Saturday, April 6, 2013

Luxe or Puke? Determining Taste on Both Ends of the Spectrum

Last week, several of my peers were assigned to discuss Amy Trubek's fascinating book The Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, and while I was only required to read Trubek's introduction, the presentation of the content of this piece sparked my interest not only in taste as associated with place, but also how we arrive at what we eat. While Trubek notes that "terroir" is traditionally defined within the context of wine, especially in France, she expands the definition to include how taste of food is generally associated with both its origin and a local culture.

Much of the discussion led by my classmates revolved around how the identification of tastes is intricately connected with education in places like France, where geography and gastronomy are made to intersect, as well as how taste is intricately connected to class, notably in the acquisition of a taste for luxury food items. This particular topic of discussion, along with my own curiosity in reading Trubek's introduction, led me to think more about how we choose what we eat. If you search for "how do we choose what to eat" on Google, you'll come up with hundreds of results, each containing a theory about our subconscious and biological desires for certain foods that, in combination with some cultural and social values, drive our decisions as consumers.

While I find the processes behind our daily decisions about what to put in our bodies complex and fascinating, I was more poised to question how luxury foods and their associated acquired tastes share much in common with the most despised or feared foods on the planet. An internet search on the grossest foods in the world yields hundreds of results, such as these two links, and include many of the same foods. These "strange" and "terrifying" foods range from caramelized bugs and larvae-ridden cheese to baby mice wine, boiled sheep heads and boiled incubated duck eggs. While the Chicago Tribune calls some of this food "evil," another site (linked again here) even introduces these food products with the question of "what the hell is it?" and proceeds to expound upon the danger that might present itself if such horrendous dishes were to make it to America. This specific industry of foods that are perceived to be odd and nauseating from a Western perspective has also been recognized as a viable market by companies like the Travel Channel, whose "Bizarre Foods" is among its most successful shows.


Here are some of the dishes cited as most luxurious and expensive, on the opposite end of the spectrum, in links like these two: various types of raw fish, coffee made from monkey droppings, fish eggs (caviar), and duck or geese liver (foie gras). These lists further contribute to the question initially raised in reading Trubek's introduction: why is it taboo to eat duck eggs, but highly sophisticated to eat fish eggs? Eating duck liver is incredibly respectable, but sheep head is out of the question. Why is this? Why does bird's nest rank on numerous lists for expensive foods, and yet bird's nest soup is cited among the world's most repulsive foods? Who determined and continues to determine where the line between chic and nauseating lies? The fact that many of these "grossest" foods are also on the lists of the top high society foods makes this concept even more arbitrary and unpredictable. There seems to be no way of determining which odd foods are for the richest of the rich, and which would be untouchable for even the poorest eaters, prompting me to ask where the power lies in this context.

Though many, like Marijke van der Veen, have sought to characterize what makes a food luxurious, it is unclear why some bizarre foods jump to the top of the food (to be eaten) chain, and others are pushed aside. These choices made by those with the power to influence cultural and social tastes are intricately tied to our identities not only as consumers, but as citizens of nations where food may be associated with place. An examination of odd foods, some of which become luxurious and others of which become abhorrent, not only reveals the power dynamics behind such a shaping of consumer identities, but also reveals larger attitudes about the places from which such odd food originates. While hundreds of sites, authors, and TV networks are eager to dive into the world of gross foreign food, only a few consider that some of the foods we eat as Americans may also be perceived as completely bizarre, the vast majority of which are notably non-luxury foods. So if the saying is true that we are what we eat, I'm led to ask the following: who determines what we eat, and what do our choices about "weird" food in particular reveal about our greater fear of foreign cultures and food habits?

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