in that sense it is a part of the conventional form of gourmet restaurants.

When composing a longer menu, the crescendo—a type of syllogistic progression—is crucial. “Metaphors from the world of music are very often used when talking about combinations of food and beverage; composing a course, the rhythm and amplification during the meal, and then (babaamm!!!) the main course as the showpiece of the play, that should make the taste buds burst into a crazy dance” (Dahlgren 108).

The crescendo is used in a review of Bon Lloc as well, and here the emphasis is on what happens after the climax, as one restaurant guide notes:

The sophistication reaches its turning point with a grilled pigeon, which has been brushed with ashes from leek seasoned with truffles, and presented on a bed of puy lentils and pine nuts, together with potato purée seasoned with foie gras. It is a crescendo in thrilling tastes, and you need help to land. A sorbet of apples is Dahlgren’s way of solving the problem, but maybe the senses are stunned because its taste is vapid and flat. However, an arroz con leche is heavenly mild and the sorbet of orange has exactly the acid one need. (Gourmet 199 Bord 60)

The sorbet of apples being “vapid and flat” while the sorbet of orange has “exactly the acid one needs” is an illustration of how a progression works—the taste of one course depends on and is related to the previous course.

Concluding Remarks

In this article I have shown the relevance of Kenneth Burke’s theory of rhetorical form for the artistic composition of a gourmet dinner—a composition that focuses on taste and smell rather than sight and/or hearing (though the metaphor “reading a gourmet experience,” of course, can be applied). Professor Inga-Britt Gustafsson of the Department of Restaurant and Culinary Art at Orebro University commented, upon reading an earlier draft of this essay, that such formal concerns reflect “precisely how our chefs reason when they create their menus.”


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