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Taste vs. Flavor

Updated on October 9, 2009

Socially Questionable yet Wonderful Flavor -- The Onion

"Onion," colored pencil on paper by Robert A. Sloan
"Onion," colored pencil on paper by Robert A. Sloan

Food Snobbery, Class and Social Distinctions

Food is social. Anytime I've gotten together with people that I didn't have anything in common with, the topic of the group inevitably turns to food and drink. The weather can only hold people's interest for maybe two minutes, tops, and that's if there was a major hurricane or fire. Food can keep a random group of a dozen people who have nothing else in common going for more than an hour.

That's also the socially neutral topic that cuts me out right at the top. Inevitably as the first round of "Oh that is so good" goes around, it'll be something that I don't like, can't eat or both. Most of the foods that I'm allergic to taste so lousy to me anyway that I don't feel like I'm missing out on anything. Yet it galls me when the whole group will turn around with this withering pity at the thought that I can't eat Extra Spicy Chicken.

Or the blasphemy that chocolate is just a flavor, okay but nothing special to me. 

My food tastes are weird. Hemmed in on one side by allergies and sensitivities, some of which I put up with for years without understanding why I got sick or why I didn't like something most people love and further distorted by a childhood I wouldn't wish on my worst enemy. My daughter says I've got the food tastes of a little boy. She's probably right too. 

Sweet, salty, fried and meat are the food groups, right? But hold the pepper, no mayo, no vinegar, nothing sour, nothing bitter. Then on top of it I like and enjoy bland safe food. I don't like surprises. I don't want exciting on a plate. I want to know what it is, know how it's going to taste and find it on my top ten list of favorites for a happy dining experience. Preferably while sitting in a squashy armchair that doesn't hurt my back instead of sitting up in formal anxiety on a chair that wrecks my back at a formal table trying not to lean on it without falling over, which will happen when my back gives out anyway.

I loved most school cafeteria food. They did safe, sane, happy meals like macaroni and cheese or occasionally for a treat, hamburgers, assorted stews and things with cream that weren't soured with mayonnaise. They'd do spaghetti and pasta or pork chops. They'd do these bland foods you get in cans -- foods that when I was adult and living on my own were the difference between whether I had the strength to prepare it or not.

Then we come to drinks. Coffee, check. Love my coffee. Usually take sweetener in it because I'll get toothaches if I use real sugar, creamer is optional but it has to be the artificial kind or the milk sensitivity knocks me over with real half n half. 

Alcohol -- I'm over 21 and this is where my personal tastes do not mesh with either side of my family background at all. On one side, blue-collar beer drinking and sports. On the other side, academics with upper class oenology pretensions and cocktails that usually got olives and bitters rather than grenadine and a cherry. The upshot?

I have happy memories of Boone's Farm and Bali Hai, the truly great wines of My Generation. The ones that came in gallon jugs and were not quite as sweet as Kool-Aid, more like a cola in sweetness -- and while we're on cola, let's have a Rum and Coke. Or a Rum and Root Beer. Or a Rum and Fruit Juice. A daiquiri. A rum and anything, preferably a complex fruit-flavored anything with some actual fruit thrown in, a glass the size of a brandy snifter but actually full, assorted toys and the company of other novelists and artists.

I think somewhere deep down my self-image as a social drinker fixated on Gauguin and assorted writers who visited the tropics. I think it must have sunk in that alcohol is a form of treat, so it should taste like dessert and be special ... and be suitable to the kind of summer-all-year-round climate in which I actually function at my best and most active. The type of place that means Easy Living, Endless Lazy Hedonism is actually where I'll be the most productive. So what I drink reflects that.

That and a deep, abiding sense of self as artistic class, neither upper class nor working class, the class of people who say "Take this job and shove it" whether it's top tier or bottom rung and wander off to paint or write novels instead because life's too short to waste it working hard.

It's only today that all of it started to come together for me. I was thinking of a friend who likes beer, read a Hub by Waynet on novelty bottle openers that amused me -- and I would enjoy them too, considering that wine coolers and malt fruit coolers and ciders come in those bottles too -- and realized that I had completely violated the maxims of the times I grew up in. 

Maybe I associate hard liquor, sour wine and bitter beer with men who wear ties at least on Sunday and say that Real Men Don't Eat Quiche.

