Taste: A Lesson from Food Science

A friend recently pointed me to an article by Harold McGee in The New York Times about the divisive nature of cilantro.  The article begins:

Food partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters.

This, of course, immediately brings to mind the debate over slow cinema that I have been covering here on my blog.  Absurd as that sounds, I wager that it’s not a complete stretch of the imagination to compare film to food, especially in regard to taste.  To be sure, Dan Kois started this whole mess with a food analogy when he used the term “Cultural Vegetables” to refer to slow, boring films.  Therefore, I wonder:  can the science that explains why some people are so averse to cilantro also explain why some people are so averse to certain types of films (and, by extension, certain types of art, music, etc.)?

First, we need to know why “cilantrophobes” usually associate cilantro negatively with soap or bedbugs (yes, in all seriousness).  To uncover the answer, McGee examines the chemical properties of the plant:

Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.

He then asks:

Why is it only the evil, soapy side that shows up for cilantrophobes, and not the charming one?

To answer this question, McGee turns to Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University.  According to Gottfried, “the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences.”

McGee explains:

When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.

If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.

In other words, if a person has a history of getting his mouth washed out with soap but hasn’t experienced cilantro as an ingredient in his daily cuisine, his brain will surely connect the plant negatively to the soapy taste from his sad database of experiences.  The same goes for someone who has had an unfortunate bedbug experience but has never tasted a good cilantro-infused salsa.

This sounds eerily similar to Manohla Dargis’s thesis in her New York Times piece on slow cinema:

Maybe some moviegoers who reject difficult films don’t […] have the necessary expertise and database patterns to understand (or stick with) these movies.

Thus, when a person perceives a new object (e.g., a slow film or cilantro), his brain refers to stored patterns in his database of experiences, and this information will determine how he reacts.  In my above example, the stored pattern involves the person getting his mouth washed out with soap.  Obviously, his reaction to cilantro will be a negative one.  In Dargis’s example, the lack of any stored pattern whatsoever when faced with a new film will produce an equally negative reaction–the person will feel incompetent.

Similarly, when a person familiar with narrative-driven Hollywood films experiences a “slow” art house film for the first time, he can’t so easily apply his stored “narrative” database pattern.  As a result, his brain won’t make the necessary positive associations that would lead to a pleasurable reaction.  According to David Bordwell:

If you don’t have other schemas in your mental kit, your perception is just lost.

The good news, according to Gottfried, is that “every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food.”  In explaining how he himself came to appreciate cilantro, he reports:

[…] I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day.

In my previous post on slow cinema, I quote David Hume, and the passage is equally relevant here:

In An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, the philosopher David Hume writes: “Custom, then, is the great guide to human life.”  In other words, we learn only through our recurrent experiences.  Thus, only by repeatedly experiencing films that utilize a slow, austere cinematic language will we be able to learn how to appreciate them and, as Dargis writes, “find pleasure in unlocking their meanings.”

If a person were to experience a slow, austere film just once in his life, he would not have enough information to create the necessary database pattern in his brain to appreciate such a film on a future encounter.  Similarly, according to Gottfried:

[…] if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.

In my initial response to Dan Kois’s “Cultural Vegetables” essay, I argue that “taste has more to do with content and substance” than with form and style.  Alternatively, David Bordwell concludes that Kois’s problem “isn’t wholly based on taste” and may “stem from literally not knowing how to look at certain kinds of movies.”  In a sense, we’re both wrong.  As we have now learned from food science, taste has as much to do with form and style as it does with content and substance; our appreciation of each element is based on our personal databases of experiences.  And while Dan Kois might not know how to look at certain kinds of movies, that, too, has to do with our stored database patterns.  Indeed, it really is all just a matter of taste.


2 thoughts on “Taste: A Lesson from Food Science

  1. Ha! I feel so honored that you took my random observation and drew a very literal parallel to your ongoing analysis of taste!!

    I’ve actually been pondering a similar idea regarding ‘taste’ in food. Since I don’t eat any animal flesh, I’ve always considered myself rather closed-minded with food–by default. However, after one of my coworkers could not even bring herself to try my watermelon/raspberry/onion salad (since she was so revolted by the unusual *combination* of these standard ingredients), it made me appreciate just how deeply we’re conditioned to ‘acceptable’ flavor combinations.

    As someone who seeks out unique flavors (even within those vegetarian constraints), I wonder if there’s a correlation between people who appreciate more unusual (or divisive) foods/flavors and people who seek out more unusual art that doesn’t conform to our traditional frameworks.

    That said, I don’t think that taste in food is *totally* analogous to taste in art, since taste in food also involves more visceral, physiological components (e.g., chemoreceptors). Even people who have cultivated a ‘sophisticated’ palate may never be able to appreciate the flavor of certain foods–and not because they can’t get beyond unpleasant associations with foods they’ve previously tasted. And I think this is qualitatively different from someone with a ‘sophisticated’ taste in film who just can’t appreciate a revered piece of slow cinema… I’m not sure you could convincingly argue why you’re genetically predisposed to have an aversion to the films of Ozu or Bergman.

    For the record, Julia Child was a life-long cilantrophobe.

  2. Agreed. There’s also the issue of food allergies, wherein certain people cannot acquire a taste for specific foods due to dangers to their health. A Bergman film never killed anyone (not directly, anyway). But outside of such physiological restrictions, it’s fascinating how much our “databases of experience” influence our choices in what we like and dislike.

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