What is Taste?
Taste is the set of functions-both voluntary and involuntary, (conscious and subconscious)- which allows us to select from our environment those things which enrich us.
This definition allows us to span the entire range of tastes, in food, smells, and in art, fashion, and life generally.
Our first sense, spatially, is hearing, then sight, then smell, then touch and then taste. In this case, the sense of taste is meant as the function of the tongue only. We hear things which are too distant to see; see them before we can smell them, smell them sooner than touch them, and so on.
Taste, now meant in the broader sense, our capacity to select, is essential to the being of any living thing. It controls our desires. It is the ultimate decider of what we allow to nourish our beings, both in body and in spirit.
Universality of Taste
In the highly mechanical countries, thanks to tinned food, cold storage, synthetic flavouring matters, etc., the palate it almost a dead organ.
—George Orwell 1937
This quote from Orwell is most remarkable for it’s date. How much worse have things gotten in 74 years?
Trust Your Taste, Even When It’s Wrong…
…because later your taste will help to guide you. The most common defense of bad food (bad anything really) is that people ‘like’ it. But the fact that one ‘likes’ something is meaningless. We have to trust our tastes, we have no other guide. But in order to use our tastes, we have to learn to taste. This isn’t as easy as it might sound, given the culture we live in. Everything we think we know about our likes and dislikes is the result of many layers of conditioning.
To get to the bottom of this complicated situation we have to break every habit we have and get to the purest forms we can. This can be raw fruits and vegetables and water or milk. Then, once we’ve gotten to the bottom things, we can begin to build taste. Only in this way can we truly say that we know what we like.
Ray Kroc was successful, but as a maker of money, not a maker of food. “One hundred million people can’t be wrong”. Why not? At certain points in history, about certain things, everyone alive was wrong. Today, the majority of all meals eaten in our society are wrong, even if people like what they are eating. Just look around you. People aren’t eating what they really want, they’re eating what they’ve been trained to want.
Until we eliminate most of the packaging, the habits, the conditioning, the peer influence, we have no idea what we like, in a meaningful sense. We only know what pleases us, and as anyone can see, that isn’t good cuisine, and it’s not healthy food. We have been thrown so out of balance by commerce that our tastes are slaves to those influences, and aren’t really our own anymore.
We must re-learn to taste, because we have no substitute for taste. We must trust our tastes.
The Word: Taste
The Latins called it Gustibus. The French le Gout, Germans Das Geschmack, and in all cases the word describes the taste of the tongue as well as esthetic judgement, which is interesting but hardly coincidental.
Taste: we use this word sometimes as a noun, the taste of a thing, representing a complex of chemical interactions on the taste buds and the olfactory sense; sometimes as a verb, to taste, meaning the act of experiencing the stimuli from these senses; and sometimes, again as a noun, one’s Taste which represents our faculty of selection and interpretation of the aesthetic qualities of the thing which we have sensed: tasted.
Taste Vs. Preference
No subject is so guided by preference as food, Preference, not taste. Everyone thinks they have good taste, because we accept what we like as ‘good’. We talk about a right to our opinion. But a right to our opinion doesn’t make that opinion either valuable or even valid. We’ve been trained to respond a certain way, and we don’t have the instincts to go against that training. In fact, in the spiral environment of modern culture, our instincts can be our worst enemy. We all know that bad taste exists. We know that bad food exists. No one denies that some things are bad, even if they’re reluctant to name them. Almost no one claims that fast food is good food. It’s so easy mock those few who do think so. But can we explain why it’s bad? I think the reason is that it doesn’t provide any of the three basic motivations for taste: It doesn’t benefit or challenge the body, it isn’t truly preferred (that is, the preference is a market manipulated preference); and it doesn’t linger in the spirit like poetry, it doesn’t challenge the spirit. It’s only valued in a circular way, by habit formed of exposure. Fast food is easy and therefore it becomes a habit, like drugs or alcohol. It’s useless to say that an alcoholic likes alcohol, or chooses to drink. That may be true, but once addiction sets in the drink makes half the choice. And this is true of food as well. Good taste isn’t demonstrated by gluttony and corpulence. It’s demonstrated by a sensitivity to the universal truths which exist in everything.
Your taste is your guide to quality. To enjoy something ‘bad’ is your privilege. Not to know that it’s bad, that’s a problem.
