The Community and Commandments of Taste

We taste from where we have lived. Each of us knows food differently because we come from different places, inhabit different spaces and have traveled off towards different horizons.  The contextual differences of everything from food choice to preparation methods to nationality influence diet – context defines diet.  Diet encourages discriminating – after all, we can’t eat it all.  Discriminating preference is taste, and it contains a few defensible universals:

  1. Taste forms from experience
  2. Taste anticipates
  3. “Taste” depends on what we smell
  4. Taste develops with attention
  5. Taste expresses individuality
  6. Taste exhibits culture
  7. Taste connects us
  8. Taste is our first religion

Taste tells the stories of ourselves.  Taste tells us the stories of our foods, our places and the combinations of ingredients and preparations that speak to us.  We change our grandmother’s recipes out of necessity or rebellion but always out of reaction to availability and the willingness to submit to the religion, or agnosticism, of the home kitchen.  Taste is the quintessential human trait.

We craft those stories from the desire to identify with some things and not with others.  The New World of ingredients offered us a way out of the tyranny of our forebears and we took it.  Europeans discovered potatoes, tomatoes and pasta in other lands – made them Italian in their combination of gnocchi and Primavera, exported them to the rest of Europe and the New World as representations of Italy.

The examples of the adoption of ingredients, preparations and foodstuffs are just one of the examples of the topics covered in this website.  We will travel to the source, to the center of diversity when possible to pry open the histories that have brought us to the edges where we may leap off again.

Which wine region has not made wine that reflects its place?  Which cultures do not identify themselves with the produce of their homeland?   Further, how do we read a menu like it was the story of a restaurant’s identity, and in what community of restaurants does it fit successfully?  What does it say about its community?

Aside from the principles of taste above, we explore the obvious greatness of taste in restaurants, books, wineries, cookbooks, distilleries and breweries the world over.  In every one we will find the comfort and the ridiculous of the local culture – that is, we will see ourselves.

Read on and comment if you like, dear reader, and we can begin the conversations that develop taste – proving we admire the beauty around us in many of its forms – and more every day.

1. Taste forms from experience

We like what we know, or more precisely, we prefer it.  Red licorice tastes nothing like black licorice, yet they are shaped the same way, textured the same way and referred to by only color difference.  Nonetheless, the experience of each tastes as different as horehound and apples.  If Mom or Dad provided lots of vegetables on the table for dinner, chances are you have a taste for many different vegetables.  Same for music.  Should your household have played Rock and Roll, you knew Elvis, The Rolling Stones and Sammy Hagar; if they played classical music, you knew Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, the veritable vegetables of a musical diet.  In experience, there is not a correct teacher, but a constant awareness that helps us prefer what we know, or think we know. In this, taste is memory itself.

2. Taste prejudges

My childhood was one of red licorice.  That is, I had never been exposed to black licorice.  In the anticipation of my first bite of the black version, I was hoping for something sickly sweet, maybe root beer or vanilla-esque in its impressions to match the sickly sweet chemically formulated berry-esque impressions of what I knew.  It could have been the paragon of black licorice and I still would have left it behind.  The bastards that stir raisins into Chocolate Chip cookie dough inspire similar cynicism and angst.  Expectation prestiges preference.  Disappointment colors judgment, and more importantly, long-term memory – to which smell is intimately linked.

 

3. Taste is really smell

In an ironic twist, our tongue plays the dumb organ while our nose translates thousands of impressions.  Our tongues are reputed to taste four things (but to be fair, the tongue also gets temperature and texture and others, even if some of those are the “chemical” temperatures of habanero or menthol.  “Our tongues are dumb” does not mean our noses are smart, but that they are more sensitive and highly impressionable to the two paragraphs above.  In a meaningful twist for pairing food with wine, our noses are personal/subjective while our tongues remain more universal/objective.  Tongues are nationalities, noses are fingerprints.  Like any good cannibal can relate, we all taste the same, but we all smell our own way.

4. Taste develops with attention

Do you live to eat or eat to live?  The question often posed by poor souls who believe attention to taste is the devil’s work.  If it were possible to disagree more, I don’t know how.  Being able to discern nuance in flavor does not make one ungrateful for nutriment but able to see the beauty, nay workmanship, in well-grown examples.  One version of this attention to the details of taste is documented in the voluminous wine tasting notes kept by 1000’s of aficionados on CellarTracker.com or the monumental tasting notes of a Jancis Robinson or Robert Parker.  It’s a way of remembering and honoring that which is worth attention.  The best part is that the ability to pay closer attention grows organically from the first attentions.  Some of us quietly keep our tasting notes in random journals and tasting sheets as they come, but also in our heads.  No matter how the reminders are there; reminders and testaments to the level of detail that separates one wine from another or one apple from another or one Jackson Pollack from another.   This discernment exudes value, perhaps the basis for being called paying attention.  At the risk of sounding maudlin, taste behaves like love, once spent, one earns the capacity for more.   The more aware of taste, the more taste-full one becomes – be it in art, perfume, food, music or emotion.