The true deep happy memories of my formative drinking years were in high school among other hippies, social rebels and self-outcast bohemians who were all empowered to change the world by screaming at it in prose, poetry, paint, film and dance. We weren't just a bunch of crazy potheads. No, we were a bunch of crazy potheads who justified it first as political and second as the Muse of Righteous Political Anger, we all deep-down believed the arts were the answer to society's ills and that artists of all sorts -- musicians too even though I wasn't one -- could set off on Quixotic quests to topple evil big business and evil corrupt government at the deepest level by just being good at what we did.

I think back and wow, a bunch of liberal teachers supported us in this direction and did everything but lay out the red carpet for us because instead of marching in the streets and throwing pigs' blood on dangerous Chicago cops, we were splattering paint on canvas and declaiming poetry. I think the liberal teachers also believed that it could work and our assorted creative works could change the world. 

I think the sheer weight of numbers of My Generation did shift the American consciousness in a lot of directions that people back then would've thought of as unthinkable, way beyond radical. But we had fun and in those days, it was pretty easy for a teen to get liquor. 

In those circles were a significant number of parents who believed that teens should be taught how to drink socially by getting to throw booze parties at home. These parents had one great advantage. Their kids tended to come home from them safe because by allowing that privilege they were able to step on the other side of the bargain. 

Do not get in a car with a drunken driver.

Even if it's four in the morning, call me and I'll come get you and take some of your friends home too, anyone who doesn't have a ride.

These not particularly politically correct parents and guardians saved dozens, hundreds of young lives including mine. 

Drink till you puke and laugh about it got a tad boring by the end of my senior year and I started getting a bit more choosy about the company I kept when getting decadent. I needed my Decadents and Aesthetes around me to really have a good time, the jocks just didn't do it because they'd get lost as soon as we brought up Coleridge let alone the possibiltiy of getting totally wasted and then actually writing a poem, but trying to finish it before coming down sober because you know, Coleridge never finished that masterpiece.

I love onions. I love garlic. I don't like pepper. Any flavor that's harsh and bitter but immediately brings on sudden burning pain in the mouth that'll turn into tongue-hives and then go burning through the rest of my body screaming in new agony at each stage of digestion is going to get associated with Ugh. 

Yet garlic and onion eaters tend to offend some people who have sensitive noses. Even if you brush your teeth and use mouthwash, regular garlic eating does change the scent of your sweat and then a lady who is not Italian or Korean or some other ethnic garlic-eating culture is going to get the same look on her face that I do at the smell of mayonnaise just because I'm nearby. Let alone nearby and breaking out in a sweat because I got hot or cold or sick.

All of my life I've known that I'm a picky eater and someone whose food tastes are antisocial. I don't eat what other people tell me is good. I don't eat to the consensus or drink to the occasion. Let alone swear up and down that something I loathe is wonderful in order to fit in socially. That particular white lie is half of how people acquire tastes anyway.

If you say "It's wonderful" and your mouth says "It's nasty" and you say it often enough, you believe it and get used to the familiar flavor. You don't want to think of yourself as a hypocrite who would just say that to impress people. So the second or third go-round by the time it's tolerable, the social associations and happy memories kick in and then the flavor is something you like in a different way.

I think that happens to a lot of people without their even noticing -- especially if they don't have major sensitivities and heavy social pressure to eat things that literally make them sick right on the spot. I had too many associations with "Try this, it's wonderful" resulting in short trips to the bathroom or long nights of agony to trust other people's opinions of food.

Food's cultural.

I remember sitting in a group of a dozen people every one of whom hadn't had a decent meal in weeks. All of them were reminiscing about fried chicken, especially the extra spicy kind. I wound up listening to this rhapsody and remembering how desperately I craved a plain cheeseburger with no condiments. I didn't go for fast-food chicken because I craved beef -- if I had the money for fast food, why would I spend it and only get chicken when I could actually have a hamburger? The only time that didn't happen was when I was so used to fast food while I worked that I ate it several times a week and actually got tired of burgers. When you have them only a couple of times a year, they are special.

Every one of them looked at me like I'd suggested unsweetened oatmeal instead. 

I think of my tastes as completely iconoclastic but they aren't. They connect obliquely with my background too -- the blue-collar meat and potatoes man was my grandfather. Dad liked some things I didn't, like liver, but otherwise his tastes ran in the same direction too. Women fussed about health and nutrition and weight loss and tried to push rabbit food, with high calorie dressings on it that turned my stomach because of the vinegar.

