Ruminations on Taste

Taste is a driving factor in our choices as consumers, in deciding what we like or how we will dress, what to eat and what to of course drink.  Taste is something which we all consider highly subjective, and there is a point to this claim which is substantiated, yet taste is also something which has an objective component related directly to flavor and is a quite a bit more complex than we assume since it is a component of identity.

To say that something is delicious is a very big assertion, yet more often than not, we make the assertion quite readily and with a quick turn of the tongue rolling over three syllables, sometimes more or less depending on if you pull a synonym out of the old thesaurus to make it sound a bit more diverse. To ourselves, we are seemingly people who know what we want, and in many cases assert that and our opinions unto others through writing, critique, or recommendations. But many people do not have the same “taste” as ourselves, both in terms of actual biological tasting experience, as well as the idea of what is aesthetically or atmospherically pleasing. To assert that this bar is the best bar in the world is a big claim and is likewise highly subjective. Similarly suggesting the same feelings with a cocktail is influenced by the fact that others who possess knowledge, whether it be a bartender, critique, friend or stranger, knows best and therefore can help to illuminate the drinking habits of someone who is uninitiated. There is a weight given to others who appear or truly have cultural capital, or rather a set of knowledge about something that gives them value when speaking about the subject.

In other words, the claims that something is the best must be contextualized to represent the subjective nature of the claims. The idea that this person knows best, or to the claim that this is the best drink, let alone a fantastic one, has always been in the domain of subjective assertion, and the only way in which any sort of credence is given to the thoughts of another is through the value that we put to it ourselves. We fall victim to the cult of personality and expertise that is instantiated around the sense or appearance of knowledge. Television, as well as the general media, is to blame for our overall concern that we should defer to another person rather than ourselves. And when we do refer reflexively to what we like, in many cases we presume that having an opinion on something makes us out to be experts. Similarly someone else who knows about a topic is thereby some sort of informed citizen-subject who can articulate their knowledge in a coherent framework of meaning. In reality we are nothing more than petite experts, individuals whose knowledge is not dedicated completely, heart and soul, to many of the things with which we aspire to engage. Expertise is a domain that is limited to a select few, and most often those are norm-setting or trend-setting individuals, experts who do not pay attention so much as to the thoughts of others but the concerns of the self, and actually have a set of cultural capital and knowledge by which they can make excellent assertions and transform material capital into aesthetically pleasing objects-people such as chefs, artists, tailors.

The question now becomes why do we say that something tastes good? Quite simply, it is a relationship of the hedonic that we receive as a consumer or imbiber, and the pleasure is something that we, on the first hand level of experience, can understand. We know what we like, and we know what we do not like. Yet, the problem comes from the fact that we conflate the thoughts of others unto our own, and if taste is subjective as many assert, how do we give any credit to a critique (such as the works of a wine critic)? Why do we take the reviews or thoughts or tastes of others to be meaningful in the slightest? There are two operations here: one, while taste is subjective, it might not be as subjective as we would like to think; and secondly, that there is more to taste than the hedonic pleasure, so much as the knowledge apparatus surrounding the field of objects of which we are concerned which is working in adjacency with our concerns over the other.

We say: taste is personal, taste is subjective. I’ve read it numerous times, I have asserted it, friends of mine claim that when I disagree with them, et cetera. However, what we are tasting is not subjective. Flavor is an object in the world, something to be experienced. What is an orange is an orange across the board, whether or not you like what an orange might taste like, whether you want something more sour or more sweet, whether you want something that is textually different or served as a juice rather than a slice of pulpy flesh. The idea of phenomenology, of human experience through the senses and the ways in which it informs our knowledge about the world, is related directly to the fact that across the board, save for some people that would be considered deviant because of bio-neurological or physical differences, we experience phenomena pretty much the same way. We seemingly experience sight and sound quite readily and quite similarly, and we mutually agree upon what experiences and perceptions we see as being accepted as objective. We empathize with others and presume that they are capable of understanding our motivations and perceptions since we seemingly share physiological traits and similar limitations on our senses that provide similar sensory input and experience.

