Sweet Rebellion: a short theory of acquired tastes and an unsavory explanation of harmony
Acquired taste (noun): A taste which is not natural or innate, but which has developed through habit or learning; Something that is appreciated only after having initially been regarded as unappealing or unpleasant (wiktionary)
Does this definition really sum up what an acquired taste is? To get you started, some examples might be black coffee, kambucha, dry wine, peaty scotch, dark chocolate, blue cheese, anchovies, and sea urchin.
Another way of defining an acquired taste might be a taste with favorable emotional content [maybe we could call this hedonic value or possibly positive symbolic value] that rebel against our biological drive to seek sweetness (via gustation or aroma). These tastes do not exactly eliminate sweetness, but rather create large amounts of tension between sweetness and other gustatory or aromatic divisions which lessens sweetness’ perception.
A biological drive for sweetness is our instinctual system for finding nutritional food sources and puts sweetness at the center of flavor harmony. Flavor harmony when expanded, always moves outward away from that central instinctual point. We learn to like the sweetness contrasting bitterness of black coffee and dark chocolate, the pungency of blue cheese, the acidity and tannin of red wine, as well as the anti-sweet (yet to be fully classified) aromas of Scotch.
Learning is a large part of the classical definition of acquired taste and does not automatically happen when we perceive flavor. There are two strategies by which flavors get perceived. We use either a synthetic strategy or an analytic strategy (Spence and Auvray, 2007). The synthetic strategy is very passive and practitioners do not consciously focus their attention on what they are consuming. The analytic strategy is an exercise in focusing our attention and takes lots of experience and practice to wield. If you analytically try and perceive a flavor experience, you will spatially render it in the mind’s eye and then under concentration shift the eye’s focus to different aspects (texture, sugar, acid, aroma, etc). You cannot start building your library of aroma references (and symbolic values) until you start analytically pursuing it. Choosing to pursue an analytical strategy is the only way to learn while eating or drinking and of course it can be done to various degrees.
The difficulty of focusing our attention is compounded by the multi sensory nature of flavor perception. Not all the senses get equal weight within our ability to focus. Our attention seems to default to certain senses which might be a survival mechanism. Olfaction may be the most elusive (the great luxury sense!), then gustation, then the trigeminals (trigeminal refers to senses linked on the trigeminal nerve like thermoception or the sense of touch that helps us perceive texture). Basically, if you are perceiving synthetically, texture is the most easily noticed aspect of an edible experience, then gustation, then aroma. This is why chefs worry so much about texture as opposed to aroma. Most people in restaurants are pursuing a synthetic strategy and can barely perceive aromatic nuances in such busy fast paced settings. If you are trying to perceive analytically, you have to climb over the distractions of texture and gustation to reach the noble sense of smell.
The limits of our ability to focus might be why we are drawn to acquired tastes. If greater tension captures our attention allowing us to favorably escape into an experience as opposed to only taking it in passively, then we will start to seek whatever triggers that reaction. For some reason favorable emotional content always goes in the direction of sweetness plus greater amounts of the anti-sweet (the thrill!). Experiences that we deem too sweet may capture our attention, but will not create favorable emotional content. Once you start to rebel and expand harmony there is no going back because what was the center turns into a hole, but luckily there are so many directions new pleasure can take; bitter sweet, salty sweet, sour, and any combination across the senses of gustation and olfaction (for example the aromatic sweetness, gustatory acidity of wine).
Opportunity to try new things has a very large influence on the acquiring of acquired tastes. Even if you have an analytical awakening, but are fed by a group of synthetic perceivers, you may never have a chance to explore and expand culinary harmony. Anchovies are always just thrust upon us, no one ever consciously says “I need something to capture my attention and in theory sea urchin should do the trick”.
A very common acquired taste is dry wine which has predominantly sweet aromas contrasted with gustatory acidity. The dryness though, is a bi-product of alcohol production and in the beginning, dry wine is typically consumed for its alcohol before we ever find solace in its olfactory-gustatory tension. Our motives for consuming dry wine may only change after we learn of its ability to capture our attention and create favorable escapism.