So it does affect me after all. It's not a matter that I'm that different from anyone else -- except in the one way that I am, in that at least half of the foods I loathe are foods that loathe me if I am stupid enough to eat them. A growing third category of foods I used to like, such as pizza and ice cream, is building up because the sensitivities seem to be getting more ntense as I get older. The milk one especially.

What I am is someone who grew up physically different from my acculturated surroundings. Food allergies will do that to anyone who has them. They're common. I'm not the only one who's had them turn nastier in middle age than when I was young either, more of them turn up in friends who are in my age group than not.

But the social meaning of certain foods is iconic. It's like what you wear. French culture gets rejected as wussy by that blue-collar German side of my ancestry... and at the same time, I look at history and my grandfather's country was always trying to conquer France and stamp it out. So these things have roots. I like French culture.

And French Culture tends to like me too. French culture gives novelists the same kind of respect as bakers or teachers or bankers, it's not held up as some superstar celebrity unthinkable thing that no one in your neighborhood could ever learn to do, yet it's not held down as something only wussy daydreamers devote their lives to. There's some reason besides my stomach being able to tolerate onions and eggs for why I do love quiche and eat it whenever I can get it.

Yogurt and cheese don't disagree with me and I do need dairy in my diet the same as anyone else... and there's French culture again. Wine and cheese. I did grow to appreciate some wines that weren't in the candy-flavored category when served properly by someone who knows what they're doing -- my daughter Kitten, who is a pastry chef and a savory cook. She has undertaken to educate the palates of me and my beloved son in law Karl, whose family background seems to have been about as blue-collar Amurrican as that side of mine. 

The discovery that certain wines only taste sour if you're eating the wrong food with them was liberating. I eventually grasped that if Kitten said "Dad, try this, I think you'll like it," then I'd probably really enjoy it. This is because she is a real chef.

Snobs will put all kinds of horrible combinations together in a 'modern art' esthetic of the bizarre, just trying to be original, and then people claim they love strawberries with peppercorns on it because it's trendy. She laughs at trendy food. True haute cuisine is normal food, even poor-people food, prepared so well that you would actually enjoy something no one in their right minds would even think of eating. 

Quiche didn't start out as an upper class treat. It started out as a cheap egg pie done homemade on the farm to get the farm guys out hoeing the vineyards and give them a solid breakfast. Bouillabaise is the soup you get when you throw in some vegetables and whatever the day's catch was scrounging out of tide pools and the sea. Loads of good New Orleans recipes come from the things Cajuns ate out in the bayou because if you dip a bucket in the ditch, you'll catch your dinner. 

The difference is that a good chef will cook to your tastes whatever they are. Will try to give you a pleasurable experience, something memorably so great on your tongue that you will never forget it and always want more. A snob chef will want the photographers snapping away and some columnist writing it up as grand and will shove the latest trend down your throat, which you eat and lie about so that you don't get laughed at for being uncultured.

The problem with that lie is that if you say you like it, the person who cooked it has every reason to believe that and serve it again, create other dishes that taste like it and expect you to like those too.

I rebelled against both sides of the family by going artistic-bohemian. I rejected working-class Work Ethic and the idea of spending most of my life working hard for other people without reward, just taking pride in having worked so hard, and I rejected the upper class management work ethic of ruthless competition, take advantage of anyone you can, climb to the top on the backs of dumb joes that work hard for no reward and try to impress other people with your money and status. I rejected academia along with all of that, the idea of spending a lifetime analyzing other people's books or even teaching my opinions as if they were fact turned my stomach.

What shone out among all of those possibilities was that I could go off and do my own thing. That anyone in the arts has to do exactly that. It sank in that doing a lot of practice would make anyone good at it -- good enough to make a decent living whether or not academia thought you were a genius superstar for the ages -- and that I could either try to make a lot of money or live somewhere it didn't cost a lot to be happy. Find some balance between the two that didn't involve my running myself into the ground or no longer being able to afford any ethics by learning to write novels well enough that people would read them.

So maybe my food tastes do say a lot about me after all. The more I think about it, the more they do and I have not escaped the stereotypes or the acculturation. While in a way it's a sad thing that McDonalds proliferated all over the world, some small part of me is relieved that it did because a couple of times a year I'll want one, no matter how high off the hog I'm eating. 