No facet of the taste question is more important than this. So often we hear people argue points of preference and are baffled by the inability to arrive at an intelligent common ground because, while their tastes might intersect, their preferences don’t. Liking blonds over brunettes shouldn’t be called a matter of taste1. Preference expresses the matter much more accurately. A dislike for Chinese food doesn’t necessarily mean you have unsophisticated or provincial taste. It may just reflect a personal preference, which has nothing to do with taste. This isn’t just a quibble or a fine semantic point. It’s a part of our whole conception of the world.
How Taste Is Learned
……nothing worth knowing can be taught. ~O. Wilde
Like thoughts, which can be learned, but must be lived in order to be understood, taste is a resource which can be transferred, but will have no value unless it’s incorporated into the life-fabric of each individual. Simple rote learning of what’s considered good, is a fraud.
There’s a reason why any thing is ‘good’. It’s not arbitrary. It may be good because it sustains you, or gives you pleasure, or reminds you of your Grandmother. It’s not always a good reason, but there’s always a reason.
Acuity, Memory and Acrobatics
Prodigious feats of taste memory which allow a connoisseur to name the maker and vintage of a given wine are thought to demonstrate refinement. This is like someone telling you what a soprano had for dinner last night based on the timbre of her High C. We might like to be able to do that, but we would have no idea why we’d want to. It’s not bad, but it isn’t much.
The idea that extreme taste sensitivity is a clue to taste is an indication of our twisted ideas on the subject. If this were so, the most perceptive art critic would be the one with the best eyesight, and perfect pitch would always accompany musical achievement.
To help organize our thoughts on taste I’ve divided the concept into a three level hierarchy. There’s the first level, which is driven by need. We must eat to survive, and the one who finds the best sources of the most nutritious food will survive better, meaning that they will be more likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. These are the tastes which are developed through the process of natural selection. At this level there can be no such thing as bad taste. The second level is conditioned tastes, which have developed through the influence of cultural preferences, often unnatural and illogical, The third level is that of reasoned, and sensual choice.
Taste In The Physical World
Taste, as we know, is made up of liquid and solid tastes, and vapor borne tastes, which we call smells. A third component is the sense of touch which comes into play with foods such as peppers, and more subtly with the class of interactions which are referred to by the vulgar name ‘mouthfeel’.
Taste of touch, the most brutal, and the most convincing, is the taste of muscle and of power. Que vivan los Habeñeros.
Lingual taste, taste of the buds, is reason, and hard to argue with.
And scents are essence, odor is poetry. It is the ephemeral and the mystical taste. The tastes of mystery and of love.
Sparta And Athens
If taste is a tool, then we’re obliged to consider its function. To the source then of contemporary philosophy and of modern thought. Ancient Greece was the well from which we drew our modern conception of society. Our philosophy was drawn from Socrates and our political system (in principal anyway), from Athens, our ideas of violence and the physical defense of reason from Sparta. The difference in the tastes of these two states is fascinating as it demonstrates certain aspects of the nature of taste.
The Language Of Taste
Is There Really Such A Thing As Bad Taste?
The common measures of a persons value are intelligence, strength and spirit or imagination. These correspond to the basic triad of heart, mind and body. Intelligence, strength, or fitness, and…what? If we can express athletic ability as the intelligence of the body, why not call morality an intelligence of the spirit? I propose that taste is precisely this: the intelligence of the imagination or the ability to merge knowledge with imagination.
In the languages of the world certain words, uncannily, carry a thread from one culture to the next and bear with them peripheral meanings. Taste is such a word. Gout, Gusto, Geschmack, Sabor, Taste, Gustibus, all connote the flavor of food, and the ability to judge creative and natural sensory phenomena, your choice in clothing, music, and food, etc. These two senses overlap hugely and so there’s always confusion about what’s meant when the word is used. So large is the definition of the word taste that it could pre-occupy halls filled with college students.
