Foodosophy of the Evolution of Taste (Part 2): The Meaning of Authenticity

A lot of time spent in airports usually means one of two things for me. Either i get caught up on my music by tuning out the world and listening to my iPod, or I spend a lot of time thinking. Lately, it’s been the latter.

I’ve noticed lately some interesting trends in how taste continues to evolve – both personally, and culturally. In part one, I discussed the personal, as i shared my thoughts on some things that have been bothering me lately. Specifically, how information I had posted a few years ago has gotten stale, partly due because my tastes have continued to evolve and change. Trying to think of ways to manage this has left me with nothing but a headache, but discussions about this are ongoing and i feel hopeful that someone has an ideal solution!

Today, i want to discuss the idea of a cultural evolution of taste. What im referring to specifically is how a culture’s culinary traditions and tastes continue to change, and how that impacts how we look at food experiences, especially when it comes to the idea of “authenticity”.

Why do i care and what does this have to do with Foodosophy? Well, when sharing experiences, providing context is an important part of what you are describing. They are like signposts for the reader – identification of things that are important to them, and things that they don’t value. Adjectives all have some personal meaning to readers. So does the word authentic. I wonder though, should the word authentic never be used when discussing food?

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Foodosophy of Evolving Taste – Part 1

First off Happy New Year to everyone. Secondly a very big very thank you to Shokutsu et al. for keeping things moving in my protracted absence. I’d change the blog to be called shokutsuosophy, but it doesnt quite have the same ring. Hope you’re ok with that 🙂

Unfortunately, without a good internet connection, im not able to post anything with pictures, but i wanted to discuss a topic that’s been on my mind recently. It’s about the evolution of taste. What does it mean for people who blog, and how does it shape how we view food?

Let’s start with the definition of evolution: “a gradual process in which something changes into a different and usually more complex or better form”.

What im referring to is the natural propensity of taste to change over time. I feel this happens personally, as in to individuals, and it happens culturally as well. Today, i want to address the personal aspect.

Personally, i’ve noticed that my own tastes change and evolve quite often. The more repeated exposure i get to certain types of foods, and really, the more exposure to different tastes (in wine, coffee, food), the more what constitutes my “ideal taste” changes.

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Foodosophy of Taste – Key Elements

The subjectivity of taste makes it an interesting topic to examine. In an earlier post, I brought up a statement I had once heard , throwing open the idea that what I taste cannot be proven to be the same as what another person does. What tastes like an apple to me is not guaranteed to taste the same for you.

I was confronted with an interesting question today – I was asked what my tastes were when it came to food. While i spit out a rote answer – “simple, flavourful, fresh, well-balanced food”, it lead me to thinking, what were really my tastes? Simple isnt really a taste – it’s a subjective opinion. Flavourful and fresh –  well, one is self-evident, and fresh is almost impossible to describe. At the root of it, I know i prefer salty over sweet, and sour over bitter, but what is it about each of these elements that is appealing, or not appealing to me? Is it a balance of tastes I prefer that make up my preferences? Or is there more to it than just what my tastebuds register?

As a child, my tastes were defined by what was cooked for me. Familiar food was good food. Somewhere along the way, it stopped being about what was familiar, and more about what I truly enjoyed. Sometimes. I remember “liking” some foods because it grossed other people out.  I remember liking some foods because i was supposed to like them. I remember liking some foods because my brother liked it, and gosh be damned that he would like something that I would not! So in being honest with myself, I know that a lot of my tastes come from a variety of influences – not just what is on my palette.

My theory? I think the reason food connects with people on such a deep level is because it is one part emotional, one part taste, one part chemisty, and one part familiarity. Emotional are the strong experiences, both positive and negative, that we associated with certain foods. Taste is the reaction of my tastebuds to what I am tasting. Chemistry has to do with the interaction of the food with your mouth chemistry (part saliva, part pH), and familiarity is how familiar the experience is to you, people being creatures of familiarity.

Watching Top Chef tonight, I heard an interesting statement.  Tom Colicchio called one contestant’s food “uni-taste”. Is this such a bad thing? Is it layers of taste that make up balance, interest, and complexity? Or can a single flavour, one pure taste, not be equally enjoyable? Is this just something personal to him, or something commonly found across most people?

I find this to be personally confusing, as I really have no idea on how to answer the question “what are your tastes”? I throw it out to you readers – what are the key elements that make up your taste? And how would you define them?

Food and Fine Dining – Philosophy (Interlude)

In recent economic good times, I have noticed some dining behaviour that I can only classify as…perplexing. What I have noticed in many discussions regarding food is that a large contigent of people believe that if they eat something expensive at a fine dining restaurant, it must be good. This issue drives me crazy.

Let’s break this issue down from the roots. Let’s start with the definition of fine dining. There is no clear cut definition – in fact, if you think about it, the term itself is a bit pretentious. What is fine dining? I have no idea. To me, it conjures up images of fancy decor, and a “higher level” of execution. But this is just a label. Anyone can use it. And really, there is no real meaning. Let’s throw the term out.

I have a personal issue with “fine dining” as well. Lately, most fine dining establishments copy techniques and flavours that other “fine dining” restaurants have had success with. They feel they are bringing haute cuisine, a higher level of “food” culture to the masses. Fancy ingredients. Time intensive techniques. And they copy them verbatim. Forget seasonality. Forget about local ingredients that did not have to be picked green, and ripened in a gas-controlled storage facility. It’s like taste has become secondary to technique. But isnt the point of technique to maximize the taste? Shouldn’t the first technique be “use the best ingredients you can get”? Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against those who innovate. But to blindly copy another chef’s technique for nothing more than financial success is cheating the diner.

When did people start to forget about taste? Sea-salt foam. “Mmmm, it’s the essence of sea salt”. Great! I could drink out of the ocean, or lick an Alberta road in winter, and i could get the very same essence. What is good about that? Does it nourish? Excite?  Soothe? Does it invoke any feelings or passions? Calm you when you’re upset? Make you happy when you’re blue? Or is this the same as the interpretative dance that you don’t understand, but pretend to like because it is the cultured thing to do?

Look, my point is really simple. Eat what you like. What tastes good. Think of the evolution of food – from sustenance, to enjoyment. We’re at a place where food serves both purposes – we enjoy it, and it nourishes us. Don’t be afraid to like something, or dislike something, for what it is.

On a Calgary-based blog,  Foodosophy commenter JM wrote an interesting post on how he discovered it was ok to recognize, AND like Ginger Beef for what it is – non-authentic Chinese. While my personal feelings regarding Ginger Beef don’t follow his predilection, I think the opinion is sound. Taste what you are eating. If you like it, there’s nothing wrong with that. From the humble KD, to Ginger Beef, to McDonalds’ french fries, there are many things we “shouldn’t” like, but we do.

In an old episode of Kitchen Nightmares, Gordon Ramsay started a marketing campaign for a pub – the campaign for “Real Gravy”. While I won’t go as far as to campaign for “Real Food”, I would like to petition you all to really taste that ceviche-style, uzu-marintaed black cod with fleur de sel foam and faux caviar. If you like it, great. But if you find it to be mediocre, you leave the restaurant $50 poorer, and having to stop for a burger on the way home, it’s ok to say “I got cheated”. Don’t like it because it was expensive, and fancy. Like it, or dislike it, because of how it tastes.