In that there is a sort of empathy and understanding that comes from our senses, taste itself is an action directly related to the physical experience, through processes of retronasal and pronasal inhalation as well as the physical taste of the tongue and feelings associated with hot and cold by means of the trigeminal nerve. Likewise taste is influenced by memory and understanding the ways in which we engage with objects or our thoughts speaks quite a bit about our personal taste. Our sense of taste for a cocktail or food or wine, or whatever substance and object, is tied to these biological and mental processes specifically. We associate flavors in our mind to intrinsic physical objects, colors, patterns, sounds, et cetera, based upon the actual experience we have with them, and when we think about the flavor or components that go into something in order to understand what we are engaging with we take and deconstruct the structures so that it is a coherent grammar of flavor. When we experience what we think of as berries or red fruits on the nose or the thick heavy gravity of the liquid, we tell these things based upon the physiological processes related to tasting the substance and we take these as symptoms of a specific type of wine perhaps. Experiences of juniper, cinnamon, cardamom, whatever, whether we taste each or not, is pretty absolute in that they are there, but they might not be present in the grammatical framework that we have for explaining taste. There is something within the substance that is objective and intrinsic to it, something which provides flavor as a real concrete category, as a sort of object in the world. To say that a white wine tastes like a red wine is just wrong: it could have characteristics reminiscent of one, and someone might come to find those characteristics to be the focal point of their observation, but that doesn’t mean that they are accurate. The flavor presents itself indexically: it refers to a specific characteristic or meaning.  Juniper is an indicator, in our minds by means of the deconstruction that we mentally undertake, that we are drinking gin since juniper is quite simply a common index of gin.

In that flavor is located in the substance, we can therefore assert that critiques and tasting notes have some sort of objectivity: while someone might assert that it is more floral than it is sweet, the characteristics are still there, and if you look at the data that people provide in tasting notes for substances such as wine, there is always an overlap between the information provided. We need to separate our hedonistic understanding of taste from flavor in order to assert that the reviews we give things have any sort of meaning, and we have to be objective in critiquing the substance and the experience. And whilst we can assert that our relationship with the substance is rather subjective, in order for someone to empathize with us and understand our interpretation we need to make it clear what are our motivations or what is our background with the object or situation. Degrees of distinction have to be made in order for it to be coherent or logical. Talking about something and your personal experiences with it, or that it is a good drink, still is subjective on several levels, but by problematizing or contextualizing it the object is put into a framework that allows others to understand or engage with the information provided.

On the other hand, outside of separating taste and flavor and the phenomenological experiences surrounding the art of taste, there is something else which contributes to taste which is the sociological dimensions that are in direct relationship with our understanding or knowledge about something. In that we give weight to our knowledge or the knowledge of others, which impacts directly what comprises our personal taste and what we choose as either a good or bad object, or as in good or bad taste, we can say that there is a sort of relationship between knowledge and persons that contributes to the dimensions of taste. The sense of expertise that we find in others such as a bartender or a critic acts as a sort of dominating force for us, in which we oblige and reinforce by accepting that they may very well know what is in good taste. These actors use their cultural capital, their knowledge about the system to position themselves in a way that they can solicit to the consumer a good product. While this is a business model, it is also a situation in which the dominating factor of the agent with the supposed knowledge is reinforced. By listening to the other we give their values and opinions of taste a sort of objective value.

The act of listening reifies the knowledge of the other. Using the bartender as an example, when we say, make us a cocktail that is bitter and features mezcal, we are giving them a sense of value and appropriately think that they have enough knowledge to produce something that adheres to our framework of good taste because they understand the terms, the objective flavors and objects through their own experiences with them, and map it out unto an actual physical object situated in the world. If we are disappointed with the drink, then something must have been lost in translation, or perhaps the bartender doesn’t actually have a sort of knowledge to create exactly what we are looking for in a cocktail. We then either give the other, the bartender in this case, more credence or legitimacy by our actions and response. The bartender himself might actually have this capital even if we do not engage in such a way with them, but we must be wary of assuming that because the drink or object didn’t match our preferences, that we know better. We are experts about our own taste preferences, but not necessarily about the domain of the real components of taste floating in the natural world or the object, and constantly we are all learning, expert or amateur alike.