The ancients solved this with their phrase, de Gustibus non est disputandum. There is no arguing over taste. This is sometimes mis-translated as ‘there is no accounting for taste’. This is different; the first is a comment on polemics, re-phrased perhaps as: there is no point in arguing over taste. The second, I don’t accept at all, for the following reason: even though we might not be able to argue over it, it’s very much accountable. There are always reasons for tastes. They may be obscure, seemingly unrelated to logic or practicality, they may not be obvious, but reasons nonetheless. Taste is not arbitrary. (Building blocks of taste are Biological, cultural, commercial…) From the first formation of taste in primitive animals to the subtle nuances of taste among the connoisseurs, everything is in some way accountable. What isn’t so clear is how some tastes may be considered more valid than others. This I think has to do with the honesty of the impulse, the degree to which your tastes have been manipulated for reasons of commerce, social control or other artificial manipulations.
Matters Of Taste
We don’t say of someone that they have ‘good’ intelligence; rather, they have intelligence, or a lot of intelligence, they’re smart, or not. Far more often, we would do well to speak of some one’s education: they know a lot, they have a lot of experience in this or that area, or they don’t. They have sophisticated intelligence, or not. In the end, we’re all good at certain things and bad at others. Certain exceptional people truly stand above the rest, but the mass of us are within striking distance of each other, all things considered. And so, we say more or less intelligence, and we may then compare more or less intelligently. We don’t say that a person has bad muscles, bad strength? No, they have less or more strength, perhaps strong arms, and a weak eyes, or perhaps in the case of a pianist, strong fingers and weak legs. So it should also be with taste. Strength here, less there, overall less experience, or more, genius in one area, total ignorance in another. The greater the range of ones taste the more benefit one gets from sensory experience. Good and bad are too general to describe this.
In taste, we should use words which conform to this system. Not bad taste, but less informed taste. Not good taste but sophisticated taste, educated taste. The reasoning is sound. Not ‘bad’ taste in music, but little understanding of music, or good understanding of very little music. We can’t have ‘good’ or bad taste in food if we’ve never tasted good food. We would have uneducated tastes. But, with training, we can develop sensitivity and educate our tastes. Ignorant tastes can become educated. Maybe we shouldn’t call it bad taste at all, but wrong taste, erroneous, like 2+2=5.
The Structure Of Taste
Everyone wants to believe that their taste is good, (or at least, that they have a ‘right to their opinion’). Well, of course, you have a right to think that 2+2=5. Rights have nothing to do with it. But there are organic and logical systems to the construction of tastes which correspond, in an conceptual way, to the structure of a building, or a symphony. The rhythms, cycles and dynamics of taste are not arbitrary, nor do they vary as much as we might imagine. If it’s possible to say of a building, “It’s not good, it will fall, it’s difficult to find your way around in it, why can’t tastes have some guidelines as well?
Stability is an unwieldy concept because it’s bound to time. Time clarifies our thoughts, our feelings, our senses. Unstable foods are no more useful than unstable bridges. Cream, chocolate, fat, sugar, etc. are all quite stable, even necessary, in a balanced nutritional program. It’s only when they’re consumed in unbalanced qualities that they may become destabilizing forces.
We must also apply the idea of stability pan-culturally: stability in the kitchen, on the farm. Where to begin? What is stability exactly? A farmer is the perfect symbol of a free market. When America had millions of farmers, our food was much better. Jefferson and Franklin were passionate farmers. We call them Founding Fathers, but so much of what they founded has foundered instead. Now that factory farms produce most of our food, the food of this country is our shame, (and would be the laughing stock of the world if they weren’t choking on it). Though this is the result of “conservative” political policies, it’s the opposite of conservatism. Revolutionary, and unnatural food production, (yes, ‘unnatural food’ is an oxymoron), are good for conserving fortunes of corporations, but not people. Monopolies harm the stability of a country, though they serve the stockholders of the monopoly well enough in the short term. To FastFood, stability is the ability to renew sources. That’s why employment turnover is so great. A dissatisfied worker is unstable, and most FastFood employees become dissatisfied rather quickly. A new worker is too eager to please, and will follow orders, for a while. Lack of health care benefits creates instability for the worker, but again, guarantees high turnover, low sick pay, low vacation pay, and since the basic training in FastFood takes just a few hours, it makes little difference to the continuity of the operation. Instability among workers ensures a flexible workforce for the factories: stability.
For the worker it’s just the opposite. Stability is the assurance that a job today is a job tomorrow. Stability is in-depth training, so their job can’t be given to someone else with hardly a break in the production line. Stability is everything the owners don’t want the workers to have: benefits, skills, unions.
