Monday, March 26, 2012

Why is taste historically stunted?

I have a serious question. This weekend I spoke before the Renaissance Society of America about food, of course. It occured to me that no one present would have the slightest qualms about watching a play of this era, looking at a 500 year old painting, or hearing Renaissance music. They do it all the time. It's their profession! Then at the reception, with marvellous food mind you, it occured to me: what would happen if you served them Renaissance food? I mean sweet chicken blancmanger, peacocks resewn into their feathers spewing flames, sweet sour perfumed sauces. Sugar and cinnamon on everything. They would run in terror. They might be amused for a few minutes, but no one in their right mind would take it seriously and honestly eat it with enjoyment. Why are our historic sensibilities completely and utterly stunted when it comes to gastronomy, but so highly refined for the other arts? Is there something inherently different about taste, because we ingest it? So it becomes more closely bound to our own time than any other kind of taste? Or is it because historians set the canons of taste for the past in the other arts but have never done it for food? Everyone recognizes the Mona Lisa but would be very hard pressed to identify a signature Renaissance dish.


Maya said...

Yes! I have been thinking about these issues as well Ken, though I come at them more from an anthropological perspective -- thinking about taste cross culturally. I think you are correct that there is something about the intimacy of food that is at play here. It's not just something external to you that you observe. Taste/smell is such a primary sensation and something so visceral.

David Walddon said...

I think some of it is because food and taste has been subjected to cultural, social and personal tastes much more than literature and other art.

We cook every day. Our families have changed the food to suit our changing times (economic, social, industrialized, etc.) but few have the same kind of tradition and connection to a play or a painting.

Food can is part of us and the difference in taste (and most importantly texture) are alien, different, from what we expect. Art is removed from us and while it can be different from the art of today since we are not engaged in it on a daily basis we are able to remove ourselves from it and look at it as separate from us.


Also they just might be food weenies!

Ken Albala said...

Yes, I'd agree totally. We can't separate ourselves from food once its in us. Whereas music, art, etc. doesn't invade aesthetically. But I still find it remarkable that people actively know and enjoy classical music, theater and art but have not even a shred of knowledge about what people in the past ate. It cant be that food is ephemeral because so is music, recorded on paper just like recipes. Maybe it has something to do with academic study of all the above?

Glenn said...

There's also the idea that food..everyday "this is what I'm having for lunch"-type food...has only been considered an art form fairly recently. Maybe in another generation of Food Network or so we'll have people willing to consider all sorts of food high art, including the humble pottage :)

Oh, there you go, maybe in your copious spare time, Maestro Ken, you can star in and host a Food TV show highlighting the food-art of the past! Popular prior culture meets munchies--if they can create Cupcake Wars, surely you can have a Blancmange Blowout!

Ken Albala said...

Hey Glenn, Sounds great! I'm game. I agree that lowbrow food is never, maybe even now, considered art. But haute cuisine, absolutely, always was considered art. Fabulous cookbooks with star chefs are nothing new at all.

Glenn said...

Oh, certainly...but those cookbooks weren't in the heads of average cooks en masse, like it is now. And those star chefs back when we're for the nobility

Laura@Silkroadgourmet said...

Hi Ken:

With respect, I think you may have let your assumptions grow assumptions of their own on this one.

Why assume they would, "run in terror"?

I've recently had some professors incorporate my revised Mesopotamian recipes into their classes - such as Women in the Ancient World - and using food to examine cultural issues was a hit with the college crowd.

They shopped, cooked and dined together and then the profs used that experience to launch into discussions of food production and sources, time management and a variety of other issues.

Sounds like a lecture-tasting event waiting to happen to me! I think it would be fascinating to show a few dishes from different levels of society as well.

Perhaps you and I should open a restaurant that serves ancient dishes?


Sheila Crye said...

Haute cuisine has a lot in common with other status symbols. If it's rare or expensive, the rich can afford it. This explains the stuffed peacocks, lark tongues, etc. Today we have caviar, fois gras, Kobi beef. In previous times lobster was food for poor fisher folk. Now it's in the exclusive category. The issue not the taste or texture of the food itself, it's the way we think about the food.

Michele said...

One thing I'd be curious to know is if food just simply tasted differently back in the day. I'm not talking chicken tasted like lollipops or flour added beef flavour or anything, but if the food tasted even slightly different, the dishes might not have been so odd, or off (according to modern tastes).
And, truthfully, how could food not have tasted differently, even a little?
rant bene: Now, we have birth control in our water supply. So much beef comes from cows penned shoulder to shoulder, knee-deep in dung. Our technological inventions come with the price of toxic dumping. New agricultural diseases appear on plants we've been using disease-resistant pesticides on.
Even at the most basic level, cultural aspects aside, it must have been different. Even an itty bitty bit?

Sara said...

