Vanishing Point A Bookand Websiteby Ander Monson




There's a lot of interesting research (and a lot of really insane or banal research) being done on taste.

I can recommend two forks of investigation: one on the food science/sensory evaluation tip (after the section in "Transubstantiation"). Elin Kubberød, a consumer behavior researcher, presented her research on "The effect of 'animality' on consumers' disgust response" at the Sensometrics conference at the University of California, Davis, in 2004. The presentation looks into, as you may guess, the connection between disgust and animal products. "All animal products are potentially disgusting," she writes, and "[t]he more the meat stimulus can be animalised the more disgust it will provoke." She defines a couple variables in relation to "animality": meat typicality (how meat-associated the meat is, particularly in terms of red v. white meat), vividness ("the meat stimulus' association with the living animal"), and personification ("pet name + naming animal versus no name"). These ideas are fairly intuitive to most readers, but of course, in our endeavor to quantify taste and emotional/physical responses, it's necessary to test and push people to find out exactly what these implicit relationships mean, and then, how to manipulate consumer response. She investigates how these variables correlate with the age and gender of the respondent, finding that "the effect of personification was particularly evident among females" in meat's ability to elicit the disgust response. Personification implies narrative, a relationship, a recognition of the individuality of the animal. Narrative is of course more popular among females, at least regarding reading novels or memoirs.

But the purpose of this study was to better inform mean producers/processors/sellers how to package and narratize their meat products to best avoid the disgust response.

She ends her presentation with this conclusion: "Make the consumers think forward to the meal and not backward to the personified cow that was slaughtered!"

Essayist and poet Nicole Walker talks about this idea in her excellent essay, "Disassociation," which also features a pseudonymous Ander Monson turning up his nose at steak but chowing down on burgers at a local bar and restaurant. This is an apt description of my own dissociative response. It's not a question of taste, exactly, but when we're thinking about physical responses to food, they're tied up with emotion and psychology. Questions of taste--what I'm willing to eat, what grosses me out, what doesn't work for me, what I love--are tied up with questions of narrative and the way I conceptualize what I eat.

We all have things we don't like. Many of my friends pride themselves on how few things they won't eat. We hold dinner parties. My wife likes to trot out my dislikes (mushrooms, gourds, meat outside the narrow mainstream of American culture, eggplant, and the list goes on) and I get my little moment of cross-examination at the party. It's all in good fun, or is it. By bringing my own tastes into relief, everyone else at the table gets to feel better about their own (fewer, smaller, or more secret) food failings. We get to talk about something for a while that illuminates some of the odder back roads of the human brain.

Knowing about your own discomforts and disgust responses doesn't do a lot to overriding them, though. Jeffrey Steingarten (The Man Who Ate Everything) wrote an essay about, as a food critic, feeling obliged to try to rewire his brain to get around his dislikes and disgust responses, partly to be a better person, but also to feel like he's basing his critiques and insights on something real, not just a set of personal idiosyncracies.

For professionals in a taste-related field, the question of taste is a tricky one. Critics depend on their own senses of taste, their ability to appreciate, divine, and tease out subtleties in any text (whether the text in question is a Dorito, bouef bourgignon, or a sonnet). What they see is dependent on their own faculties of sensory perception, and every once in a while they have to try to tare the scale, to clear the memory and keep themselves honest. Or so I imagine, not being a professional critic. Even thinking about what I like--the litany of products and consumables, not to mention my instinctive distaste for most memoir, that sometimes define me--makes me freak out a little. So Steingarten's essay is a nice corrective.

As is Carl Wilson's book, Let's Talk About Love, being an exploration of what it means to have taste in the context of music criticism, and particular the case of the critically-panned worldwide megastar Celine Dion. The book is published in the 33 1/3 series, a series devoted to writing about seminal music albums, typically like crucial Smiths or Rolling Stones albums or something. Wilson's take on Dion, which more or less mirrors the common wisdom on Dion, is that she is just awful. She is the zenith of crappy (or Quebeckers have a term for it, ketaine, meaning something along the lines of classless and white-trash and crass). Tasteless listeners prefer Dion. As a Quebecker (like Dion), he's more overtly invested in her work, whether good or bad, and as a music critic, it's his job to write about what's good (or not) about a variety of music. The book is an exploration not just of whether Dion is as bad (if incredibly technically gifted and popular) as she's made out to be, and, more importantly, what taste means. We learn a lot about how taste is inherently a mechanism to separate ourselves from others, how it's a function or manifestation of social class, and how tricky the question is when you start to think about it seriously. If one's job is to pass judgment on art, then what does it mean when one starts to question one own's judgment (or anyone's capacity for judgment)?

I've been thinking about all of this, as I mention, in my Mix project (which takes the starting point as my 33rd birthday--an interesting synchronicity with the 33 1/3 series, oddly). Mixes are nothing if not ways of creating, anticipating, or projecting taste.

But however I might come off as nerdy and music-geeky in person, I'm not fully comfortable talking about music criticism here. And I'm even less comfortable talking about (or eating) meat (itself a dissociative response)--though a month ago I did buy a case of frozen steaks (on the bone, even!) from a company specializing in bulk Illlinois steaks (I couldn't really resist the Illinois thing, my midwest coming back to grab me).

So let's talk some more, or learn how to talk some more, about corn:

Spectrum Descriptive Analysis Product Lexicons
(from Meilgaard, Civille, and Carr, Sensory Evaluation Techniques, 3rd ed.)

Corn Chip Flavor

1. Aromatics
Corn Complex
     Raw Corn
     Cooked Corn
     Toasted/Browned Corn
Oil Complex
     Heated Oil
     Heated Corn Oil
Other grain (type)
Earthy/Green Husks

2. Basic Tastes

3. Chemical Feeling Factors

Corn Chip Texture

1. Surface
Roughness, Macro
Roughness, Micro
Manual Oiliness
Oiliness on Lips
Loose Particles

2. First Bite/First Chew
Amount of Particles

3. Chewdown
Moisture Absorption
# Chews to Bolus
Moistness of Mass
Persistence of Crunch/Crisp
Cohesiveness of Mass
Graininess of Mass

4. Residual
Grainy Particles
Chalky Mouthfeel
Oily/Greasy Mouthfeel

Unsurprisingly, the products that score the highest in sensory evaluation tests of Corn Chip Flavor and Texture are the most popular ones. Does this mean that our public tastes correlate closely with the testing panels' tastes? Or that the tests (or the methodologies) are designed/funded so as to make the popular products test well? Doritos predates the currently predominant system (Sensory Evaluation) by a couple decades. Though the actual field of sensory testing can probably be dated back to the seminal 1965 text Principles of Sensory Evaluation of Food (M. A. Amerine, R. M. Pangborn, and E. B. Roessler), the idea (according to Pangborn) arose from WWII-era efforts to provide acceptable food to American Forces. And even the taste of Doritos has something of a wartime feel to it. Looking for calorie-rich, flavor-dense, almost imperishable food products? Look to Frito Lay. Look to half the stuff in the grocery store that's designed to last, that's designed to resemble food, even as a lot of it isn't. But does it taste good? I think so, yes, I think yes it sure does.