Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What Do We Use to Taste Our Food

I'm sure it will come as a shock to many of you that Riss and I started brewing our own beer about a year ago. (Well, Riss started brewing and I started occasionally helping her brew and occasionally being greeted when I got home from work on a Sunday with a statement like, “You like, kolsch, right?”) It has been a ton of fun and the beer has been fantastic. The most powerful taste experience I've had happened fairly early on when I drank one of our saisons. It was towards when I usually go to bed, I was a little peckish and decided to have a beer instead of a bowl of cereal. Beyond how great it tasted, drinking that saison felt physically good, as if it were biologically, bodily beneficial; as if the usually very abstract sense of health and nutrition materialized as an actual sensation of flavor. And, being me, rather than just enjoying it, I thought about it.

Beyond, perhaps an extra level of vitamin-B from the yeast, can we prove that home brew is, in fact, better than commercial beer? Could we chemically analyze the ingredients to determine if a certain kind of hops or malts or grains or yeasts produces different tastes when processed at different scales? Of course, as is natural, thinking about beer got me thinking about everything else. There is evidence that today's vegetables, for a whole host of reasons, have less nutritional content than vegetables from a generation or two ago, so does that explain why my farm share vegetables taste so good that store bought vegetables now taste like styrofoam that's punching me in the eye? Perhaps we simply underestimate the value of “freshness” with vegetables and the actual determining taste factor is the extra day between being picked and being eaten that all store bought veggies have. Maybe all those pesticides, no matter how thoroughly washed off, affect flavor.

The questions of taste and quality are, of course, compromised by all the various “brown bag” tests, that tend to show that, without the suggestion of the label, it is very difficult for most people to taste the difference between great wine and good wine, meaning the actual chemical difference, the actual physical interaction between the wine and your taste buds, what we actually taste is not meaningfully different; meaning that the bulk of what we taste, at least when we're tasting wine, is the idea of what the wine should taste like. If this is true for wine, is it true for organic farm share vegetables and home brewed beer?

Of course, advertisers have known for ages that the suggestion of a food experience is almost as important as the actual food in how the food is experienced. A McDonald's hamburger isn't really flavored with a cliff's worth of sodium and the mysterious greasy remains its brethren leave on the flat top; it's flavored by a gagillion dollar relentless advertising campaign abusing the cultural consciousness of the world into believing its food. The same goes for any food that is advertised, in any way. Food producers have discovered that it is more profitable to suggest their food tastes good, than to go through the trouble of trying to make sure their food is actually good.

One current in the interpretation of this phenomenon is to argue that there really isn't actual “quality” in terms of taste. For the most part, if you believe your are in a super classy restaurant that makes fantastic food, the majority of the classy fantastic-ness of your meal will come from you believing it will be classily fantastic and not from the food having any actual, provable class or fantasy. Of course, there is more to food than just taste, and too often this idea is used to apologize for destructive and unhealthy food practices. If we can't definitively, scientifically, empirically prove that say, a burger a Craigie on Main is better than a burger at McDonald's, than McDonald's is free to continue doing whatever it is they call “making a hamburger.”

Yes, it is important for food to taste good, but it is also important for food to not give us Type-2 diabetes, for our food system not to kill all the bees and help destroy the world, and for the way we prepare and eat our food to help us feel like actual fucking human beings and not just cogs in a vast capitalist system that need occasional refueling.

We taste with our brains. Our entire brains. We all know that food is flavored by our ideas of it and our memories of it—which is why there is such a thing as “comfort food”--but we can also taste with our politics, taste with our ethics, taste with our identities. If the vegetables I get from Steve also come with the knowledge they are not contributing to the destruction of civilization as we know it by pumping vast amounts of carbon into the atmosphere and thus changing the climate, while representing a scalable business model for a more just, more healthy, more community-based food system, why shouldn't they taste better to me than the vegetables that are part of a massive agri-business complex thriving through destructive and totally unsustainable monoculture? Even if chemically, even if the actual substances that hit my actual taste buds are not actually different, they are politically, economically, and socially different, so why shouldn't my primary sensory experience of them be radically different.

Though I doubt it, I suppose there is a chance that I cannot prove the beer that started this whole though is physically much different from a Bud Light (I mean, except for the whole one being a saison and the other being a pilsner, but I don't think there are any mainstream commercial saisons and that's not really the point anyway) but that beer and a Bud Light have different meaning in my life, so, of course I would experience them differently. In the end, we don't taste with our tongues, we taste with our lives.

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