In terms of the product the reverse is true. For FastFood, stability is repetition. Precise measurement of ingredients, temperatures, etc. Repetition, standardization, centralization. For the consumer, it’s variety, because a flexible diet creates a broader resource base, thus enhancing economic and nutritional stability.
But in the real world, the only ratio that counts is this: what is the cost/benefit to society of eating this stuff on a permanent basis? Is our proven obesity problem sufficient reason to label FastFood unstable? Is FastFood’s insatiable need for growth a sign of that instability? It certainly seems so.
Remember vinyl car upholstery? Imitation leather was everywhere in the sixties, but now we see far less of it. Real leather has taken over the high end, and honest fabric has returned as the material of choice for economy cars. As a material, vinyl turned out to be less durable than fabric, and it looked old far sooner than leather. Vinyl was considered in bad taste. Another way to express that is to say that it wasn’t stable. Think about that next time you eat a vinyl burger and cardboard fries.
What’s Good: Pleasure, Benefit, Challenge.
In order to express a philosophy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, let’s parse the essential elements of experience, pleasure, challenge, and stability. Benefit first. We must benefit from any experience, because what else is eating but providing the complex benefit of nutrition, satisfying hunger on all of its levels. Benefit is expected from anything we swallow. Next: pleasure. This is the result of the compatible evolution of our bodies with food. The pleasure we experience is our bodies’ response to the implicit question: should I eat this thing. Last: challenge. There are simple challenges, the challenges to the body; there are also sensory or aesthetic challenges, matching our expectations with the experience. And there are challenges to the imagination, the most ephemeral. Challenge is fundamental to our existence, it controls our need and our ability to improve.
Obviously, we must benefit from our food. Nutrition is the primary purpose of eating. We also get sensual and social benefits from food. Benefit can be tricky though. If you’re starving to death, a Big Mac could save your life. The fat and sugar permit survival. If you eat only Big Macs, you will soon turn into a pretty big Mac yourself, and then that benefit will become a hindrance. So, nothing should be considered good which doesn’t represent benefit over time, and in the context of your own life.
Why dogs eat bones, and why cows eat grass: it gives them pleasure; it helps them survive. Pleasure is one of the ways we decide what to eat. Sensory pleasure is far more than just scratching an itch, it’s the reward for the successful fulfillment of need and desire.
Humans are far beyond purely instinctive behavior. In humans, as in all omnivores, the search for nutrition finds satisfaction in such a variety of foods that we can very easily make mistakes. But our imaginations, which liberate us from strict repetition of instinct, can betray us, in the sense that we behave irresponsibly towards our own bodies. Human complexity of intellect and emotion makes the subject of food psychology and physiology hugely complex. For the purposes of our subject, the most important aspect of our pleasure is self destructive and delusional pleasures.
Supertasters And The Science Of Taste
There has been a lot of talk lately about the work of Dr. Linda Bartoshuk1 and the tri-level hierarchy of tasters. This will not be considered an issue here except as an intellectual exercise.
There are as yet unknown implications of the taster hierarchy, such as the conditioning of preferences due to high aversion to bitter foods such as Brussels sprouts which may be very beneficial to health.
The subject draws our interest because of our love of quantification. It’s the same pathology as branding. If I know that I have x-level of taste, I can filter my experience through that knowledge to arrive at a rationalizations for my preferences. It’s a lazy solution.
Taste variations and taste sensitivity are far more complicated than a simple inventory of your equipment. If not, Beethoven would have made knockwurst. The best artists, or critics would be those with the best vision, the best musicians would all have perfect pitch, and perfumes would be tested on bloodhounds.
Range of taste sensitivity, and the imaginative interpretation of sensory information are concepts which are philosophical and psychological in nature, and anybody of any taste range can become adept as either a cook or a gourmand. Taste is about far more than taste buds.
