The Architecture of Taste Part III

The Architecture of Taste Part 3: Manufactured Tastes.

Control the food and you control the people.

—Henry Kissinger, 1973

A Beast With Two Horns and a Tail

The Industrialization Of Our Palates

Up jumped the devil! Suddenly our tastes are co-opted, twisted, and turned back on themselves with all the tenderness of a tax audit. Our palates are the playing field of the white coated flavor scientists, the bean counting food economists, and the bio-criminals, a word not used casually, who are hijacking our very womb: the Earth. This is no metaphor. The earth is the womb of all things living and to try to control it is as absurd and as offensive as trying to control your Mother’s uterus through rules and laws. Of course some wish to do that too, and for the same reasons. But the point of life is freedom. It’s a seminal issue.

Sound dramatic? Well, that’s life…and some people want to own it. What they can’t own they want to control.

The Thing That Couldn’t Say No.

 
A Primate, with Figs, in good times.

We’re all partners in this ridiculous crime against our own natures. Like the Chimpanzee above, who just couldn’t say no to a mouthful of figs, our fellow citizens have been offered a similar deal: All you can eat. So we do. There’s not much more to it than that. Our culinary culture didn’t grow naturally out of a relationship with the ground, the plants and the animals. It was designed by chemists and business people, and enabled by both a bounty of our earth, and of our economy. We were supplied with too much of everything and demanded even more, Once we were freed from the natural constraints of supply and demand, food producers went to work getting us to want it, to like it. Through the various processes of persuasion available to them, we were trained minute by minute what to want, what to like. Ask any Subway sandwich customer why they’re drinking Coke with a foot long sandwich and they’ll probably say, “Because I like it”. Ask why there are four condiments and twelve ingredients on their sandwich? “Because I like it”. But is that the real reason?

Ten minutes into the great Noir classic, “Out of the Past”, this scene brings a telling snapshot from 1948. It isn’t part of the story, just background. A man walks into a coffee shop, orders a ham sandwich. The woman at the counter takes two slices of bread, spreads butter on them and puts a thin slice of ham on it, then serves it to the customer. He drinks coffee. And he liked it.

Has our biology changed? Our culture? Well, not exactly. I believe that we would still be eating that simple ham sandwich, as much of the world does, had it not been for changes entirely outside of the culinary culture: marketing and processing. Today, that sandwich would have to be covered in lettuce, tomato, mustard, mayo, and the ubiquitous cheese. But why? What would we gain with all of the condiments and accessories? Nothing. It’s all done as a sort of theater, to convince us that today is better than yesterday. To persuade us that after the war, when things were tough, we had to eat these meager things because we had no choice. Now, the rich bounty of excess has provided us with the means to create sandwiches we can’t even see over. And we wash it down with corn syrup because we can afford to. And yet the people in the photo seem healthy and well fed, and the world over, a simple sandwich is actually preferred. Mayonnaise makers, lettuce growers, tomato and cheese producers have all had their say, and we’ve been trained to think of the simple sandwich as a thing for poor people. Something out of the past.

But the Architects of our taste have created a new standard. Tall and wide, with many levels and little taste cul-de-sacs to get lost in. We’ve been lured into this structure and can’t find our way out. In fact most of us aren’t even looking for a way out: We like it.

The Dagwood

The Math

Let’s trace back the steps which got us here.

The simple sandwich, Out Of The Past, is made of bread, butter and ham.

Why was this good enough in 1948, but not at Subway, not for America, not now?

It always comes back to processing and marketing, economies of scale.

If we are ever to accept the Simplovore approach, we need to find a path back Into the Past, or at least explain why things changed.

Highly processed ham has very little flavor, and so the usual suspects are rallied to its aid: salt, the cheapest flavor boost there is; water, cheap bulk; and sugar which is so ubiquitous in American hams that it’s rarely even questioned. Most Americans have never tasted ham without sugar.

Why do we use mayonnaise? Because it lubricates and sweetens the sandwich. Sugar likes sugar. Lettuce and tomato? Color and crunch. And soon the fact that the ham is watery, salty, sugar, in a protein matrix disappears.

And finally, we learn taste through the picture tube. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that food TV, in the form of Julia Child, only caught on once TV was broadcast in color. James Beard made an early attempt in about 1950, but despite his charm and flair, was not successful. B/W TV may have been the reason. We expected to see food in grand stripes of red and green and orange, and we let tomatoes and condiments and cheese dress up our TV commercials.

What to do? Simplify. Why not go back to the simple ham, butter and bread? The ham will have to be much better, but it wouldn’t increase the overall cost, and the pig would not have died for nothing.

All in all, many of the goals of the new food movements, less waste, more nutrition, decent treatment of the animals we kill for food, fall naturally into place when we respect our tastes. And it will save money. The only thing it would cost us is about 30% of the calories: the 30% that will end up on the hips of most Americans.

That’s not much of a sacrifice for a better meal.

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