Veggie of the Week - Acquired Tastes
sponsored by Coleman Farms
My colleague and I were discussing being ill and the restorative properties of tea. We agreed that one of the few positive aspects of convalesence was that it provided a reason for drinking lots of tea. "What about coffee?", I asked. "Coffee is gross" was the answer.
I'm a regular - I hesitate to say "habitual" - coffee drinker, but I couldn't simply reject this response, and after brief consideration, had to agree with it. Coffee is gross. Whatever seductions of flavor and aroma it may offer, and a dedicated coffee lover could supply a lengthy list of these, drinking a cup of strong coffee is also like being woken by a gong or hugged by a sumo wrestler - there's an unavoidable harshness or heavy-handedness about it. Yet many people can't live without it. And this got me to thinking about acquired tastes.
Coffee is a good place to start, since most coffee drinkers can probably remember acquiring the taste for it, usually from an older family member. There's the attraction of the smell, to start with, and that drinking coffee is something older people do, and often with obvious elements of ritual, so becoming a coffee drinker is seen as something of a right of passage. But you ease in to it. A spoonful of coffee informs the blandness of hot milk; then you add more coffee, maybe sugar to counter the bitterness, and go on from there, until you stop at the 'latte' stage, or learn to drink coffee straight.
We should distinguish between acquired tastes proper, and learning to like an element of an alien cusine. Many American fish eaters would have trouble facing fish for breakfast: they'd have to learn to eat sushi or kippers in the morning, however much they liked fish, just as sushi or kipper eaters would probably be put off by waffles, syrup and sausage served together, though happy to eat them separately. Learning to eat fish in the morning, or sausage with syrup on it, is a matter of acculturation, of acquiring a new habit, rather than acquiring a taste: the habit may at first seem repugnant or unnatural, but the foodstuffs involved don't, in themselves.
I asked some friends for examples of a food that was an acquired taste. One of them thought briefly then confidently said "liver, and bitter melon"; another said "coffee". To this list I think it's safe to add wine and smelly cheese. These represent quite a range of gustatory experience, but they've got one thing in common: all of them have a taste or smell that says "inedible". Coffee and bitter melon are bitter, liver, with its high content of iron, partially broken down metabolic wastes and bile, has much more of the smell of death and decay about it than ordinary flesh, and retains this after cooking, while wine and smelly cheese (or any cheese, if less noticeably) are spoiled fruit juice and milk, respectively.
In acquiring a taste, we learn to disregard these warning signals and to appreciate or ignore the associated smell, taste or texture in order to enjoy other properties of the food item. To someone accustomed to drinking strong coffee or eating ripe camembert, this may not be obvious, since the bitterness or rankness has become accepted, and perhaps enjoyed, as essential to the foodstuff. A clear example of what we're talking about is offered by the durian, which, when ripe, smells something like an untended pigsty on a hot Summer afternoon. This smell is not considered an aroma by even the most avid durian eater, and it requires something of a leap of faith to get past it to the paradise of flavor offered by the fruit.
Why do we bother to acquire tastes? Sometimes it has to do with necessity: if you can only find dandelion when you're foraging, you learn to like bitter greens. There's also the matter of emulation or fashion - wanting to drink coffee because that's what your elders do, or learning to drink wine because that's what a sophisticated friend does; but while learning from others helps spread an acquired taste, it doesn't explain why the taste was acquired in the first place.
Wine is an illuminating example. First, there's the matter of necessity, since wine is one of two ways to store grapes, fruit with a very short season. Then there's the alcohol, which, if nothing else, numbs the palate to the acids in the wine. But there's more, depending on the wine. A really cheap wine is pretty obviously spoiled grape juice - all acid and alcohol. I remember drinking some really unforgettable wine out of a paper carton, eighty centimes a litre. But pay more, and you get more: wine really can have a lot of compexity of flavor, a flavor which develops in time, almost like a photographic print, a sort of kaleidoscope of tastes, pleasant ones, which stand out against the wine's acid background. There really is some truth behind what wineies say. In a meal, wine serves another function, one making positive use of the nasty elements in the flavor, which highlight food flavors both by direct contrast and by resetting the tastebuds to enjoy the next bite.
Coffee can do the same, which is one reason it goes well with pastries and sweets which on their own might cloy.
Herbs, spices, and some vegetables have similar taste functions, providing contrast, highlights or complements to the flavor of the food they're added to. Many herbs and spices have nutritional benefits, the mints, for example, aiding digestion and peppers assisting iron absorption. Some also have farther reaching effects on health. For the most part, the chemicals which provide the flavor serve the plant itself in a protective role, either as natural pesticides and repellants - the oils in mint family, for example - or to make the plant unpalatable to higher animals - the bitter, sharp or sulphury flavors of bitter melon, arugula and the brassicas. So there's a good reason why most of these, too, are acquired tastes.
If some 'unnatural' tastes are worth acquiring, why aren't they acquired by everyone? The answer is probably 'people are different'. Part of the difference is cultural: we've all met people who are at one extreme or other with regard to willingness to eat something new. But part of the difference is, I think, physiological. In eating, as in many other matters, people are treated as being equal: one person's sense of taste is considered to work much like another's. On this basis, it's possible for food and wine people to determine what's good and what's not, and their careers depend on being able to do this. But people aren't equal, except, in an ideal world (and in the our Constitution, you may remember), ethically, and I think it's easily established that people's palates do differ. Some people may not want to acquire certain tastes, either because they are so sensitive to the repugnant element involved that it's not worth overcoming the repugnance,
or because their palates are subtle enough that they see no need to extend their dietary palette.
In this brief discussion, acquired taste has been linked to a range of things to do with food and eating. The basic distinction between acquired taste and accultured taste suggests using acquired tastes as a sort of probe, a means of distinguishing idiogeusis - the way an individual objectively tastes food - from the 'taste' embodied in his culture; put another way, to distinguish physiology from fashion. Consideration of this distinction can illuminate everything from a person's idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, to how food fashions develop, to why menus look the way they do. It might also prompt the doctrinaire to be a bit more flexible.
I once had a conversation with a person known (at the University of Texas) as "an emminent philosopher". The conversation somehow arrived at food, or at taste, and he declared "Unsweetened chocolate, now THAT would be an acquired taste!" I was too young, I suppose, to tell him that from time to time I had a bit of it myself; and he was too old, I think, to see 85% chocolate featured at Safeway, as I did today.
Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the photo of the blue-tongued skink.