“You shouldn’t say it is not good. You should say, you do not like it; and then, you know, you’re perfectly safe.”
To understand taste, we need to understand its origins. We need to understand what we’re born with, and what we learn. When we understand the source of our own preferences, we’re better prepared to express, defend, or evaluate them.
First, let’s divide taste into three: Global, or Macro tastes which are common to our species, Cultural, or Medi tastes, those which we share with our culture and our families, and Personal or Micro tastes.
Macro Tastes decide what keeps us alive. These are true tastes; they’re not arguable, they’re not subjective. This is the set of choices which have evolved with the resources of our environment and our bodies. The basis of Macro Taste is Biology.
Medi-Tastes are what we’ve discovered and chosen as a people. These are a combination of tastes and preferences. Medi Taste is biological too, but influenced by geography, whether, and temperament. This is culture, and like all culture it’s bound to its source.
Micro tastes can include fetishes, favorites, bad habits, and sentimental associations. These are preferences. Although we use the word, they don’t really have to do with tastes because they’re too personal, too idiosyncratic. They’re what you like, and that’s all. Here is the inner-kingdom, the place where we all can find our comfort zone. But beware! You contravene nature at your peril! So many of our personal tastes are nearly arbitrary, accidents of place or time. We may forever hate a food which we associate with an illness, or our parents’ divorce. This is why tastes are never arguable, but quite clearly accountable if we look closely enough.
The universal comfort food, the essential food of all humans, is milk. No matter how our opinion may change with later acculturation of our tastes, no normal human, nor any mammal for that matter, will ever have a better meal then its Mother’s milk. This is the Human Baseline.
Beyond that, the tastes created in your first five years or so will become your comfort zone. Also, your culture zone, because if your first meal of milk was the essence of biological taste, meals with family and friends form the tastes of your culture.
But always there is the personal, and as you develop confidence and independence, you’re going to create your own repertoire of flavors which you prefer. Nothing makes these good but your own choice, and that’s wonderful, but it can lead to problems. Remember, you’re not condemned to bad decisions, you can adapt them, re-invent them. These choices can re-form your personal tastes, and, through the filter of biology, you’ll create a personal range of tastes which will never betray you.
The brings us to deliciousness, yummyness and awesomeness. Next week.
What Cooking Is
When we cook, we use three basic skills. Let’s call them Mechanics, Chemistry, and Ephemera.
Mechanics is the hard work of the kitchen, cutting, chopping, peeling, stirring, tossing, whipping, etc. What children do as helpers. Continue reading
In the world of Architects, whose egos make Chefs look like cherubs, Le Corbusier is among the immortals. And yet, when the tenants of one of his buildings objected to certain details—ceiling heights, wall textures—he agreed to some changes, remarking: “Life is never wrong.”
This is a big step towards balanced nutrition. Life is never wrong means that whatever it is that you like, is not wrong.
The Clara Davis , “Wisdom of the Body” experiments shined some light on the matter. Babies are never wrong, but also are not always right.
Gustibus non est disputandum: Taste Is Not Arguable.
But, that doesn’t mean that taste isn’t accountable. Not being wrong is different from being right. There are reasons for everything, and every taste choice we make was initiated buy some minute event in our past, however obscure. That’s one of the mysteries of taste: it’s always accountable, but never arguable.
The Yin and the Yang Of Taste
We may ask : Do we like our food, (the Yin), but we also have to ask: Does our food like us? (The Yang.) If it doesn’t, then it’s fools gold.
Taste starts out as a tool of survival. Only later, both evolutionarily and personally, does it become a tool of pleasure. So, to respect both, we have to use a scale of survival, as well as of pleasure, to judge our own tastes. This means that we should try to “like” those things which “like” us. It’s that easy.
The food we eat shouldn’t kill us, and we shouldn’t like things that do. Luckily, tastes are naturally constructive, they only harm us when we abuse them.
Can Tastes Be Changed? Should They?
Our most basic tastes, those which are received genetically, probably can’t be effectively changed, and that’s OK. Those culturally acquired, like the accent of your hometown, we can change, if we choose to. Tastes created by marketing almost always need a closer look.
But to change your tastes requires motivation, and that motivation must be reinforced by reason. It may be no easier to give up soft drinks than to give up heroin, but people do it all the time, and it may be as worthwhile. The difference is that a drug habit is seen as sinful and criminal, while soft drinks are…FUN!.
The simple tonic which we know of as Coke began as a minor curative and refresher. It was of no significance as a drug until marketers got in the way and the dosage became abusive. Many cultures have used sugar for centuries with almost no harmful effects. But if we ignore the rules of dosage, we have an epidemic.
Now read that last paragraph again and replace marketers with traffickers, and sugar with cocaine, then reverse them again.
