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Taste, likes and dislikes - unique to first world?

Thursday, 18 May, 2017

Taste is a weird sense. It might be yet another feature to make humans unique among other species – that we have personalised likes and dislikes of what we want to eat. I’m not aware of bovine individuals refusing to graze on a particular patch of meadow because the grass type there is not to their liking. Or a baby starling nesting in my guttering resisting a grub being rammed down its throat by Papa Starling; wailing and screeching how it only wanted flies.

Once we get to the domesticated animals though, things get pickier. I know of a dog who adores onions and I used to live with a cat that would refuse anything but fresh raw fish (but then it was my mother’s doing; she’d turn any animal into a feline Marie Antoinette).

Arguably, the pickiness comes with plenty: if you eat to satisfy the hunger, you won’t fuss over what you’re given. But why do we like different things: is it nature or nurture?

Nurture, a lot will say. As many nutritionists advise, make sure your kids are exposed to a variety of foods early on; it will certainly make them open-minded to different tastes in later life. But here’s the case to the contrary: I was brought up on the most boring fare imaginable. Meat was either beef or pork, and fish didn’t have a name, it was fish, fillets, frozen. I hardly even ate rice as a kid, unless you count rice pudding. Veg was carrots or cabbage. I hated both.

So you’d think I’d be very wary of unaccustomed dishes, but the truth couldn’t be farther from that. The minute I left home I pounced at anything I’d not yet tasted, to make like Thomas Beecham and ‘try everything once except incest and folk dancing’. But perhaps the key is that I was never allowed to be a fussy child, always told ‘to like what I got, if I didn’t get what I liked’. The papa starling parenting approach, I’d say.

Children are too often made to choose, their likes and dislikes are overindulged and they get ghettoised into children’s menus, with their usually horrific selections of sausages, tomato-less pizza and grilled chicken. That’s UK and North America, 'French Kids Eat Everything' as Karen Le Billon convincingly states. They don’t get to decide – they’re given good nutritious food at school* and eat what adults eat at home. There’s no snacking, no emotional eating and though of course they are allowed not to like a thing or two, it's only after they’ve tried it. The people who claim they don’t like things they’d never touched simply bring tears to my eyes. I bet they grew up allowed to cut off the crust and refuse to eat the egg white…

All that does not help to understand why our preferences are so individualised, cultural conditioning aside. Why one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Apparently it’s all in the tongue; we all recognise the five tastes but they send different signals to our brains depending on our genetic makeup, chemicals in our brains and how the synapses work. Which is if course a far more boring territory than thinking of novel ways to use chocolate, and so I shall leave it at that.

*one of my most memorable meals was the lunch in a French school canteen which I was visiting. memorable both because it was so tasty and because the kids clearly enjoyed chicory and spinach…

 

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