From Yuck to Yum and Vice Versa: The Role of Experience in the Concept of Tastes

I remember reading an anecdote by a linguist who thought that, rather than “Mom” or “Dad,” one of the first words invented might have been more akin to “yuck.”  While I wouldn’t begin to be able to test that, this silly story may have more sense than is at first apparent.  Parental names often imply cultural concepts of relatedness, which, as we know, can shift quite a bit depending on when and where you’re looking.  The concept of wanting to teach children when something should be spit out, due to toxicity or other factors, might have a bit more durability, hence–“yuck” or some very similar sound of violent rejection.

yucky-face

Behold, the Picky Eater

But “yuck” has undergone some serious elaboration since we moved beyond our evolutionary environment.  Such living conditions would have undoubtedly have possessed a richer and more varied palette of odors and flavors, as well as a proximity to these sensory data that many modern Western cultures would find unsavory.  “Yuck” has been watered down considerably, and become the favorite word of picky eaters everywhere.

I was a finicky eater as a child, and today, I still am to some extent.  What has changed?  At one time, I refused to eat a number of foods that register high on the bitter scale–including many vegetables.  Over the past decade or two, I’ve made a decided effort to include many of these foods in my daily diet, with quite a bit of success.  I discovered that it wasn’t the food itself I disdained, but often the method of preparation.

I grew up thinking I would always hate squash.  To this day, I find the way my mother prepares it to be utterly revolting–grotesquely overcooked with onions, and loaded with butter and salt.  The final product resembles a cross between scrambled gray matter and mucus, with a smell that advertizes the high level of sulfurous compounds possessed by the vegetable.  It took a wonderful Italian dish with lightly sauteed squash to convince me otherwise, and today, I quite enjoy it.  This is the same case for many other foods I disdained in childhood–cooked carrots, sweet potatoes, cabbage, collards and other greens, spinach, and others.  It was a matter of preparation, not the food itself.

 

The Role of Bitterness

Bitterness is often a hallmark of toxicity, and we are wired as children to be somewhat averse to it until we learn what is safe to eat, usually through exposure and observing our kin group.  Check out this relatively easy to absorb article based on research, which explains why children may reject bitter foods {http://www.parentingscience.com/picky-eaters.html/}.  It touches upon both a cultural reticence to encourage children to eat more bitter foods by pairing them with pleasurable and known flavors as well as a predisposition for some individuals to be more sensitive to bitter flavors than others in their kin group.  This is an interesting article that delves into the genetic roots of picky eating, which you might also enjoy. {http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/why-are-you-picky-eater-blame-genes-brains-and-breast-milk-180953456/?no-ist}

From my personal experience, I still have a very strong reaction to bitterness in food.  Perhaps what I’ve found most effective in shifting my preferences is the pairinp1080751g of flavors.  While the article linked above suggests pairing bitter with sweet, I have always found that umami–a flavor sensation that coresponds with rich meaty or cheesy flavors evinced by glutamates–spicy, and salty were more suited to creating a pleasing sensation with bitter foods.  Over the years, I have come to enjoy a variety of foods that no one who knew me as a child would ever believe I could.

 

Coming of Age in the Land of Bland

I grew up in a rather typical and traditional Southern household.  Please read that: Salt Is the Family Seasoning.  I would argue that taste is far more determined by cultural experience than biology, and I don’t think many would disagree with me.  Having returned to the South after living somewhere else for years, I see more clearly the utter lack of flavor in many of the foods I took for granted as a child and young adult.  The daily diet is often full of fat, sugar, and salt.

While we are biologically wired to seek out these substances because they are infrequent in the natural landscape in which we evolved, we’re also seeing the disastrous impacts of ready access to unlimited supplies of them.  That’s another topic for another day.  What I should say is that seasoning in the land of my birth is…limited and unadventurous.  Because I have experience, not simply as a tourist but as a resident, of other cultural styles of food preparation, my taste differs sharply from that of my parents and relatives.

I favor spicy, bitter, savory flavors, a diet rich in vegetables and fruits, and a more pronounced preference for alternative protein sources.  Not that I don’t enjoy animal protein, but I discovered the joys of hummus, beans, and the use of complimentary proteins in cuisine while I was elsewhere.  What I have discovered upon returning is a culture that places too much value on a limited range of vegetables, which are almost always overcooked and oversalted.  There is an embarrassment of starch and fat in most dishes, and the importance of beef, pork, or chicken is overstated.

 

I will never be happy to eat Southern food that I haven’t fooled around with myself–added spices, cut the cooking time and salt, explored alternate cooking methods and preparation styles.  I dream of tamales and tagines, pho and foods hot from the tandoori, of the hole-in-the-wall Thai place that knew me as the “Crying Blood Lady,” and that yes, I really did want it “Thai Hot.”

Sure, there are some places in Atlanta where you can order food with more authentic flavors–potent, pungent, spicy, clean, or tangy.  But they are developments of the recent past.  Suburbia hasn’t really caught up yet, with its watered down, blanded-out interpretations of other cuisines.  Travel–or more aptly, a voluntary exile–has spoiled my nostalgia of the palate, and I’m glad it did.

By pushing myself to experience other cultural concepts of “Yum,” I shifted my own.  Yes, there are still certain dishes from childhood that will remain in my category of favorites, but my palate is far more elaborate than that of my parents.  Hence, my curiosity about different ways of preparing food, the cultures that offer them, and a desire to understand why certain foods garner important attention in some places and not others shapes my appreciation of cultural differences, especially those connected to food, feeding, and the close environment of the home.  That, too, is another subject for another day.

 

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2 thoughts on “From Yuck to Yum and Vice Versa: The Role of Experience in the Concept of Tastes

    1. I think scent and taste memory are some of the most deeply intimate types. They tap into a part of the brain that is pre-verbal. Descriptive language is, quite literally, an afterthought. I think they are also large components of nostalgia, which is, to my mind, a compelling reason why the flavors and textures associated with a home culture never completely fade for those who assimilate into another dominant culture.

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