Even the means of ingestion are key. Natives of Peru have chewed Coca leaves for centuries. But when it’s refined and concentrated, then injected into the vein, things get weird. Same with sugar. Naturally sourced sugar will rarely be a problem for humans because the accompanying nutrients and fiber of a fruit will key the body to a reasonable dosage. That’s one of the sublime details of a natural diet: The ‘keys’—those ingredients which cause our natural limiters to kick in—are refined away. That’s why we overdose on Coke, but not on oranges. Refined and concentrated in a ‘soft’ drink, the body is clueless and confused, so overdose becomes far more likely, and so does diabetes and weight gain, and playing Dungeons and Dragons into the night.
In other words, to really know what you like, you have to respect your body, know what it likes and needs, and how much.
“They Liked it in Philadelphia!”
“What do they know?”
“They know what they like!”
“If they knew what they liked they wouldn’t live in Philadelphia!”
It’s pure, it’s simple, it’s unarguable: “I like it”
But, it’s meaningless.
The science of attraction—liking—draws psychologists, biologists, and all kinds of theorists to help explain our choices. Our tastes are influenced by a thousand things even before we’re born. We know that we like what our Mothers eat, (at first). We know that we like things which are liked by those we admire. (This is why McDonald’s is so determined to keep Ronald McDonald.) We also know that our choices are as fickle as a schoolgirl at the prom.
If an unexamined life is not worth living, then unexamined tastes are not worth having.
So let’s examine ours and see what’s up. When was the last time you simply asked yourself “Why?” As a culture, why do we like something? Why do we like sugar in everything, or mayonnaise on French Fries, or any of the strange things we find ourselves eating?
Why do we crave rich foods? Because they’re economical and beneficial to our bodies (in proper proportions). So first, you should like things which give you pleasure, and you should derive pleasure from things which make you strong. Even Ice cream can help make you strong; sugar and fat and fruit can all be part of a good diet. But as we know, the only difference between a medicine and a poison is the dosage, so when the dose turns this food into a poison, it’s time to back off. These are all basic truths, but what turns it all around is marketing, because our brains lose their essential contact with our bodies. This is the fundamental argument against advertising of food, and for eating seasonal and regional foods. Food should advertise itself. Something it does best at its own pace in its own space.
The Problem With What We Think We Like
By now, we’re all familiar with Proust’s reveries about Madeleines. That’s the benefit of living in a great food culture. An awful lot of Americans are stuck with Twinkies. As a kid I sometimes ate weird things, and I used to get cravings for Chef-Boy-R-Dee canned spaghetti and meatballs. I gave in to the nostalgia; it’s very easy to rationalize these cravings. But reading the ingredients made me realize that this is something that I really don’t want to want. When I took away the nostalgia, it tasted fake and thin. I can still call up this taste memory, but I really don’t want the stuff anymore. So what does it take to break this chain? Only a little discipline, and a little reason. I could want and like canned spaghetti for the rest of my life, but real food is better, cheaper, more healthful, and more honest. It’s what I want to want.
So, what about French Fries with mayonnaise? (Foodies do it with Aioli). This is thought of today as chic. It’s a Belgian habit, and though they may have invented Pommes Frites, that doesn’t change the fact that mayonnaise is sickeningly rich to begin with and it’s not meant to be used on fried foods; in France this is considered a revolting habit. But, what if you ‘like’ it? Well you can learn not to. You can decide not to like it, and want not to want it. And then you may decide that freshly made French Fries, done properly, are so flavorful that they don’t need sauces and toppings. Simplicity is a leaner way to make life richer.
As you simplify your diet, you will, I guarantee, find flavor where before you found none. You’ll taste the richness of ingredients which were covered up with sauces, condiments, and most of all, other ingredients. You’ll realize that the great seducer, sugar, is a trick to get you to eat, to ‘like’, food that’s been drained of its true quality and flavor.
Have you ever asked why everything seems to have sugar in it? Most likely you were told: ‘Oh, Ha ha, everything has sugar in it these days!’
The one universal facial gesture, the smile, finds its analogue in sugar. Sugar is the “Open Sesame” of taste. It’s an insurance policy, it preys on the corrupted tastes of an entire culture. It began in the 1920’s when bread manufacturers started using sugar as a fast way to promote yeast growth. (It’s not necessary; in fact, in France, it’s against the law to use sugar in baguettes.) Soon this was spun into a chain of sugar additives which spread into mayonnaise, mustard, salad dressings, sauces, etc. Have you ever considered how weird it is to put sugar on a salad? On a hamburger, (two teaspoons in a Big Mac)? Pizza chains now offer ‘dipping sauces’, filled with sugar. (This probably adds ‘complexity‘ too.) And it’s all really just foreplay for the drowning of our taste buds in sugary drinks.
