WCMA’s “The Place of Taste: A Symposium on Food, Culture, and Community” last Saturday celebrated Gastronomica magazine’s 10th anniversary with a host of speakers and culinary events. One of the day’s lectures was Adam Gopnik, author of the forthcoming The Table Comes First and staff writer for The New Yorker. He discussed “the nature of taste.”
An esteemed food critic and writer, Gopnik began his discourse on food with one of his many maxims and historical bits of knowledge by repeating in Latin, “de gustibus non est disputandum,” or “there is no disputing about tastes.” Taste can either be acquired or authentic, he claimed; there is no objective right or wrong in the matter of taste. To bring in an example, Gopnik mentioned an unimaginable 37 course meal presented in one of his many travels abroad that blurred the line between savory and sweet. He recalled eating wild strawberries doused in a broth made from the wild rabbits that had, in turn, eaten the strawberries. Such is gustatory taste – bitter, sweet, sour, salty.
Gopnik went on to discuss how gustatory taste does not end at the physical senses – food itself may open a door to releasing the natural opiates in our brains by exciting our tongue receptors. A favorite of chefs and foodies alike, hot chilies are the main reason why people return again and again to tasting the power of spicy foods. Gopnik revealed that the strength and power of the chilies excites receptors throughout the tongue, releasing natural opiates from our brains into our whole bodies and providing a natural reaction to such intense flavors.
“But what about the morality of taste?” he questioned. Eliminating the energy-consumptive steps between growing food and putting it on the table is, Gopnik claimed, a gesture towards sustainable cooking. Moral taste comes from buying locally and seasonally. Chefs such as Michel Guérard, the inventor of a style of cooking which avoids fat and cream called cuisine minceur, implicate higher moral taste while lessening the emphasis on the gustatory, and according to Gopnik, the two types of taste should not have to be separated. In French culture, chefs have been known to collect local ingredients of the season and transform them into delicious meals. “There is wisdom in connecting the two,” Gopnik said.
Today, during a time when seasonal cooking is revered to the point that certain restaurants will only serve what can be found in a hundred mile-radius of the establishment, Gopnik reminds us that such cooking was not always in fashion or by choice. To introduce the idea that gustatory and moral tastes change, Gopnik shared a story about Lucien, the main character from Balzac’s Lost Illusions in 19th century Paris. For the “suffering of art,” Lucien had no choice but to eat locally grown food and could not afford the luxury of imported foods.
Gopnik then relayed his entertaining and thought-provoking “history of taste,” beginning with the inception of the restaurant. The term “restaurant” comes from the French verb restorer, meaning “to restore.” In the 1780s, restaurants became places where people were nourished with “a food that restores.” As the restaurant became a place of nutrition and well-being, women were allowed for the first time into these food establishments – a feat impossible with the pre-existing taverns and bars as the sole public eateries.
And one cannot forget his explanation of la crise du foie, the digestive and neurological repercussions after a heavy meal. Foodies of the 19th century would gorge themselves on liver-damaging foods just to encounter la crise du foie the next morning. Gopnik called it “the perversity of pleasure.”
Gopnik most extensively spoke on the debates between philosophers David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the nature of taste in the 1700s. As Gopnik explained, Hume believed taste was acquired through practice, while Rousseau argued that a return to the “authentic taste of nature” was needed.
He ended with his secret of life: Detach oneself enough to see the absurdity of things but take pleasure in doing the absurd anyway. “Taste,” he said, “mediates changing fashion and permanent values.” But who knows when de gustibus non est disputandum!