Every culture sets its own standards, and responds to its own environment and therefore the tastes of one society don’t resemble those of another. But certain universal standards do exist. To those whose diet includes insects, there’s nothing more delightful than a plate of termites. That’s not good or bad taste, it’s just solving a problem of survival. The qualities which we like in popcorn aren’t that different from termites, it’s just a question of what you’re used to. Taste hasn’t come into the equation yet. What I would wager is that anyone who learns to eat this plate of insects will have an opinion about the best tasting ones and the most desirable texture for a termite. This opinion will be tied to the balance of flavors, and the universal needs of the body, the formation of our teeth, etc. The crunchy ones are probably preferred, and the sweet ones, but not the ones whose flavor is sweet at the expense of complexity, and so on. At the first level of taste, need, we will all find the termites good, if we need the protein badly enough. At the second level, cultural acceptance, it’s up to our society to decide whether it wants to be known as a termite eating society or not. It’s more arbitrary than need, but still tied to need. At the last level, it’s all about the mind and the imagination. Once we’ve come to regard termites as acceptable food, something we can share with our families, we develop opinions of refinement and challenge. I think that here too, we’ll eventually find some convergence of tastes. Not 100% naturally, because we’re individuals with differing chemical and mechanical equipment. But the huge differences which we discovered at the beginning will have diminished and we’ll enjoy termites and popcorn interchangeably. This is certainly what anthropologists discover when they study exotic cultures. (Levi-Strauss).
Beauty And The Obese-ed
This book isn’t directly about obesity, or health. But it is about how health can be aided by the development of taste and ruined by the marketing of it. The sources of obesity, and of our perception of obesity, are essential to the problem and must be considered. The media presents endless comment on the subject and, like the weather in Boston, if you don’t like the news, wait half an hour. This won’t be an exhaustive review of current thinking but we can try to key in to certain aspects of it.
The French Paradox: This is easy: there is no French paradox, only that French life is drawn from a greater base of cultural experience than American life. Not only is France an older culture, but it lies at the center of dozens of other old cultures which provide contexts and contrasts to their own. A more mature culture will naturally have found greater equilibrium between forces of commerce and spirituality and aesthetics. In France, fads are not as all consuming as in America, certainly not as far as eating goes. The basis for the French diet long ago reached a point of balance. More than anything though, the French, while every bit as individualistic as we are, have a completely different conception of the role of food in life.
If there’s one phrase which betrays all ignorance of truth it’s: “Beauty is only skin deep”. There are a hundred reasons why this isn’t so. If it were, it would be a tragedy for anyone not perceived as beautiful. The fact that beauty is not skin deep is the only hope for those of us not born in accordance with prevailing style. Many people would have you believe that standards of beauty are in constant, wide-ranging flux. Invariably these people haul out their grail, the Venus of Willendorf1. The fact that 26,000 years ago people carved stone icons in the shape of bowling balls with breasts seems to represent to these people that enormously fat women were in great demand as bed partners, and objects of reverie. Fertility at that time in history must have held great mystery, and the aspect of a pregnant woman might easily have seemed useful as a model for an icon, though a slender and supple woman might have been more likely to attract the kind of attention which would result in pregnancy.In fact, there’s no evidence that fat women or men were ever truly preferred in general in society. It’s understood that a fat man represented an image of financial stability and that a fat woman represented an increased possibility of successful motherhood. That’s not a standard of sexual desire, or even beauty. It’s common for fat people to be desired and it’s good that they are, just as anyone should be. But that’s still not a standard. Many great people have been fat, but no one has been great because they were fat. A life guided only by appearance is certainly a shallow one. An aesthetic standard of the body is by definition, only about appearance, and so here it’s certainly fair to say that looks count. But personality is a tremendous influence on that appearance. No one is beautiful without part of that beauty being a reflection of their personality. It’s still a judgment of looks, but how much more beautiful is a shapely bottle if we can see the ruby wine it holds. So, no thank you, the only quality that I think should be skin deep is a sun tan. Beauty does indeed come from within, but it’s best when the body meets the soul half way.
Our primitive, Level 1 tastes in appearance seem to be largely guided by biological needs. From birth, faces which reflect healthy genetic background seem preferred even by infants2. Universal preferences are remarkably consistent throughout world cultures3. Wide hips are preferred because of obvious indications of reproductive capability.
Level 2 tastes, those which are culturally variable both in geography and in time, also conform to obvious strategies. When food is scarce, larger woman are judged more likely to produce healthy babies. When childbirth was extremely dangerous, and internal hemorrhaging meant death, mothers with reserves of fat were more likely to survive the ordeal. This isn’t truly ‘taste’, but a strategic preference which is the result of environmental and cultural influences. We can only talk of the universality of tastes with the understanding that these high and low spots, which are arbitrary and unrelated to specific genetic histories, are evened out. It’s simplistic to say that buxom women were once favored without noting a biological need to be buxom. Simultaneously, the desire to maintain the ‘feminine’ form was demonstrated by the corset, a garment which caused great discomfort and whose sole purpose was to create the illusion of a waist in the wearer.
