Food Fights: Are They about Mouth Taste or Moral Taste?

by Dwight Furrow

Human beings fight about a lot of things—territory, ideology, religion. Food fights play a special role in this fisticuff economy—they fill the time when we are between wars. Beans or meat alone in a proper chili? Fish or fowl in a proper paella? Vegetarians vs. carnivores. Locavores vs. factory farms. These are debates that divide nations, regions, and families. But they are nothing new. Taboos against eating certain foods have always been a way of marking off a zone of conflict. Kosher and halal rules have little justification aside from the symbolic power of defining the Other as disgusting.

PizzaConflict persists even when food is intended as entertainment. The competition for global culinary capo continues to heat up. The French jealously guarded their supremacy for centuries until supplanted by the upstart Spanish with their molecular concoctions, only to be cast out by the Norwegians who have convinced us of the savor of weeds. Meanwhile the Italians wait for the fennel dust to settle, confident that in the end we always return to pizza and pasta.

The dishes we consume or refuse express our style, our values, and the allegiances to which we pledge. And so it has always been. “Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are,” wrote the gourmand Brillat-Savarin in 1825. Food not only has flavor; it apparently has a “moral taste” as well that informs our self-image as individuals and as members of communities or nations. This “moral taste” is no fleeting or inconsequential preference. It matters and matters deeply. The vegetarian not only prefers vegetables and sees herself as a vegetarian but is taking a moral stance, takes pride in the stance, sees it as a project, a commitment superior in value to the alternatives. The Italian feels the same about eating Italian. It means slow eating, communal eating, la dolce vita. A Genoan's taste for pesto is not merely a preference for the combination of garlic, olive oil, basil, pine nuts, and Parmigiano Reggiano but a moral taste that carries meaning. Contemporary foodies exhibit a similar zealous commitment. The search for the best barbeque in town is not merely a search for a good meal, but a quest for a peak experience, a realization of a standard, a moral commitment to refuse the taste of the ordinary.

It is easy to see why food might serve as an anchor for moral identity. We take food into our bodies. It is the source of our energy, a persistent pursuit, the focal point of family life. It hits us where we live. To quote Brillat-Savarin again, “The pleasures of the table are for every man, of every land, and no matter of what place in history or society; they can be a part of all his other pleasures, and they last the longest, to console him when he has outlived the rest”.

But how important is “mouth taste” to “moral taste”. Do particular flavors matter in determining what we commit to and what we reject? After all, it is Italy the Italians love (or more precisely the region of Italy from which they hail). That the combination of basil, olive oil, garlic, and Parmigiano-Reggiano happens to be indigenous to Genoa is just an accident of history. If those flavors did not exist, some other flavor profile would serve to anchor Genoan identity. Similarly, the moral commitment to vegetarianism is what matters to the vegetarian. The preference for the flavor of vegetables follows behind, a habit made necessary by that commitment, a dessert to the main moral meal. Ideology trumps flavor, morality trumps aesthetics, or so it would seem. That is the conventional wisdom at any rate.

Social science reinforces this conventional wisdom. Thanks to the influence of Levi-Strauss and Pierre Bourdieu, much of social science treats food preferences as markers of identity or signs of social status, a kind of fashion statement that signals to others our commitment to certain values. Eating is not just eating but a form of communication underwritten by the conviction that one's own way of eating is the right way. Haute cuisine is about class distinction, French cuisine about national distinction, food taboos, about contrasts with the Other. The stylish couple at the corner table prefer Grilled Texas Nilgai Antelope–with Caramelized Apricots, Apricot Agri-doux, Glazed Couscous, Ginger Infused Apricot Puree, Asparagus Tips and Red Wine Justo a bowl of chili, not because it tastes better, but because it signals their status or aspirations. Compared to “moral taste”, “mouth taste” pales in significance, a source of mere subjective enjoyment with no larger meaning, an empty cipher in a game of divide and conquer—at least according to conventional wisdom.

But conventional wisdom, this emphasis on “moral taste” at the expense of “mouth taste,” gets the relationship backwards. A significant explanatory hurdle confronts the claim that food preferences are about signaling rather than savoring. Tastes change—rapidly in the modern world. Whatever role “moral tastes” play, they don't supply “mouth tastes” with fixed meanings. It is not obvious how relatively stable moral identities explain rapidly changing, unstable flavor preferences.

For example, what precisely is a vegetarian? A vegetarian is a person who eats no meat. But vegetarianism is in fact more complicated. There are lacto-vegetarians, ovo-vegetarians, or lacto-ovo-vegetarians, who eat no meat but will eat milk and/or eggs. Some vegetarians will eat fish or seafood but avoid all other meat, but many people are semi-vegetarians eating dairy products and eggs as well as some chicken and fish but no red meat. Dietary vegans do not eat animals or animal derivatives but may use animals in other commodities. But ethical vegans refuse to use any animal product including dairy products, eggs, honey, wool, leather, cosmetics and in some cases avoid medical procedures that involve animal testing. Is vegetarianism an expression of a coherent moral identity or a loose collection of preferences for certain flavors or textures?

