Understanding it and using it for a more colorful life
By Nancy Hinton (Food writing 2002)
I use my palette to play games, to express myself, to challenge myself. It gives me food for thought, a window into my past, my true self. It’s an infinitely fascinating part of the human anatomy, and a revealing way to observe others.
Some famous sayings suggest a strong link between our food choices and disposition. “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you who you are.” (Brillat Savarin), and the common, “You are what you eat.”.
The palette is obviously an important part of a person’s character. It’s a trait like any other, being athletic or lazy, liking the blues or being a neat freak. This is one personal quality that is brought up on a daily basis, on display, readily shared, that others have to accomodate since so much of our business is done at the table.
Everyone’s palate is unique, and that’s a wonderful thing. Especially today, people seem to be proudly claiming their specific gustatory profile and taking it out. However, it can also cause trouble, all these clashing palates. The phenomenon of special eating habits has no doubt spread in the past years. You cannot have a dinner party anymore without being faced with considering all the possible allergies, the vegetarians in all their various forms...There are the pseudo veg heads who eat no red meat, but poultry and/or fish is Ok, others accept broth, but no flesh, dairy can be in or out, honey, it depends, and so on. Then, there are the lactose intolerant in which case even goat’s cheese is not ok, or those allergic to bovine protein, in which case goat’s milk is Ok. There are the raw foodists, the people who have restrictions for political or environmental reasons, the diabetics and people on special diets for medical reasons, or those on the low-carb fad diet of the moment.
People are suddenly fanatically picky about their food. It’s become almost fashionable to have your own special rules. I suppose it’s an effective, easy vehicle for self-expression. Perhaps it makes a person feel unique and interesting to be the only person to think they’re allergic to celery. Maybe he/she feels like making a little drama out of the mundane. Or maybe, he/she just wants a little extra attention and pampering after a hard day. Not to mention that it can be a useful tool to appear virtuous and admirable if the ban of a certain foodstuff shows restraint, being health conscious, or makes a social statement.
The thing is, when these special needs are toted to the restaurant or to a dinner event, they often inconvenience others, and create unneccessary stress. While other forms of selfish behavior wouldn’t be commonly tolerated, it seems quite acceptable for people to be demanding, irrational and uptight if it’s done through their food specifications. At its worst, this behavior is antisocial, closed-minded and spoiled brattish.
I do respect that sometimes people have to monitor their diet for specific reasons, and I have always personally taken allergies and all precautions very seriously. But because of all the crying wolf, restaurant cooks have become a little weary. Now that the exception has become the rule, the hypochondriacs have spoiled it for the truly allergic, making it more dangerous for everyone. The moral impact of sane choices has been lost in a sea of fads and fickle nonsense. It wouldn’t hurt all of us to slow down and loosen up abit.
Besides the benefits of a stress free time at the table and a balanced diet, most of the fussy people don’t realize what they’re missing, and just how flexible their palates really are. That’s the other thing. Our palate, like most of our traits, is a work in progress. We have a genetic set point or range that is influenced by our environment and what we do with it.
Once you open your mind and palette to new taste sensations, the results are surprising. I’ve seen it countless times, with my own palette, and with those of people around me. One friend, who would not eat any fish or meat except well-done steak, has gone from eating it medium to medium rare, to partaking in the occasional veal or pork chop, even now sausages and salmon!
I have witnessed many with an aversion to spice gradually work their way through spicier and spicier dishes to ultimately develop a true addiction to chilies. In the same way, I have seen people who were frightened or disgusted by a ripe smelly cheese become fond of the most pungent blue, once working their way through the mozzarella to Stilton spectrum.
Many strong tastes are acquired. Most people are taken aback at best, revolted at worst, or at least puzzled by their first encounter with something foreign, be it the aromatic coriander leaf, the exotic soapy aroma of wild ginger, or the fishy, unattractive looking anchovy. The slimy oyster, a gamy cut of boar, or a spongy piece of calf’s brain often require a.few tries as well. Once past the initial jolt, a second or third taste leaves a clearer impression, and will lead the skeptic down a new path, if not away from offal, than on a trip to the Orient. More often than not, it takes you on an exciting course of discovery, introducing you to new pleasures.
No matter what, you learn a little more about yourself and the world around you. I get immense pleasure watching the uninitiated travel this path... from a fish-free life to fresh sea bass to trout, to anchovies and sushi, to shellfish, from a mussel to oysters Rockefeller, to a raw oyster, to Champagne and new oyster shucker friends. The growth and exuberence that follows such excursions reminds me of seeing a kid discover how fun it is to toboggan, skate or dive after getting over the initial fear of trying.
The reality is that virtually all tastes are aquired. We are born with a clean palette, except for a built-in distaste for some of the most harmful toxins common to all humans, the rest is learned. As with most of our traits, we surely have a predisposition, a genetic set point, and from there, it is what we do with it, along with our close environment, that determines our palette. Depending on our upbringing, our experiences associated with certain foods, we develop likes and dislikes. A child’s palette is in constant flux, a child can trick his/her brain into making a certain taste favorable or not, as any parent will attest.