Even so, Rubens’ girls looked nothing like the Venus of Willendorf.
Level 3 tastes, those which rely solely on independent judgment are those which are in a certain way the most stable. These have to be layered over all of the biological and sociological qualities. They’re very personal. Sometimes the frame is more padded, sometimes less. Lips get thick or thin, hair color varies. If you look carefully, the fabled Rubens beauty wasn’t really all that different from today’s ideal of physical beauty, or from the Venus de Milo. And I think that Raquel Welch in her leopard skin bikini would have been able to get pithecanthropus quite erectus. Today there is no longer a need to warehouse last nights dinner on thighs and hips, so thinness is more accepted, but the range from Louise Brooks to Marilyn Monroe is just not that great.
Fashion models are a special case. It could be said that the figures of fashion models prove a societal preference for fuller figured women precisely because they’re thin: they don’t compete with the clothing. They’re not chosen as ideals of physical beauty, but as ideals of photographic beauty. Two factors affect this. The first is the distortion of the lens and the printed page. A fashion photographer’s job is much easier with models who can bend and move in different ways. The second is that fashion models are chosen to sell clothes, not themselves. Designers like slender models because they bring out form in the clothes which can be lost with full figured women. They’re chosen for their personality and grace in photographs and on the runway, and are there to show the clothing. That’s why some of the best runway models are never seen in bathing suits. Runway models really are too thin to be sexually attractive to the average male, while bathing suit models are chosen for qualities of more typical feminine charm, precisely because the point of a bathing suit is what it reveals.
As for the boys, any male member of Athens society who was considered beautiful in the fourth century B.C. could find a place on an underwear ad in Times Square.
We’re made of bone and muscle and skin. Fat is reserve, margin, bone is strength, muscle is motion, and skin is destiny. Fat may be the flowering essence of our being, but when essence attains mass it soon becomes moribund. We need to be reminded that we’re made of flesh, but not made to drown in it.
The Nature Of Beauty
Aesthetics has been a hot topic since long before Plato, and any philosopher worth their salt has contributed to the literature. To even attempt to add constructively to this literature is a bit like grabbing onto the tale of a whale. Ready when you are Ishmael.
I believe that there is such a thing as beauty, and goodness, apart from our personal views. I believe that the phrase “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is absurd. And I believe that there are structures to form, and to what we call ‘beauty’, which are far too complex to understand, but not too obscure to appreciate, in their abstraction.
The tastes which we’ve developed throughout our evolution aren’t separate from the physical world from which we sprang, any more than that the product of an artist is separate from his emotional experience, or the crossed sticks of a carpenter can be separated from his destiny.
Beauty to me is truth. It isn’t necessary to pretend that we own the truth to proclaim that we believe in it. I might be wrong in what I perceive as the truth, and still be correct in believing that truth exists. In any case, it’s as close as I can get to God.
You and I are not the Judge, but we can see light, and the more we open our eyes, the more light we see.
Theories of tastes
Taste associations and retained taste ‘images’ ‘shadows’, and memory.
Triads: Analogies: Sex, (body), Language (mind), Music, (spirit, heart),
The analogy of sex to food is the most common. Both of these acts are acts of creation. Sex creates another person, while eating creates more of the same person. Many of the same organs are used and many metaphorical expressions are used to describe the experience of each. The connection is natural. The act of eating to support life nearly always involves killing. Procreation is also an indirect act of suicide, another form of killing. We will not normally outlive our children. The natural course is to procreate and then to die. Without death, procreation would be unnecessary.
Music is useful to help understand the cultural applications of taste theories. Cultures differ in subtle ways which are often analogous with musical tastes. Music isn’t purely cultural, but it is innate in humans and is not found in other primates. The most subtle expressions of esthetic taste are found in music and are useful in examining the different ways that culture can manifest itself.
Language, like cooking, is unique to the human species. In its development and its biological origins, it’s analogous to our experience of taste in varied and profound ways.