Vegetarianism not only exhibits substantial variation, it is also unstable. According to widely reported research, up to 75% of Americans who try vegetarianism go back to eating meat, and there is some indication that many of them ate some meat even while nominally committed to vegetarianism. Whatever the term “vegetarian” means, it is not a fixed identity. Is morality or aesthetics driving these changes?

The “mouth tastes” that signal national and regional identities are similarly unstable. Today our global fusion cuisines change rapidly, but the culinary world has always been in flux. Corn, beans, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, chocolate, vanilla and chile peppers were all unknown outside the Americas until the 16th Century. Once transportation technology was sufficient to encourage trading (and plunder), these foods were rapidly incorporated into some traditional European and Asian cuisines. Potatoes are now a central ingredient in Indian cooking, and eggplants and chiles help define Thai and Indian cuisine. Tomatoes, eggplant, and potatoes are important to all European cuisines, as is rice which was imported by the Moorish Arabs when they inhabited Southern Spain. It is hard to imagine Italian food without tomatoes, but they did not appear in Neapolitan cookbooks until 1692.

We often think of French cuisine as a kind of cooking that powerfully reflects regional and local identities, and indeed French provincial cooking does. But the most influential French cooking, the dishes that have become well-known throughout the world, are for the most part the creations of professional chefs looking for new flavors and textures; they are not sources of regional identities. Béchamel sauce, created by Louis de Béchamel (1635-1688), was a mainstay of 19th and 20th Century fine cuisine, although today it is a routine ingredient in comfort food and family dishes, seldom any longer appearing in the recipes of trendsetting chefs. Similarly, sauce béarnaise, crêpes Suzettes, salmon with sorrel sauce, tropical fruit sorbets, flourless chocolate cakes, etc. are all the concoctions of top chefs, as were the creations of Nouvelle Cuisine that dominated French cooking for 30 years until recently. There are some exceptions. Cassoulet, bouillabaisse, foie gras, boeuf bourguignon, and perhaps magret de canard (duck steaks) were traditional, regional dishes that achieved international acclaim. But more often than not, change and innovation comes about because chefs are experimenting with new flavors and methods that may not be closely tied to regional traditions.

Where does this pressure for change come from? Why did Italians embrace the tomato in the 16th century, Americans the taco in the 20th. Why did France abandon their heavy spices in the 18th century and their heavy cream sauces in the 21st century in favor of lighter, fresher fare? What encouraged Americans to look to France for culinary inspiration in the 1960's when Julia Child made food TV a habit? Why did virtually the entire globe lose its preference for sweet wine in the mid-20th century and begin to embrace the dry styles that now dominate the industry (at least until the current fascination with Moscato)? Why do vegetarians vacillate so much in their sincere commitment?

It is hard to argue that a coherent value system or the signaling of a stable moral identity is at work in generating these shifts. Creating taboos, marking national identities, enforcing class distinctions, and standing on moral principle are all activities devoted to creating boundaries, not crossing them, drawing distinctions rather than erasing them. Food, by contrast, does a lot of crossing and erasing. Mouth taste is so fluid it seems to float free of moral taste, confounding rather than signaling, disrupting identities rather than reinforcing them.

There are many explanations for why tastes change. Health considerations, immigration, and socio-economic factors drive some change—historical change is seldom guided by a single factor. But sometimes change is simply driven by mouth taste. We find new tastes fascinating and want to experience them, and those that are genuinely appealing stick with us until we incorporate them into whatever symbolic identity we happen to be promoting at the time.

Of course, then we have to tell some story about why the change is deeply meaningful, not just a matter of taste. Moral inflation is after all the coin of the realm with an emotional payoff more robust than anything mere “mouth taste” can provide. But this crossing of boundaries is incompatible with the judgment that one's own way is the right way. If it were the “right way”, why would we be so open to change? Our willingness to abandon foodways makes it hard to take seriously the food flags that people righteously wave. If a moral eater is signaling who she is, this identity persists only until a pungent, new flavor piques her palate. We may get an emotional charge from flag waving and food fighting but the object of discord has the persistence of a pop-up restaurant.

In the end, we probably can't escape the symbolic dimension of food because symbols are important and food is so readily available to be exploited by our need for meaning and self-expression. To keep a lid on our passion, it is useful to keep in mind that the power of any particular symbol will persist only until our taste buds object. And then we will have to find a new symbol and manufacture a new passion.

Thus, lying at the bottom of this symbolic dimension of food is the power of particular tastes and their ability to shape our moral ideals. If you want people to change their values, change their tastes. Show people that organic broccoli tastes better, and we are on our way to securing their commitment to sustainability.

Well, we can hope can't we?