Furthermore, the ways in which we as consumers respond by informing our taste is partly related to seeing others and their choices. As one might put it, it is peer pressure, or falling in with the crowd. Quite often, bars take on a certain atmosphere and clientele, which is related in part to the aesthetics of the bar and the charisma that it provides, but also related to the network of interaction between various people who attend it. For instance, in many cases, people go where like people are, and where they feel or gather the impression they will appreciate or enjoy something. Furthermore, people go to places in some instances because they give weight to the expertise that these others have, that the knowledge of the other patrons indicates the quality of something and therefore they are socialized into thinking that it is something which they would enjoy. While these are bad reasons to determine whether something tastes good or not, quite often it contributes to consumption habits, and likewise production habits, within a business.   

Cocktails are no exception to this. The bar programs that people are putting forward are quite fascinating in many cases, but often it plays on the trends and these programs are the ones which fail more readily and quickly than something which just strives to execute an awesome service or product. By playing to a trend in order to appease customers, the bar itself lacks cultural capital in the form of originality or norm-setting behavior, and thus cannot assert it actually is a good place, so much as it is a fad. And while I don’t feel that a bar should cater to me, who has an eccentric taste, the industry is still a hospitality driven one, which should be focused on the consumer. Putting out crazy drinks that few would actually be able to articulate in a coherent framework on their own is not the indication that a bar is good. Molecular mixology is a great example of this problem: most consumers have no idea how to engage with the object, and so in order to even look at what some of these drinks-or drinks that are not drinks rather-are, you need a set of knowledge about yourself, your preferences, and the object so that you are able to deconstruct it. Most people are unable to engage with this because they know what they like, but do not understand the subjective roles that go into play with these obscure libations, meaning that contextualizing it is required. That isn’t to say that molecular mixology is not interesting or awesome. 

So what does this all mean? Two things: one we have to separate taste from flavor and recognize that while there are similarities and a relationship between the two, taste is not necessarily something that is completely subjective, so much as it is a set of dispositions that are influenced by experiences and empathy and socializing processes; secondly, what is in good taste is not necessarily something which can be appropriated to others, and it should be understood in a way with which there is some deference paid, but more often than not the feelings that we have as an individual should be the deciding factor in determining what is in good taste. The subjectivity of taste is in part related to our focus in a substance, and that is related in part to the hedonic: if you like something, or dislike it, you may focus more upon that than someone else might, which causes you to assert the flavors or quality of the drink in a specific manner. Yet even though taste is a personal experience when it comes to pleasure, there are still things that contribute to it in the real sphere, and things like sweetness, sourness, bitterness all act as indexes for a drink and in many cases act as indexes to our understanding of whether something is good or not. We use these markers for our-self, but they are actual real phenomena in the world that are experienced and can be objective in that they impact what is actual components lie in the flavor and therefore how something might be interpreted with regards to taste.

In a way, as consumers we have a power to decide what is good or not, and decide what establishments to which we act as patrons. We should support places more based upon our own individual tastes and experiences rather than those of others, but as a human, as a social creature, we are constantly in a field of play with one another in which we ascertain what we should be doing, where we should be shopping, what is in vogue, what is of good taste. All that means is that people who provide services to us have to be mindful of the consumer, but more often than not they should just focus on what they do, rather than what fad or trend or style seems to be in play, and the association between the fickle-minded patron and these ephemeral concerns.  Yet still they must ensure that they produce good objects, and likewise something that is in good taste, and as such that they are in a way appealing to the customer through experiences of taste.