So when you talk about food... think about it in terms of who you are. It probably says a lot about your values, the region you grew up, what childhood memories were bad or good, where and how you've lived since. I know I have an appreciation for certain foods that comes specifically from times in my life when I starved, literal starvation, and that things I thought of as ordinary became spectacular when seasoned by hunger. Some emotionally powerful foods and drinks also gained much more than their flavor's intensity by holding good memories, like Boones Farm and Bali Hai and the first drafts of my first novel.

We eat like humans. Socially complex with a wealth of communication involved. I think half the time restaurants bust people's budgets because even if you don't know the other people at the other tables, going out is when you can eat without being alone. That I prefer eating alone is more a matter of those food sensitivities and other disabilities, because I would rather have no company than bad company or no company than physically painful logistics. 

It's too bad there's no onions-garlic without pepper ethnic culture with lots of red meat and cheese and sweets that also involves seating in cushy armchairs instead of formal hard chairs at a table. I think that side of social eating has gone by the wayside somewhere before kindergarten and I should give up on it. The most polite thing I could do to deal with that is show up in a power chair so it's immediately visible to everyone why I'm not going to hold utensils properly or sit up straight or not lean on anything.

I'm not sure if I feel left out or not. I'm not sure I'm missing anything at all, because I do have some very powerful associations that are positive with some favorites as much as anyone else would. I think it's more that I don't snob at anything I couldn't excel in for real. An iron stomach might have turned me into the food adventurer.


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Goodness! Robert, this has sent me running to my own 'What your food says about you' because you say it much more eloquently. You can be brutal, but boy are you real.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Goodness! Robert this is going to send me running to my own comparitively inept and weak 'What your food says about you' because you show how it should be done. This is great. I had to agree with a lot of what you said. You can be brutal, but boy are you real.

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Shalini, you are so right. I didn't find out for years that the moment I decided to quit dieting, I started doing that -- eating to what my body really needs. My health improved from it. There are some foods that would be dangerous for anyone who didn't have my disabilities, concentrated calories are good for me because of the amount of exertion that goes into my doing anything, even walking down the hall to the kitchen. Imagine that being five times the distance. Imagine everything in life being five times farther away than it is and you're seeing how living with my asymmetry has made me in a weird way, athletic. But I craved brussels sprouts within a week after I started doing that -- bought a lot of sweets and stored them, especially nonperishables, but that was more for emotional security than anything else. When I separated the comfort eating from body needs, body needs took over in my food tastes.

      Anath, you're lucky. Both for probably not having many sensitivities to having had a life where you didn't get subjected to much food cruelty. It sounds as if most of your associations with food are happy ones. Enjoy it. I don't often get that much pleasure out of it but there are a few things that I have that kind of pleasant associations with and they get very intense.

    • Anath profile image


      8 years ago

      Loved this hub. For me food is very important, I don't eat a lot but I do vary a lot. I like tasting new flavours, I like trying new textures and ways of eating everyday foods. Most flavours in my mouth are linked to special occasions, the aroma from a fresh fruit or a glass of wine never stops to remind me of something. I like using food as foreplay, I like eating after lovemaking just to gather enough energy to start again. I like to share my favourite wines with friends... For me food is a luxury, a sensual pleasure that I enjoy sharing.

    • Shalini Kagal profile image

      Shalini Kagal 

      8 years ago from India

      When our 17-year old daughter was a baby. I had a wonderful pediatrician who told me never, ever to force her to eat anything she didn't like. That her body would decide what was good for her - all I had to do was to give her healthy food choices. Unbelievable how children gravitate to what their bodies need!

      Wonderful read - thank you. Isn't it sad how so much of gourmet food must have come about because of social politeness?

    • robertsloan2 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from San Francisco, CA

      Cool, thanks! Yeah, anything that gets bad memories will tend to lose its appeal even if it was something really good, and vice versa, foods that were unpleasant can become great by association with something good. But foods that are in that middle ground of neither great nor horrible are even more likely to get emotional resonance.

    • Paradise7 profile image


      8 years ago from Upstate New York

      I enjoyed reading this. It's true, a person's attitude towards food and their favorite foods tell something about the person, aside from allergies. It's part of the history of our nurturing (or lack of it).

      I remember the era in which we were young.


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