Not only can we influence our tastebuds, we can to some extent control a reaction to a sensory experience through mind-set, coaching, knowledge or moral beliefs. We can develop it with time, attention and repetition. That’s what we cooks do. Because we are using our palette critically day in, day out, regularly thinking about what we’re tasting, breaking it down into the elements, our sensitivity automatically becomes heightened. That explains why cooks have sharp tastebuds despite all their smoking, coffee drinking, and their different backgrounds. Like any other sense, the more you use it, the more acute it becomes. Of course, you can beat it up by too much smoking, piercing your tongue, or eating on the run.
To start with, we all have varying hardware, all in different stages of development at a given time. Its been said that some people are born with thousands more taste buds than others (the supertasters), and that females typically have more taste buds than men. Then they are all the physical factors that further alter our sensory experience, for example: age, disease, pregnancy, hormonal cycles, diet. We can build up a tolerance to a certain ingredient, requiring more of it for the same effect, as in the case of salt or chilies. So our palette is subject to change depending on lifestyle.
All this makes for a world of different. How do we have any idea what another person is tasting, especially since few are good at describing taste beyond yummy or yucky, or even in the simplest terms: salty, sour, bitter, sweet? This is foremost on a cooks mind, and makes for a constant battle in concocting something pleasing for the average palette. Due to the variability of palettes, it is imperative that we cooks constantly analyze our palettes by listening to customers and fellow staff, to know where we stand in the wide spectrum inorder to be able to season accordingly. It also helps to have the target audience in mind, to have a consistent scheme, and to be responsive.
The funny thing is that despite all this theory, most of us can generally agree on what’s good, bad or in between if we want to. Somehow, it all seems to even out in the end because the palette is so adaptable. It makes sense too from an evolutionary point of view. Our palette should allow us to find most available things palatable if necessary for survival, aside from alerting us to something potentially harmful.
Because the palette is so adaptable by nature, no one should let themselves be governed by strict rules. Every taste experience should be treated as a unique, stimulating source of pleasure, intrigue or comfort.
Moreover, the more playful approach we take to our food and the more we try, the more our palette evolves, and the more fun we get from eating. More pleasure at the table can only add to our quality of life. New experiences, new appetities, triumphs, shared laughs, and all that comes from being more adventurous can be the best tonic in this crazy world, providing a spring in the step, a renewed zest for life. Unless experimenting with chicken sushi, there is relatively little danger. Someone who is open minded and fun at the table is more pleasant to be around too. Increased popularity means more invites, new aquaintances, and more good times, all from trying a bit of gizzard. Ok, so maybe a sample of your dining partner’s eel might not change your life, but it certainly makes the day a touch more interesting. Every new stimulus for the senses, mind or heart makes us feel more alive. And why not make the most out of life?
I agree with M. Savarin and his food metaphors for life; its a fun way to look at the world, and as meaningful as any. I know I can’t help but judge someone by what and how they eat, and it has generally served me well. Someone with an appetite at the table usually has an appetite for life and takes pleasure in the simple things, like someone who is open minded at the table will be in life. Someone who races through his or her meal without tasting, most likely races through life without thinking, or really enjoying life. Someone who is greedy at the table is probably greedy in life, and someone who pokes at their food is likely untrusting, overly analytical, or insecure. Someone who doesn’t react to their food probably doesn’t have much of a personality, or is unhealthily depressed or stressed.
That’s why I think dinner, as a first date is most appropriate. By the main, I can tell whether this is someone I would want to get to know better or not, if our palettes can ever meet. And in the case of a bad date, at least I have the food as a distraction.
Not only does paying attention to people at the table give me insight into strangers, it helps with dear ones too. By knowing a friend’s particular eating habits makes me feel closer to them and allows me to interact with them better. Knowing their weaknesses gives me a way to please (or bribe) them, and knowing their dislikes enables me to respect them, or avoid aggravating them when that counts most.
In all its complexity and mystery, our palette is most useful in getting the most out of life. Treat your palette like a life long friend, listen to it, talk back to it, tease it, tickle it, play with it, soothe it, take care of it, take it on trips, don’t stifle it or let it stifle you, let it grow, and grow with it...
When I wrote this, I was young, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, the sky was the limit. I thought I should try everything, ask no questions. Now I’m an advocate for quite the opposite. Wait, think...where does this come from, how was it produced, was no one exploited etc.?... I now encourage people to be difficult in a way, quite contradictory to the theme of this article. I guess that sometimes you do have to control your palette, or at least inform it. Afterall, it is connected to the brain, we do have a brain and should use it. Like we have to reign in other of our instinctual urges depending on circumstance. If you know how much that calf suffered to provide the white succulent flesh of its gland that is your dinner (sweetbreads), then maybe it won’t taste so good, and so you can follow your palette and still be on the right path. As long as its for the right reasons, not just plain uptightness. Then again, everyone has his or her reasons. I just can’t be so judgemental anymore. To each his own palette.