Taste Buds

by The Bon Vivants

In the first grade, some time ago, one of us had a very peculiar habit.  He would steal cloves of raw garlic from his mother’s kitchen and stash them in his pocket.  During class, he would take out the garlic and peel it secretly, away from the curious glances of other students and the punitive looks of the teacher. Then while doing classwork, he would hold the clove in a cupped palm to his face, over his nose and breathe in its odor.  This went on for a while until the boy's grandmother picked him up from school and took him to her house for dinner.  She went to wash his coat and found the garlic.  The boy begged her not to tell his mother, afraid he may get in trouble for nicking the garlic. His grandmother, after hearing why he'd taken it, promised to keep the secret. 

A number of years later, we sit here in our office and wonder about taste and flavor - what makes something balanced and why we like one thing more than another.  One of us loves cardamom and salt, the other doesn't get it so much.  We have some theories.  First, there is the nurture argument; you are what you eat, or what you are fed.  Second, there is the equalizing of the palette; you have to taste both good and bad food and drink to make your decisions.  Third, there is the argument that some things are just plain delicious to everyone, while others are earned flavors, or things you learn to like, i.e. milk chocolate vs. dark chocolate.  When we are asked to write menus, or help with a program, or plan an evening’s festivities, all of these thoughts factor into an equation that ends with the hope that we have profiled the people we are serving correctly, that they like what we've come up with and they ask for seconds.  How do we come to like to drink and eat the things we do?  It is a question that we all go through.  We have some thoughts on the subject and hope to hear how this equation plays itself out for you.

Nature vs. Nurture.  We eat what we have been taught to eat for the most part.  Nurture wins this one.  We guess it all starts with Mom, at the teat.  If you are what you eat, you are then also what your Mom ate, which is where any opinions of taste must have began forming.  If you grow up a “white food baby” with spineless parents who do not enjoy vegetables or dark meat and let you eat whatever you want in fear of a tantrum, you will likely be a very un-adventurous eater.  If you grow up with “foodie” parents who challenge you to eat what they have cooked or go to bed hungry, via nature, your growling stomach, you end up with a more developed palette.  It starts with the family.  Some of us are lucky to have had grandparents who liked food from the old country, or they were so country they made things like tripe, or okra, or something else that is weird in the eyes of a standard teenager but truly amazing and tasty when prepared properly.  Those grandparents usually have more sway than Mom and Dad as they trump the folks in “cool.”  Then there are your friends, and what their families ate when you went over for dinner.  Back to being raised right, you eat the food you are served because it is polite, dammit!  Then you realize you like teriyaki spam sushi and raw oysters.  Next, consider where you live.  Bay Area, California has very different food than New Orleans, Louisiana, and that is just talking nationally.  We read somewhere once that a group of the finest chefs in China did a tour of the finest restaurants the Occident has to offer. They had a general opinion that our finest chefs made fairly bland and uninteresting food.  Our chefs had a hard time with some of the Orient’s strong flavors, i.e. fermented foods, unique textures, gristle and tendon, and “odd” cuts of meat, fish and fowl.  Finally, many of us are likely victims of the desire to be cool.  These days, nothing is cooler than having an opinion about food, thanks to “Top Chef” and Bourdain, Yelping, “checking in” and Facebook posting about what you've eaten and drank.  This is de riguer for the hippest of the hip, pushing people to push their food and liquor boundaries for fear of being uncool.  On behalf of nature, we are predisposed to distrust bitter flavors, as well as stinky cheeses and meats as our instincts are screaming poison and rotten.  But with a little nurturing and peer pressure, we are all malleable and can learn to like anything within reason.

One of the things we like to do is have people smell things that are gross, or eat something that is so painfully out of balance, or just so plain terrible that it is on its way to the garbage can.  A huge factor in informing taste is, “How can you know how good something can taste if you don't know how bad something can taste?”  It is real easy to like fresh, scratch made, organic, lovingly and professionally made food and drinks.  It is another to suffer through a few bites of preservative laden, artificial, GMO rich, prepackaged, or blue dyed food and drinks.  We maintain that you do not have to finish a plate of food or a drink of the awful, but you do have to taste it.  You do have to smell turned milk, or old fish, or some new liqueur that tastes like “blue razzleberry.”  Call it an occupational hazard and/or responsibility.  If we are tastemakers, sadly, we are required to take the good with the bad, to take one for the team, to inform ourselves that, “Yes, it is that bad!”  Corked wine, smell it and taste it.  Old wine, same drill.  Cheap nasty whiskey, smell and taste.  Freezer burned anything, smell and taste.  We have all seen guests swill down a bottle of super corked wine and think it was the cat’s meow, only to discover later, after they had left, that the wine was piss, and we failed to protect them from themselves.  Shame on us for not suffering and remembering how we had suffered.  Shying away from the nasty and the bad leaves us with a half-informed palette.  It is hard work, but somebody has to do it - that somebody is the general us.

Some things taste good to just about everyone.  A ripe, fresh picked strawberry is sweet, slightly tart, has a juicy but firm texture, a beautiful color and lovely smell.  Some things do not.  A papaya is sweet and musky, its flesh is buttery or custardy, it is ungainly in shape and has a horde of ugly green and black seeds, and smells sorta sweaty.  We would contend this is a delicious fruit, others may not.  If a Sazerac is made perfect with the right dilution and the right balance of bitter, sweet, and savory, it is a slam dunk with almost anyone.  Whereas the Negroni is something most people learn to like.  Most people have cream and sugar in their first cup of coffee and then wean themselves down to a double espresso, no sugar.  Blended Scotch still greatly outsells Single Malts… and do we really have to touch on the subject of Vodka?  A perfect roasted chicken pleases the masses, chicken liver mousse for the specialists.  When we write menus, we are very sensitive to this. We are very aware of the changing likes and dislikes of the Bay Area, which is different than other markets.  It is subjectivity vs. objectivity.  Do you put a strawberry on the menu, or a papaya?

Our sensibilities are all collections of flavor memories and histories, family legacies and what we are told is “cool.”  In the end, for us, it is always a guessing game. An informed guessing game, but still a gamble.  We are all individuals and we all have very unique taste buds.  How the hell are we to know if someone was put in a closet and forced to eat perfect strawberries in the dark while listening to Journey's greatest hits at max volume?  Taste is subjective; who is right and who is wrong?  The blue razzleberry is wrong, always. 

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