The Acquisition of Taste
In response to our latest Freakonomics Radio podcast, “Faking It,” a reader named Kevin Melchionne sent in a paper he wrote for Contemporary Aesthetics, called “Acquired Taste.” I have only skimmed it, but it appears well worth a close read for anyone who cares about this kind of thing. The implication is that some modes of “faking it” may lead to a new degree of authenticity, and pleasure. Of the themes we explored in the podcast, I would say that religion is perhaps the likeliest candidate for this process, although that is not something Melchionne addresses.
I thought of the paper while reading this interesting Times article on cilantro. (I love Harold McGee: food + chemistry = fascinating.) When I first moved to New York, I found cilantro in a surprising number of restaurant dishes, especially in Indian restaurants. To me, it tasted very much like dish soap. (McGee explains why.) But, not wanting to appear a cilantro-hating (or Indian-food-hating) philistine, I powered through those dishes — yeah, I faked it — and came to not only like cilantro, but use it regularly in cooking.
Some highlights from Melchionne’s paper:
Acquired taste is an integral part of the cultivation of taste. In this essay, I identify acquired taste as a form of intentional belief acquisition or adaptive preference formation, distinguishing it from ordinary or discovered taste. This account of acquired taste allows for the role of self-deception in the development of taste. I discuss the value of acquired taste in the overall development of taste as well as the ways that an over-reliance on acquired taste can distort overall taste. …
Why set out on a chase for new satisfactions when my own are immediate and available without effort?
The answer is that acquired tastes can be rewarding. Acquired taste jump-starts new satisfactions where I do not initially find them. Through acquired taste, I grow in my capacity to enjoy what the world has to offer. The shiver down my spine at my first sampling of sushi was not one of delight. I was repelled by the cold slug of fish and the horseradish. Playing along, I smothered the second piece in soy sauce, grateful for the familiar saltiness. Soon, though, I was branching out from California rolls to unagi and uni, tuning into the freshness and subtle variations in flavor. As for [my friend] Rachod’s scotch, I am still trying. Surrounded by advertising, friends, and experts, we are constantly asked, pestered even, to acquire a taste for one thing or another. These entreaties come with the promise of some new satisfaction. But when should I take the promised rewards of acquired taste seriously? When should I dismiss them as not for me and quite possibly utter [expletive deleted]?