Thanks for a thought-provoking post. I enjoyed all the great points here, especially Sheila's about status and the art of haute cuisine. Most of us in the Renaissance would not be in the top 1% eating peacock, but thankful to have some porridge, beer and bread. However, I think this aversion or suspicion is also cultural. Americans might recoil, but would Europeans? I grew up in Washington DC with a dad who cooked tongue, oxtail, lamb shanks, sweet breads, while my classmates ate bologna sandwiches, mac & cheese, fish sticks. Each thought the other odd. My dad would have been totally game for peacock or lark's tongue, but I think the majority of Americans are cautious about unfamiliar foods. And remember when you were here at Oregon State - one of the food science professors was horrified about food safety and that you were suggesting people could actually prepare these foods themselves. And yes, Michele is also right - surely food tasted differently - grass fed beef, vegetables with no herbicides and pesticides.

Anonymous said...

I have the impression that most of the food eaten in the Renaissance would not horrify so much as bore us: soups, broths, greens, bread, more bread, eggs, cheese and the occasional chicken or sardine, as we see from Pontormo's diary, Michelangelo's letters, and the letters from the Florentine archives. If their tastebuds were less critical than ours, maybe it was hunger (or fear of hunger) that made everything more savory. On another note, raised on American factory-farm meat, I was not able to enjoy the starkly different taste of a chicken raised outside of Florence by my neighbor with non-OGM feed (and table scraps) and under conditions that haven't changed since the Renaissance.

Ken Albala said...

Hey folks, What great comments, sorry for the delay in responding, I was away. I agree with you all not only that ingredients and food was very different in the past, but also that modern tastes have changed. The exceptions provided almost prove the rule. When I have people interested in the topic, they will not lose face by turning their nose up at something strange. They eat it. But your average modern eater: they most certainly do recoil. This is from experience, not an assumption. My freshman class frankly astounds me. NOT a single one had ever tasted liver pate, and most admitted that they would not try it either.

EstherReese said...

Hi, everyone, very pleased to find this blog.

Regarding this question, I'd like to suggest you look at things cognitively for a moment ~ how the brain and food interact.

There are only four 'hard-wired' responses to taste / food in the human brain: salt, sweet, fat, and bitter.

In babies the bitter will trigger a spit it out response, most likely because the bitter taste is associated with toxic plants. Fat, sweet, and salt, all things which are 'high octane' fuel for our big brains, are hard-wired with an 'eat that' physiological response when they are smelled and / or tasted.

Everything else about food is based on experience, and the associations of that experience. We all know that scent and look are as important a part of culinary appeal as the actual food, and one of the reasons why, is that those 'food' receptors are all wrapped around the memory zones of the brain. (Forgive me, 'zones' isn't the correct word, but it isn't coming immediately to mind.)

Also, since scent is the only direct stimulus to the brain, it is incredibly powerful. (There's no shielding between the intake of the nose and the brain, the only place in the brain where that direct access occurs.)

Therefore, what you like, is very much what you know. What you don't like, can be more emotional than anything inherent in the 'tastiness' of the food in question. How food looks, as well as how it tastes, who is presenting it, is all about learned behavior and associations ~ including being adventurous regarding your food. (This doesn't even touch on the cultural institutions that create food taboos as a force for identity and group cohesion.)

@Laura, I would LOVE to be a student in that class!

@Glenn, exactly, if you go back to say, the mid 1960s, American 'home cooking' was pretty dire, or basic 'hot, brown, and plenty of it'. Remember what a pioneer Julia Child was?

@Michele, without a doubt, food DID taste very different 'back in the day'. Different breeds of fowl and animal and different species of plants and herbs, grown in actual soil instead of petroleum, typically raised on forage rather than hybridized grain grown with petroleum, the technology used to process it, and to cook it.... Yes, very different. (Karen Hess touches on this very well in her introduction to 'The Virginia Housewife'.

Thanks for your patience with the long-winded comment. :-)

Ken Albala said...

Hi Esther, Thanks for the comments. Have you read Gordon Shepherd's new book on NeuroGastronomy? I'd be interested to know what you think of it. Ken

Sara J / OSU said...

Hi Ken,
When I saw this in the new New Yorker, I wanted to share it: Julia Ioffe's piece on historic Russian cooking:
I'm sorry it's only the abstract. I thought of you and all the stoves and ingredients. Do you have a pech? Maybe you could build one in the back yard and add to the repertoire? Enjoy!

Sara J / OSU said...

I should have posted the link better
Maksim Syrnikov Rediscovers Russian Food

Did that work?

Anonymous said...

HMM having fixed several dishes in fact several Feasts using redacted recipes I would disagree that People would run from the room screaming. Part of this may be that most of the Feasts I have hosted/planned and or cooked for were teaching feasts. Now I will also admit that I have had the "Pleasure" of being invited to "Medieval/Renaissance" Feasts where they were anything but.

I would also note that where cooks and chefs of the day are only as good as their ingredients, in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance it was rather that Good Chefs and cooks had to overcome their ingredients.

Now I will tell you there are many people in Medieval Re-enactment such as in The SCA, the ECA and the Adrian Empire to name but three; where the Arts are lauded and Authenticity is not only important but striven for.

I would also note that there are recipes that have come with us down through the ages and are relatively unchanged as well.
Jame' Kettering AKA Sir Auberon dela'Reve