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The psychology of taste

What motivates our food and drink choices

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At some point during my 25 years of visiting restaurants three or four times weekly at minimum, I developed a fascination with the psychology of taste. I noticed that, while my palate has always been more adventurous than the average, its preferences can shift fairly dramatically for sustained, if usually temporary, periods of times. Often these differences make no sense on the surface.

I'm not part of this, but a prime example culturally is the recent obsession with Mexican Coca-Cola. Because it's sweetened with cane sugar instead of the demonic high-fructose corn syrup, many claim it tastes better. But blind taste tests say just the opposite. The vast majority of Mexican Coke lovers not only can't tell the difference but actually prefer the American variety. What seems to matter is the heavy glass bottle itself — its "mouth feel." Ignore the phallic shape and generalize the experience to the breast or the baby bottle, if you will. It's yo mama.

I'm not quite so Freudian. But cultural bias — the fashionable — is definitely an important factor in the development of taste. The Coke bottle is an icon of culture-wide nostalgia. It's a psychological antidote to the utter chaos and alienation into which our society has fallen.

Don't for a moment think psychological desire isn't exploited — if not created — by the Coca-Cola Company itself. Coke has long been represented as "the pause that refreshes" and a social invitation to "meet me at the soda fountain." Indeed, "I'd like to buy the world a Coke" to bring about "perfect harmony." Who could resist such magic? No wonder the company is increasingly distributing supercalifragilistic "Mexican Coke" in the USA, knowing fully well it tastes no different.

Comfort is a fantasy of memory and explains most personal taste. For nearly a year now, I've been dining with friends every Friday night. The idea, at least originally, was to get them out of their comfort zone. This was after dining at one of their regular spots — Longhorn, which shocked me with its sheer blandness, relatively high cost, and insipid décor.

Sure enough, they tell me its familiarity and comfort make the place attractive. Bobby, who grew up in the Midwest, generally doesn't like fish in any form, and thus steak and pork are his default choices. (To my great irritation, he was grossed out by my fabulous fried sardines at One Eared Stag.) More generally, Longhorn's decor — the cowboy kitsch of childhood memory — undoubtedly enhances its appeal to the general public.

My friends, all gay, also eat a lot at Roxx. The food is secondary to the comfort of the almost exclusively gay crowd, although Ryan says he always orders a good steak there, too. Culturally, steak remains the definition of luxury.

An example of (abortive) preference for the familiar occurred at Chateau de Saigon, a Vietnamese restaurant. It annoyed the hell out of me that all but one friend ordered from the Chinese section of the menu. Of course, Chinese food prepared by Vietnamese is a far cry from Chinese-American crap, but it was a mentally safer choice for them. Believe me, they sacrificed taste for mild familiarity.

Researchers in part blame the reluctance to depart from the usual on the very natural "aversion response," by which animals avoid the possibly poisonous. A child, for example, may have a naturally aversive response to a somewhat bitter food like Brussels sprouts. The vegetable's widespread hatred — cultural bias — reinforces aversion. Typically, hatred persists until experimentation reveals that slight bitterness no longer instantly repulses and that current recipes taste nothing like the stuff poured out of boil-in-bags.

But the taste-traumatizing memory can also be unrelated to the actual food. A dish eaten while one is seriously ill can become permanently repugnant. Food eaten during great sorrow might also be avoided. And food forced on a child rarely becomes attractive. The effects can be undone but not without effort and education.

Texture also plays a role in aversion. Ryan, the son of German immigrants, is probably the most adventurous eater besides me at our table. But he detests Indian food. Thus his least favorite restaurant we visited was Thali. Why did he hate it? "Because everything tasted like it was dumped in a blender," he said. That produces a texture he calls "gluggy," something like that of gravy once it's become slightly congealed. Likewise, I tend to balk at slimy textures.

Thali was a big problem, too, for others, because of the "hot" spices, which utterly eluded me. This too is an aversion response that many Americans, until recently, weren't interested in reversing. But I've watched my friends frequently express surprise that other supposedly hot cuisines aren't nearly as troublesome as they expected.

Given all of this, it's not surprising that their favorite restaurants have been JCT, No. 246, Cakes & Ale, and Serpas. These are all restaurants I like very much, too. My friends repeatedly rave about the "angry mussels" at JCT, which, interestingly, had a strong serrano zing. But generally these restaurants riff on American classics made with local produce — somewhat experimental comfort food by definition. Dessert-wise a good example of riffed comfort flavors is the salted caramel Ryan loves. And, of course, everyone on the planet must have bacon.

A final aspect of taste that I find fascinating relates to the so-called theory of compensation. (Philosopher Alain de Botton proposes something like this related to visual design.) In this, one's internal state seeks its opposite in the external world. Obviously, anxiety and stress could be behind the taste for comfort food or minimalist dishes. Or the feeling of poverty can make one crave the extravagantly plated or gimmicky (i.e., kitschy), no matter the quality of ingredients. Compensation, perhaps, explains my shifts — and the culture's shifts — in what tastes good or bad from time to time. But who knew the taste for faux Mexican food would extend to Coca-Cola, too?

For a longer version of this column and other commentary, see Cliff Bostock's blog, Sacred Disorder.

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