Food-What is Taste?

There is no one food that is consumed by everyone on earth. Taste is determined by culture, anatomy, and genetics. Almost everything we eat, and when, and where, is culturally determined, so taste is taught. Some people pay top dollar for escargot in fine restaurants while others stomp on the same snail when they find it in the garden. One person’s haute cuisine is another person’s pest. Taste is also anatomically determined. Scientists categorize people as “tasters” or “non-tasters.” Which category you fall into depends on how many taste buds you have on your tongue—an inherited trait. Nontasters with few taste buds don’t taste bitter foods like grapefruit and broccoli very intensely. They can eat chile peppers and not suffer. Tasters, on the other hand, have many more taste buds and are sensitive to bitter and sweet tastes, and to sensations like carbonation and fat. Then there are “super-tasters,” people whose tongues are covered with taste buds and who are extremely sensitive. “We are what our ancestors ate and drank,” according to Gary Nabhan, director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. If our ancestors lived in one area for a long time, then chances are good that we are genetically adapted to the food from that environment. When our ancestors moved to a place with different plants and animals, they were exposed to unfamiliar foods. Our bodies can react to new foods negatively, with allergies or illnesses. But we can force ourselves, or cultural conditioning can influence us enough, to overcome our dislike of some foods—even ones that cause pain, like chile peppers.
So we come full circle, back to taste is taught. Another problem is that the food in times past did not taste the same as our food, and we will never be able to reproduce it. For example, most of the vineyards of Europe were destroyed by an insect parasite, phylloxera, in the second half of the nineteenth century. The rootstock is different now, and so is the taste. Wars change things profoundly: the work force, which was often also the farmers, goes off to fight, leaving the fields to women; boundaries change; the food supply is interrupted. Or food is used outright as a weapon: control the food supply and you win the war. The wars have been numerous, including nine world wars, while the periods of peace have been so few that historians have named them, like the Pax Romana—Roman Peace—of the Roman Empire.

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