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James Bond enjoys vodka martinis, quail eggs, Bollinger Champagne and Beluga caviar. A man after my own heart. An ardent connoisseur, he can distinguish Beluga from other caviars and tell the year of the Bollinger from one sip. Where does he find the time, (not to mention the money), to hone his palate to such a degree? An individual would have to drink a lot of Bollinger, from many vintages to attain such an uncanny degree of discrimination.
Have you ever heard someone say: “It’s an acquired taste,” when describing some exotic or so-called “gourmet” food? If you must acquire a taste to enjoy the item, how tasty can it be to begin with? And how does one “acquire” a taste for a particular delicacy in the first place? The implication is that the item must be repeatedly sampled until the palate gradually becomes amenable to it. I believe this is possible but how often does this happen? How many people try a particular food, dislike it, and then purposely set out to relive the experience again and again? And how many of them would do it with the $70 per ounce Beluga caviar? I suppose some people might be in the middle and try it again. But I think most people are in one of two categories: They either like the caviar or are wondering what mental defect causes the rest of us to pay exorbitant prices for slimy fish eggs.
One way palates can evolve is if people overcome their psychological barriers to food. Taste is certainly influenced by the foods we were exposed to in our formative years, the breadth of our gastronomic experiences, and idiosyncratic beliefs about particular foods. So as individuals start to “think outside of their box,” they naturally broaden the scope of their dietary realm.
A good example comes from the 1934 movie classic “It Happened One Night” with Claudette Colbert and Clark Gable. The pair are stranded on the road with no money. Starving, Clark Gable swipes some carrots from a nearby farm. Claudette Colbert, a pampered, high society girl raised on professionally prepared meals, is appalled when Gable proceeds to eat them raw. Eventually hunger drives her to think outside of her box.
Rather than truly acquiring new tastes, I think a more common pattern is for people to refine their pre-existing taste inclinations. Someone repulsed by caviar is never going to cultivate the level of discrimination necessary to discern the different types. Usually, there must be some degree of receptivity to a particular food for further taste development to unfold.
Wine appreciation is a perfect example of how our palates can become increasingly polished. To those unenthused with the taste of wine, or who have sampled very little in their day, the only difference between the $8 a bottle Beaujolais and the $80 a bottle Burgundy is the price. For the connoisseur, the difference is striking.
Most individuals who eventually become wine lovers start off with inexpensive, lower quality, everyday wines you can pick up in any liquor store. But as you begin to experiment with better quality wines, especially on a regular basis, you will gradually increase your ability to detect the nuances between them. You will be delightfully amazed at the variety and complexity of flavor components that exist amongst varying wine styles and quality grades. But I must warn you, there’s no going back. As your palate becomes acclimated to better quality wine, those inexpensive everyday ones will not be as enjoyable. Some may even turn you off. Now your friends will label you a “wine snob” as you pursue the more expensive wines. But it’s not about the money. It’s about maintaining a new level of satisfaction. Your journey into the world of wine has raised the bar for your taste buds and you are at its mercy. Much like an addict who has had a taste of a purer form of his drug of choice.
Unfortunately, many people are stuck in a gustatory rut and never expand their taste horizons. Take lettuce for instance. There are numerous individuals who think there are two kinds of lettuce: iceberg and everything else. Although crispy, iceberg is faulted for it’s low nutritional and flavor value. When you eat a salad of iceberg lettuce, you’re basically just using the iceberg as a vehicle for consuming the dressing. There is a whole world of other greens out there that offer a myriad of flavors and textures, not to mention greater nutrients.
When all is said and done, you don’t have to acquire a taste for anything you don’t like. Food is to be enjoyed, not labored over. I think being open to at least trying new foods can increase our pleasures but we shouldn’t have to work at it. On the other hand, tasting can be an indefinite pleasure. I will probably never be able to sip a glass of Bollinger and determine its vintage. But it won’t be from a lack of trying.