Taste Tidbits: In Pursuit of more, More, MORE Flavor, and the Question of Complexity

My interview with Wall Street Journal reporter Miriam Gottfried for her article about our relentless pursuit for increasingly intense flavors and the way they might be changing our palates really got me thinking about taste. I’m pretty much always thinking about taste these days, as I move closer to writing the first book I think will emerge from my dissertation on restaurant reviewing, which I intend to call “A Short Treatise on Taste.”

As the James Beard Foundation moves into the realm of sustainability and public health by launching a national dialogue on how the restaurant industry can participate in the growing global movement, I find the actual taste of food is often neglected in meetings about how to address these issues. That’s what I believe the Beard Foundation and the chefs who support us have to contribute to the conversation. In fact, it has become my personal mission to insert taste into the dialogue about sustainability and public health. It isn’t enough to just make fruits and vegetables available to school children and affordable for others. You have to make them taste good or people aren’t going to eat them. I throw out more mealy, tasteless supermarket apples than I consume.

But how does constant exposure to exaggerated flavors affect what tastes people expect in their food? Does anyone know the true, unenhanced flavor of a strawberry any more? I’ve often witnessed people eat tomatoes in Italy or fraises de bois in France and think their flavors are so intense they taste fake. As Gottfried reports, intense flavors beget more intense flavors.

One of the elements missing from most manufactured flavors is complexity. It’s easy to make something hot and say it has the flavor of chile, but peppers are remarkable for the vast variety of flavors that accompany their characteristic heat. As technology gets more sophisticated, I have no doubt flavor labs will be able to add these complex notes. But if consumers are desensitized to all but the most basic flavors—hot, sour, sweet, salty—without any notion of balance or complexity, I fear something important will be lost. Where would the visual arts be if all artists had to work with was a palette of primary colors?

While speaking to Gottfried, I couldn’t stop thinking about Thai cuisine. There is a whole style of cooking built on strong, bold flavors, but in such balance and complexity that it would be hard to deny its sophistication. And yet a diet of Thai food results in a constant need for ever more flavor, too. During my senior year of college I worked for a Thai chef in upstate New York. When I first entered the kitchen I found the Sriracha sauce the staff poured on everything tasty but too hot to tolerate in large quantities. By the time I graduated 9 months later, I used it like ketchup.

On the opposite side of the savory spectrum, perhaps, is Japanese cuisine, which celebrates subtlety instead of boldness, but also emphasizes balance and complexity. Japanese add texture to the taste equation to further complicate things in the mouth.

Concern for taste is always complicated, both because what constitutes “good taste” is difficult to define, and because the very concept of good taste is saturated with class. But there is a way, I think, to separate a pursuit of good, complex flavor, whether bold or subtle, from class. Or rather, to deemphasize the function taste for food has in making class-based distinctions. (Apologies to Bourdieu, my hero.)

One way is to produce a variety of fruits and vegetables that have their own bold, distinct, natural flavors. The vast spectrum of flavors we are capable of producing by all natural means is more impressive than any flavor institute’s portfolio. But we’ve narrowed our marketplace selection to emphasize only primary flavors. Super sweet corn, super hot peppers, these are the natural equivalent of Dorito’s Third Degree Burn.

The other, more difficult way, is to begin to emphasize discernment. And to do so in a way distinct from habitus. In this regard, Italy is my model. It’s there, perhaps more than anywhere else I’ve been, where the flavor and quality of food is held as an inalienable right. The best ingredients and products are more or less enjoyed, or at least respected, by everyone, whether it’s just-pressed olive oil in Tuscany or delicate mozzarella di bufala in Campania. Of course these items come with a price tag that not everyone can afford and the economic pressures on producers have created a dynamic market for impure products as they have done everywhere else. But few Italians I’ve encountered would ever deny the right of others to have, understand and enjoy the taste of these iconic Italian foods. There’s a pride in these Italian products that comes from a notion of discernment that I think needs to be cultivated in America to help reverse some unseemly trends in taste. Many dedicated folks are working on these issues already, but there is much more work to be done. Taste is not a bad thing. It is a means of social change.

3 Comments

Filed under Taste Tidbits

3 responses to “Taste Tidbits: In Pursuit of more, More, MORE Flavor, and the Question of Complexity

  1. Hello. I am not a professional food critic so please pardon the naivite of my comment. It seems to me that intensity ought to be differentiated from complexity. Intensity of flavor talks to the amplitude and magnitude of the taste, and how it is perceived by our taste buds. Complexity, it seems to me, talks to the depth and co-mingling of flavors, or bouquet as it is referred in oenology. Borrowing from complexity theory, a complex set of flavors would consider the intensity of each component insofar as it impacts the perception of the others and the overall taste experience over time (as it lingers).
    Cheers.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I agree that with you completely that intensity and complexity are distinct aspects of taste and I apologize if I confounded them in my post. In fact, I think you’ve nailed my point, that we often mistake intensity for complexity when they are two distinct elements that contribute to our perception of flavor. I also think that, although the technology of the flavor industry is certainly complex, often the flavors they are striving to attain are not. Thai food shows us that if you ramp up intensity across flavors, you can maintain balance, maintain complexity, and still producer wonderfully delicious food. If you only focus on one aspect of the complex flavors, making something as hot as possible or as salty as possible, you throw off that balance, the complexity is lost, and you end up with something that is the opposite of delicious.

  2. I agree with you, across the board. But I do think (as above) that, on the one hand, intensity and complexity are vastly different animals. My bubbie’s horseradish is intense, but it is in no way complex; layer that intensity, however, and you’ve got another story entirely. Complexity seems to me to connote volume/layer; intensity can be one-dimensional, and one-note (hot, pungent, sweet, etc).
    And it’s true what you say: it isn’t enough to get kids to eat fruits and vegetables—we have to make them taste good. But what we’re glossing over is that we also, perhaps more importantly, have to teach them how to prepare these fresh foods, rather than unwrap them and toss them into the microwave. Otherwise, as I’ve said elsewhere, the rest is moot.

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