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1352 words
SHJ Issue 17
Fall 2017

Disputing the Indisputable: Taste

by Skip Eisiminger

I. Eugene went to mass to hear the bells
and sat at the rail to taste the smells.
The Wordspinner

The first printed record in English of “taste” (spelled “tast”) appears in the OED dated 1292. The dictionary cites Britton, a thirteenth-century legal tome, on how, among other things, to handle inheritance claims brought by grieving heirs, fearful of being shortchanged by mothers claiming to be pregnant. Mr. Britton advised local authorities to form a committee of six women to “tast” or handle the “belly and breasts” of the woman in question to decide if she was, indeed, pregnant. If, after forty weeks of confinement in the lord’s castle, she had not delivered a child, the author advised a monetary fine and prison.

Clearly, “taste” meant “to touch” before it meant “to sample” with the mouth. Etymologist Joseph Shipley suggests that Latin-speaking folk, namely the clergy, blended tangere (“to touch”) and gustare (“to sample with the mouth”), taking the “ta” from the former and the “st...e” from the latter. This strikes me as over-ingenious, but I have nothing better than the natural evolution of a word offering some expanded services of itself. As will be seen, the infinitive was just the start:

  • taste (n.) c. 1350, in the sense of “a flavor”

  • taster (n.) c. 1450

  • tasteless (adj.) 1603

  • distasteful (adj.) 1607

  • tasteful (adj.) 1611

  • tasty (adj.) 1617

  • taste (n.) c. 1675, in the sense of “discernment”

  • tastemaker (n.) 1954

Human nature being what it is, it shouldn’t be a surprise that “distasteful” preceded a phrase like “in good taste” by nearly three-quarters of a century. As Winston Churchill might have said, the nakedly “distasteful” is halfway around the globe before “good taste” can get his pants on.

II. When Dick picked a winner he was so smug
he hawked up a pearl and oystered our rug.
The Wordspinner

If expectorating on a host’s rug isn’t distasteful, how about these:

  • A line of “Hemingway Shotguns”

  • Roseanne Barr’s crotch grab after publicly singing the national anthem

  • A roast pig with painted “toenails”

  • A punk-rock band called the “Dead Kennedys”

  • The Alabama “Coon Hunt for Christ”

  • Madonna’s public gift of soiled panties to David Letterman

  • Ex-President Nixon’s asking David Frost if he’d “fornicated” recently

“Good taste” has been defined as the “internalizing of societal conventions,” and as such, Picasso complained that good taste is the enemy of creativity and art. I understand Picasso’s fears, but isn’t “bad taste” an enemy of human dignity? Merchandising a line of “Hemingway Shotguns” following the shotgun suicides of the writer and his father makes us all look bad.

In an interdisciplinary-humanities discussion of courtly nonchalance, I made the mistake of showing a photograph of a man falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11. The photographer happened to capture this poor soul upside down, hands at his side, with one leg bent at the knee, and the other leg straight. I told the class it looked like he was doing the “River Dance of Death.” As soon as I said it, I realized my error and apologized, but that didn’t stop some students from criticizing my bad taste. I wrote my department chair saying I agreed with their end-of-term assessment, promised never to use the photograph again, and destroyed it.

III. Falling in Love: A Sensory Journey

She looked good,
sounded good,
smelled good,
and tasted good,
but “she felt good”
was the handshake
that closed the deal.
The Wordspinner

Ben Franklin did everything except taste the sparks that flew off the brass key at the end of his kite string. His other four senses had convinced him that lightning is essentially a megadose of the electricity he pulled from his batteries and the carpets he scuffled across. We can forgive him for that lapse, but in a true taste test, placing something on a utensil and moving it to the mouth is required. Oddly, while yogurt tasted better on a silver spoon to most subjects, most other foods tasted better on chrome. In another test, the size of the wine glass’s opening led many to dislike the wine preferred by others. The size of the opening, it seems, influences the “retronasal olfaction,” or the reactions in the nose that affect the taste.

Indeed, any number of factors may contribute to flavor:

  • Temperature is one, for who enjoys a tepid Coke with a cold hamburger and fries?

  • Ice cold, my European friends maintain, is the flavor of a Bud Light. Indeed, it’s the only way I can drink one. German beers, however, taste better, at cellar or room temperatures.

  • Nasal congestion removes smell from the taste experience, leaving food flat.

  • If the nostrils are closed, it is difficult to tell the difference between a slice of apple or onion on a dry tongue.

  • If putting on my glasses helps me hear the television better, it seems that turning the volume up sharpens my vision. This may be my imagination.

  • Just as buttering a dry brownie improves its flavor for me, removing most of the icing from a “mega-cupcake” improves the flavor.

  • If a wine steward lies to a panel of tasters, declaring a cheap wine to be “expensive,” that wine usually wins the taste test.

  • A weak electric current passed through a metal utensil gives unsalted food a salty taste.

  • With a special head-mounted camera that transmits topographic “pictures” to a wafer on the tongue, a blind person can “see” hand holds well enough to scale cliffs.

  • A bitter drink imbibed before seeing a distasteful video will deepen the distaste.

  • Adding some red, tasteless food coloring to white wine usually makes the “red” wine more palatable to those who say, “I prefer red wine.”

  • My wife and I rarely drink tomato juice, but in an airliner, we both start craving a cold, savory drink with a pinch of pepper and salt.

  • If I’m hungry after a meat-and-three meal, a slice of apple pie does more to suppress my lingering hunger than more vegetables.

  • Estrogen makes more women than men “super tasters.”

  • Nothing tastes good if one is forced to eat it. Seventy years since being force fed my last English pea, the prospect is still unpleasant.

None of these explains why some people like chocolate-covered olives or peanut-curry ice cream, but then we generally dislike foods we have no intention of tasting. Science urges otherwise: since 1662, the British Royal Society’s motto has been, “Take nobody’s word for it.” But if I’m ever in Namibia, I’m going to accept Chef Anthony Bourdain’s thumbs-down review on the raw, unwashed anus of a warthog. To quote E. E. Cummings, “there is some shit I will not eat”

IV. When Judith Birnberg’s sense of taste returned following tongue-cancer surgery, she said her “world [was] transformed from black-and-white to Technicolor.”

Friedrich Nietzsche thought that “all of life is a dispute over taste,” but I suspect most people realize what heats one oven doesn’t melt butter in another. Thus, in a family or marital context, many disputes are moved to a back burner and life goes on. My German-born wife loves her sourdough rye and rendered fat. It turns my stomach, but then she doesn’t butter her brownies either. Over a lifetime, we’ve learned to look the other way without turning up our noses.

If Nietzsche is correct, how is it that humans are born liking sugar and disliking anything salty, bitter, umami, or sour? How could a philosopher from the home of cherry and chocolate cheesecake overlook sweets? At birth, even our tonsils have taste buds, but these are absorbed long before we reach adulthood if they aren’t surgically removed first. Which doesn’t mean we lose all these sensors, for taste may be the last sense to leave us. When my mother-in-law was blind and deaf shortly before her death complicated by dementia, she loved when my wife fed her a banana. I’m aware that what follows might not be the most tasteful observation, but her desperate gusto reminded me of the lab rats I’d seen, eager for more cheesecake, knowing every mouthful came with a galvanic shock.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury