The Architecture of Taste: Part 1

The Birth of Taste

The first epicure was a protozoa with a simple plan: let some things get through, that’s food, keep some things out, that’s not food. Whatever will nourish that cell is admitted. What’s not good, not nourishing, is rejected. This is perfect ‘taste’. A balanced diet guarantees the survival of the organism

 without a lot of wasted effort, but it will also keep the amoeba an amoeba till the end of time.

Curiosity, change, and challenge are important to the development of a species. Humans with our What’s for dinner? spirit, have progressed with a rapidity which must seem pretty impressive to an amoeba.

But at the same time, amoeba’s don’t get fat or have heart attacks, and that may seem pretty impressive to a human.

Michael Pollan notes that humans are the only animal which needs to be taught how to eat, but its not clear that we do. A baby at birth will instinctively float and paddle around in water far better than a three year old. The same is true of feeding. A newborn will go for the breast without much encouragement and then is able to choose a diet, (see below). These abilities disappear if they’re not encouraged, and then lessons become necessary.

The Clara Davis Experiments

An Epicure

Between 1929 and ‘39 pediatrician Clara Davis conducted a series of experiments on the innate capability of humans to self select their diets. In these studies infants were allowed to select their own foods in any quantity they liked. Food was placed in front of them and theywere left alone. A handful of salt for lunch, or bananas for a week if they chose. The study set out to investigate the ‘Wisdom of the body’, the natural ability of the human body to choose the quantity and balance of nutrients from the foods available to them. There was a built-in limiter in the design of the study which was that only a range of healthful foods was presented to the children. The children were not offered excessive sugars or fats, just as in the wild. But, from this sample the choices of the children provided a surprisingly balanced diet.  A second important limitation to this experiment was the timing of the meals. Snacking was not an option. Humans are highly prone to eating in response to social occasions rather than hunger. In other words, if it’s there, we’ll eat it. We’re able to regulate our needs to some extent, and there is a certain wisdom of the body, but hunger and cravings are not a reliable guide. The trick, as always is free will. Without social incentives we’re no more likely to self-limit our diet than we’re likely to end war.

So it seems that the result of these experiments is that we really do know what we like. But we don’t seem to know what we don’t like.

FoodInc. likes it that way. Our bodies don’t. That’s the basic conflict in our food culture.

Natural food is natural in ways far beyond the farm; it’s in the rhymes and rhythms of our foods, and in the hidden nature of desire.


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