5. Taste expresses individuality

I don’t wear the same clothes you do; I don’t listen to “your” music or paint my toenails the same color(s).  My experience, expectation, ability to discern and remember those discernments causes me to choose a different response to a song on Pandora that reflects more closely who I am.  My taste reflects me and projects me – or at least the me I think I am.  We express ourselves in our language, our pets, our cars, our kindnesses and everything in which we are presented with a choice.  Where we don’t get a choice, we bounce off and move on.   Defining one’s taste happens progressively whether that taste is in baseball teams, books, cars or lovers.  It happens in one’s hairstyle, speech patterns and topics of conversation.  Messy hides it; tidy highlights it.

6. Taste exhibits culture

It is for a more philosophical place than this to decide which of these two principles of taste should have preceded the other.  Does the individual come first or does the culture that begat the person?    The tradition in which one grows and matures shapes one’s taste more than any other single influence.  Strapping wrestlers from the first Olympiad favored beef as a staple of the diet for the intensity it provided their muscles during their competitions.  Buddhists do not value wrestlers in the same way.   Taste exhibits tradition; the culture of one’s region that we cannot help but absorb – like a dialect or inflection in one’s speech that alters when emigrating.  This absorption and identification with various sets of contexts piece together the set of personal preferences and refinements we call taste.

7. Taste connects us

In the items and topics of our taste, we find others who share these preferences.  Knowing each other alters our taste, we each influence the other. In that community of two, there becomes a community of four and so on which continues to expand.  We can see the influence upon our friends and our family, witness their influence upon us.

We meet someone who collects the same comic books or likes the same film director and we bond to them more quickly.  We see each other dress in ways which attract or repel, invite or shield purely through style, color, material and context.

On the most base level, though it’s called taste, it is no more than chemical interaction and our ability to perceive it, even chemically and pre-consciously.  There are researchers who believe that the experience of this taste begins before we are born.  From a 2013 paper, Early Influences on the development of food preferences, Ventura and Worobey write, “The ability to perceive flavors begins in utero with the development and early functioning of the gustatory and olfactory systems. Because both amniotic fluid and breast milk contain molecules derived from the mother’s diet, learning about flavors in foods begins in the womb…”   Mom craved foods for us.  Whether we like those cravings today is up to dispute, but we influenced taste.

8. Taste is our first religion

And a primal one it is.  Religion, the word, draws its roots from the Latin.  The main root of the word forms from lig as in ligament, preceded by re- and finished with the state of being suffix -ion The state of being linked back. Religion connotes a faith in an organized and formal set of beliefs.  Do chefs and sommeliers behave this way in their restaurants?  (Yes.)  Before we can indulge the idea of organized religion like Christianity or Islam(much less their incessant variants), we know if we will eat carrots, hummus, figs or McDonald’s chicken nuggets.  We have a range of experience in taste from which we are offered, repulsed or attracted; we may indeed like other foods in the order of pickled beets or perhaps haggis yet have no exposure against which to test our taste.  In that which we have experienced firstpalate, empirical truth it becomes.  Taste is our first fundamentalism against which we are loathe to rebel, until rebellion means heroing progress, advancing sophistication or championing the places we want to go.  

Life delights in life.

William Blake offered, “Life delights in life.” We could simply amend it to summarize our experiences. “Taste delights in taste.” Thank you for reading, here’s to finding more more easily.

4 Replies to “The Community and Commandments of Taste”

  1. Is taste, then, mind over matter? I tend to believe that just because you are used to something bad, doesn’t make it good.

    1. Exactly! All the White Zinfandel lovers in the world don’t necessarily make it good, but that example’s ability to attract new wine drinkers is amazing! And with some attention to their taste, they may just move to oaky, buttery Chardonnay! =-) Thank you for reading!

  2. Thank you for this Eric! I used to think it would be fun to taste and note the distinctions of two wines side by side and then study the lab tests of those same two wines as a way to better understand those varietals and their characteristics as they are perceived personally and in print. I’d still like to do that but your wider ranging take is fascinating! Cheers!
    Brooks

    1. Thank you Brooks! This was a longer article that I could not find meaningful ways to split so thanks for the read! One of the most valuable ways of developing taste is to taste similar wine side-by-side. The compare and contrast exercise illuminates the process. Cheers!

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