Culinary context and the history of taste.

10 10 2010

This weekend, both Randall and Ralph have linked to Mark Smith’s essay in the Psychologist on the history of the senses. While it’s certainly worth a read, the piece has almost nothing on my favorite sense (at least in historical terms): taste. Luckily, my friends Gerard Fitzgerald and Gabriella Petrick covered that ground very well in a JAH Forum on the history of the senses (subs. req.) two years ago. Reading that piece again after reading Smith and having taught food history for a couple of semesters now, I see it’s both a good review of the literature and an interesting discussion of the obstacles in recreating how food used to taste. I also realized that I’ve become something of a taste history nihilist.

Here’s Fitzgerald and Petrick towards the end of their essay:

“Just as M. F. K. Fisher could invite readers to taste the perfect spring pea through her writing, historians can also convey a sense of past flavors. As historians, we can adopt some of the stylistic elements food writers employ as well as learn to read and interpret a variety of documents with our sense of taste. Cooking and eating these foods and then writing about their flavors can enhance our understanding of previous generations.”

It’s not as if I object to that advice. I’m just not sure it’s really going to work. First, there’s the problem of breeds. Assuming you can get an heirloom vegetable, there’s no guarantee that it will taste the same as did in its heyday. Then there’s the problem of terroir. Nothing is going to taste exactly alike unless its grown under the same conditions. Of course, everyone who’s bothered to think about the history of food knows this.

Smith assumes that every food historians knows this too:

[S]ensory histories, written by a variety of historians in multiple subfields, tend (quite rightly) to stress the preeminent importance of context for fathoming the role a particular sense played in shaping the meaning of the world for contemporaries. Most sensory historians do not assume that what smelled foul to a medieval English nose is the same thing as what modern English noses would deem stinky. Sensory historians correctly understand that the definition and meaning of what was sound and what was noise, what was stench-ridden and what was perfumed, what functioned as permissible forms of touch and what didn’t, and what certain foods tasted ‘like’ is and was highly contingent on who was doing the sniffing, tasting, touching and listening, the various technologies underwriting the meaning attached to sensory evaluations, and the particular political, economic and social contexts that shaped what the senses meant.

Certainly, unless we have a job at the Food Network, historians of food aren’t just interested in food for food’s sake. This subject should be interesting to historians of all stripes as a vehicle for getting at larger social and cultural questions. I can’t remember who said this first but it’s something of a truism now to see that human beings spend so much time acquiring, preparing and eating food that it’s really strange that historians haven’t spent more time on the subject until now.

But what about the effect of culinary context on the history of taste? Obviously, your second beer will not be as yummy as your first beer because you will be partially impaired. I think that applies to chicken too. I had already given up beef when I became a vegetarian. It was a family decision that came at the end of a vacation in Maine. We had all had chicken at nearly every lunch or dinner for a span of two weeks and it suddenly dawned on me that it had become tasteless and bland. What’s worse, I realized that it was probably tasteless and bland already! On the other hand, the proverbial immediate beneficiary of Herbert Hoover’s “chicken in every pot” policies would have had a totally different reaction to the same chicken. I don’t think I can ever unring that bell and ever go back to a time when chicken would be new to me again (but the fake chicken for vegetarians is definitely the best of all the faux meats currently on the American market).

The funniest thing about teaching the history of food is listening to students try to explain why they like some things and not others. They always try to rationalize it some way or another, but it increasingly strikes me that we like what we eat because we eat it regularly and we don’t like what we don’t like because we don’t. It didn’t take much training for me to like mushrooms after I became a vegetarian, even though I used to claim I hated them before. It’s the mozzarella and basil on those Italian sandwiches that got me over the hump. My daughter couldn’t stand shrimp until we started cooking it in batter for her. Now she’ll eat them plain gladly, and not just because we make her. On the other hand, I have a colleague from Maine who hates seafood. The explanation for that has to be too much of the stuff while growing up.

Context really is key for understanding the history of so many things. I’m simply afraid that when considering the history of taste, that context can’t really be reconstructed.


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