We don’t need to bother with Safeway, or Walmart, but here are a few items from Whole Foods that contain sugar:
The ‘House made’ Meatballs, hit the jackpot with four kinds of sugar, molasses, sugar, corn syrup, brown sugar; Pizza; Ham (all varieties except some genuine Parma Ham); in the deli section there’s sugar in the Local Organic Mortadella, the sausages, salamis, and all of the turkey products. They put sugar in Roast Beef. (Why would you put sugar in Roast Beef?) Instead of growing decent tomatoes we put sugar in sauces, (‘to cut the acidity’, goes the cliché). In Farmer’s Markets, and in most of America, it’s impossible to find Beef Jerky without sugar. Popcorn has sugar. Falafel has sugar. Soy sauce has sugar. I’ve heard some foodies defend this as adding complexity(!)
So what’s wrong? Sugar is central to the human diet. Like the smile, it’s pleasant and welcoming. It represents safety. Who would find fault with a smile; who can criticize ‘fun’? Well, if you’ve ever spent a few minutes in a Safeway or a Walmart, you’ve seen smiles of which are like the sugar in everything: It’s everywhere, it’s pointless, and it’s fake. But some foods are dramatic! Sugar on everything is like a smiley face on everything, a smile that never goes away, (see photo below). When there’s sugar in everything the natural rhythms of taste are flattened into one long laugh track.
If Everything’s Dessert Then Nothing’s Dessert
We have no natural limiter for sugar intake, but, like the smile, it seems unnatural to refuse it. Sugar is such a dominant flavor that it can ruin the structure of a meal. And since this is a flavor problem before it’s a health problem artificial sweeteners change nothing.
So many people still have their hearts in a 1960’s sitcom, laugh track and all. What’s for dinner? Gilligan’s Island.
It just seems so right that this is the smile of the person who gave us the Krispy-Kreme-Glazed-Donut-Bacon-Cheeseburger.
But remember that all of these foods are demanded by the upscale clientele of Whole Foods. No is forcing this on them. The deli manager told me that the producer of one Organic, Artisinal ham refused to make even one of their dozen varieties without sugar because there was so little demand.
There’s only one lasting solution, and that is to inform yourself about the ingredients of what you’re eating. Who would think to look at the ingredients of a Pork Tamale at Whole Foods to see if they put sugar in it? But they did. Brussels Sprouts from Trader Joe? Sugar.
Why would you put sugar in a Pork Tamales and Brussels Sprouts? Because people ‘like’ it.
Well, if they knew what they liked…
The Cultural Womb
A human being is a cultural sponge. This accounts for much progress in our biology and our society. Change is driven by random mutations and then by imagination, curiosity, and chance.
As the human race began its colonization of the earth, creative eating and cooking, especially cooking, were powerful elements in our strategy for domination. Cooking of meats allowed us to preserve what we hunted and to thaw it out over fire, allowing us to live in frozen parts of the world, storing our resources for later consumption. Diversification of our diet allowed us to free ourselves of geographical restrictions. Humans, the voracious omnivores, adapted to any and all conditions and never looked back. We’ll eat anything, and therefore we can live nearly everywhere. We may seem fragile, but we’re able to survive in the most extreme condition thanks to our willingness to adapt.
Strategies for survival end up as part of the culture. That’s the beautiful dance of cultural evolution. And that’s the key to its success: it’s an evolution. Because that means that each point of its development is useful and worthy, or it would be discarded. We incorporate a local herb into our stew and discover over time whether its good for us. And only those things that work, The Fittest, survive. Our tastes evolve along with the discoveries we make about our environment, (our Terroir). When that evolution is guided by market opportunity, we can end up with horrifying results.
Do you really think that when the miracle of inter uterine bio-luminescence is achieved The Coca Cola company won’t try to co-opt birth itself?
Geophagy and You
Animals are bound to the earth in ways we hardly think about. Parrots lick clay deposits for minerals, and Elephants burrow deep into ponds with their trunks to seek nutrition from soil deposits under them. Humans, too, eat clay and earth, with almost no cultural encouragement. This demonstrates the depth of our relationship with the earth and a natural understanding of our needs. Not liking dirt doesn’t change that. We need it, and our bodies know it.
And, it turns out we don’t need as much Coke and mayonnaise as we thought. “Liking” it doesn’t change that either. Deciding to not like it is where we have to begin.
We need to train our desires, naturally, by the use of our instincts, or unnaturally by the use of our brains.
The first thing our brains can tell us is that we must never listen to food marketers. They don’t want the same things we want.
It’s up to us to design our own tastes.
The Architecture of Taste Part 3: Manufactured Tastes.
Control the food and you control the people.
—Henry Kissinger, 1973
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.
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.
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.
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
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.