Multi sensory attention default is important to consider when examining the differences between food and beverage. We can pay more attention to aroma in beverage because beverage simplifies texture which removes a giant hurdle to aroma perception. An example of texture distraction is the strange heterogeneous character of rustic chocolates like the local Boston producer Taza (sorry Taza). You have difficulty perceiving the aromatic nuances of the chocolate because the texture is so granular and distracting unlike other homogeneous chocolates. Similarly, a Manhattan might be best stirred because the texture created by the shaken method distracts us from the aromas which are intended to be the highlight of the experience. The texture distraction of a shaken drink means that the sours which we typically shake, probably cannot be as aromatically nuanced as their non sour counter parts. Champagne is notoriously hard to describe in aroma because of the distraction of its bubbles.
The distraction of texture and the forces of tension makes sweetness sometimes hard to identify. In the case of food as opposed to beverage, we often think that sweetness lies only in desserts and not in what we eat as main courses, but that isn’t exactly true. We label our main courses as savory which is a word with no clear definition. Savory as an adjective can simply mean favorable; the verb form, savor, means to analytically perceive; and another adjective definition is “not sweet” which does not accurately describe many of our main courses which often get labeled savory.
Meat courses, the most common form of savory, do not escape being sweet because browning reactions create sweet aromas like Maltol, and if you have ever had sauces like veal stock, they can seem quite sweet. Stocks have both olfactory and gustatory sweetness though many people would be hard pressed to locate the sugar. All stocks develop sweet browning aromas as a bi-product of reduction and nearly all stocks have a sugar content from the use of a mirepoix. Carrots, celery and onions are emphasized in definitions of mirepoix as being only “aromatic”, but they are loaded with flavor enhancing sugars which decrease the threshold of perception of aromas (the threshold of perception impact may be why they are called “aromatic”).
Identifying sweetness in main courses is important because it explains and reminds us of our techniques of contrasting it. We de-glaze pans with acid from wine or lemon juice to create tension between the sweet aromas of the browning meat. We also use botanicals like herbs de Provence, which have aromas that decrease the perception of sweetness, to contrast the olfactory-sweetness of browning aromas or the gustatory and olfactory-sweetness of vegetables. We often abstract our food to the same sense of learned harmony we have acquired from the bi-product tensions of alcoholic beverages, all in the name of paying attention.
When you start looking around, you find that those with the most analytical experience have acquired the greatest amount of acquired tastes. Active analytical wine drinkers look for leaner, dryer wines that are not low acid international style fruit bombs of dense sweetness increasing aromas. This of course does not lead to the rejection of all fruit driven wines. Styles like Beaujolais or Cerasuelo di Vittoria (Frappato / Nero d’Avola) are prized for the ideal aromatic tonality of their sweet aromas; they are extraordinary rather than ordinary.
Cocktail enthusiasts often engage in a serious analytical perception strategy though it is hard to maintain for more than few drinks or in good company. With experience enthusiasts usually acquire tastes for dryer structures via gustation or sweet drinks that focus on aromatic tonality, nuance, and tension. Capturing the attention of the experienced enthusiast requires more dissonant aromas like juniper forward gins, olfactory-umami pungent tequilas, or aggressive drying aromas like those found in mezcal, rye or peated single malts. All beverage may benefit from simplified texture reducing the barriers of paying attention to aroma, but a large amount of cocktails also simplify gustation to highlight aroma. Simplified gustation is most typically low acid and examples are drinks like the Manhattan (stirred) whose detail oriented aromas draw you in and beg to be explored without distraction.
Next time you eat or drink consider your strategy and whether or not you are really savoring. If the restaurant is roaring and everyone is drinking boutique spirits and expensive wines by the glass, but no one can seem to pay attention, are we really allocating resources correctly? Next time your mind is clouded consider the wisdom of the anchovy. So that is why so many stressed out lawyers drink dry Tanqueray martinis.