Some questions about acquired taste — August 25, 2010

Some questions about acquired taste

(__Attention conservation notice__: Wherein I think out loud for about 900 words on the subject of acquired taste, with particular reference to espresso — not because that’s the most important example, but rather because it helps me make things a bit more concrete.)

I’ve had this nagging question in my head for a long, long time: how do you judge what something is “supposed” to taste like when it’s an acquired taste for most everyone?

This isn’t a rhetorical question; it may be reasonable to demand that, say, scotch taste a specific way. But there are a number of tastes that virtually no one enjoys when they’re young; black coffee and wine come to mind immediately. This may be just an American thing; I don’t want to universalize it too much. But childhood food tastes tend to the sweet. I’d hypothesize that sugar is not an acquired taste, but espresso is.

So what I’ve wondered for a while is: who decides what espresso is supposed to taste like? Some possible standards:

* It’s supposed to taste like what the average consumer likes, including those who at present don’t drink espresso. Imagine, for instance, that you gathered people at random off the street and put a number of different espressos in front of them. The best espresso, by this standard, is the one that the most people liked.

The trouble here is obvious: you’re appealing to the average, and that may not be what defines “the best espresso.” The average person may, in Dave Barry’s words, not be able to distinguish between red wine and melted popsicles, but that doesn’t mean that melted popsicles are what wine is supposed to taste like.

* It’s supposed to taste like what those who’ve tasted many espressos say it should taste like. The trouble here is that their perception of what it should taste like may be colored by what the community they’re in says it should taste like. I seem to recall that French-roast coffee was all the rage 10 or 15 years ago; nowadays lightly-roasted coffees seem to be on the upswing. Does this mean that those coffees are objectively “what coffee is supposed to taste like,” or does it just mean that master baristas are driven by fads like everyone else?

* It’s supposed to taste like what those with highly perceptive senses — think Robert Parker, the “man with the million-dollar nose” — say it should taste like. The trouble here is a bit of the last bullet — the Parkers of the world probably spend their time conversing with like-minded folks — but also that it’s not clear how much I have to learn from someone whose palate is that finely honed. Yes, one day I hope to be able to register as much as Parker does when I quaff a fine wine, but in the meantime most of the subtlety is lost on me. Should I be drinking espresso that appeals to people with far different tastes from mine?

* There’s no right answer; it’s supposed to taste like whatever you like drinking. This is a fine standard, and in fact in some ways it’s probably ideal. But it does demand discipline from the drinker: if you’re going to make your own standards, you owe it to yourself to drink many different kinds of espresso (or wine, or scotch, or whatever) and decide which you like best.

All of these, I suspect, could be taken beyond the realm of food and into art or literature or comedy. What makes Andy Kaufman funny? Picasso is harder to get into than Thomas Kinkade; is the latter better than the former? I have less to say about those disciplines, because I know less about them.

In general, I certainly hope that interpersonal comparisons are possible. If they’re not, that makes life more boring; I find it fun to discuss food and literature and whatever, and you probably do too. I doubt you feel as though there’s an impassable wall between you and me that makes it impossible for us to compare foods. We read various critics; sometimes they call our attention to aspects we might not have noticed in books we’ve just read or coffee we’ve just drunk. Then we decide for ourselves whether the standards that they use to judge books or food work for us.

Is that the most we can say about acquired tastes? That there’s no right or wrong taste for espresso or wine or whatnot, but only whether someone else’s standard rings true for you? That doesn’t feel quite right to me, because it’s likely to be driven by fads. Fads are less a measure of what’s good than what’s popular. Yet I don’t want to go to the opposite side, either, and assert that there’s no right answer other than what you yourself enjoy; there are people who know more about a given product than I do, and I owe them some deference.

I decided to write all of this down after reading a piece about American espresso that crystallized a lot of what I’m wondering. The argument that American espresso is a different breed from what Italians like certainly makes a lot of sense to me. Though I’d want to see it confirmed empirically, by putting the same espressos in front of Americans and Italians and seeing whether there’s really as little overlap as Milos would suggest.

One fellow on Twitter is rather more decisive than I am in his feelings about Milos; he says, “This man is a dick with ears.”