Post Road Magazine #19

The Best Way to Get Good Taste

David Schleifer

What do you want when you want something to eat? If you feel like something salty, are you thinking of olives, a hard pretzel—or a glass of saltwater? If you need something sweet, are you thinking of a chocolate chip cookie, a spoonful of marmalade—or would you eat a cup of plain sugar? If you want something crunchy, do you want coleslaw, popcorn— or could you somehow manage to eat the quality of crunchiness? Flavors and textures are difficult to think about apart from the specific foods in which they are embodied. But some food writers routinely convert adjectives into nouns and use nouns in place of adjectives in descriptions of what they eat and how they cook. Complaining about grammar is like telling people about your dreams: no one really cares. But the use of adjectives for nouns and nouns for adjectives is more than a syntax error. It obscures the material specificities of foods and of the physical practices of cooking, and leaves us with nothing to eat but abstractions.

Melissa Clark writes recipes for the New York Times. Her "Good Appetite" columns describe the processes of developing dishes that usually sound reasonably good. But her prose drives me nuts. Putting the finishing touches on a piece of bluefish, Clark said she "added some thyme leaves for color and aroma." I thought that paint adds color, whereas thyme adds the flavor and aroma of thyme. If I had the delightful problem of writing about my dinners in a weekly column, I'm sure I would fall back on some stylistic short cuts too. But there is an epistemological problem with her approach to explaining food. Last year Clark described the evolution of a dish to serve with stir-fried chicken. "A new plan was hatching," she reported. "I would make barley pilaf using coconut milk, adding the corn kernels and cashews for a sweet crunch and the jalapeno and mint for heat and aroma." Are jalapeno and mint no more than heat and aroma? Don't corn and cashews have distinct flavors and textures? By reducing both of the latter to "a sweet crunch," Clark invokes predetermined qualities—sweetness and crunchiness—and substitutes them for the specificity of flavor in each ingredient. If she were only looking for the abstract qualities of sweetness and crunchiness, she might have tossed in a handful of Cracker Jacks. But in fact there are no things called sweetness or crunchiness, only sweet things and crunchy things with particular dimensions of flavor and texture. Mangoes, tangerines, and cough drops are all sweet. Potato chips, raw onions, and chicharron are all crunchy. None of those things is deracinated sweetness or crunchiness.

Sam Sifton, restaurant critic at the Times, wrote about a Chinese dish in which "the sweet brininess of the shellfish is a nice foil to the briny sweetness of the fermented beans, with the lightest beat of fire behind them." Sifton later discussed a chef for whom "the tang of cilantro enlivens some of her dishes, and the musk of basil, the welcome zing of jalapeno." Describing anything necessarily involves reducing its complexity, and no one needs a Tristram Shandy account of last night's stuffed cabbage. But by describing ingredients with those exasperating singular nouns, Sifton reduces cilantro to tang, basil to musk, and jalapeno to zing. And he traffics in an ontological certainty about inherent, preexisting qualities called tang, musk, and zing. At Christmas, Florence Fabricant recommended that Times readers try a brand of cranberry liqueur "with a trifle less mellow sweetness" than its competitor. John Willoughby described a stew in a Times article about Spanish smoked chili: "The stew, rich with the slight gaminess of lamb, the tang of sherry and the smooth comfort of white beans, was brought to greatness by the subtle heat and almost mysterious smokiness of the pimenton." The reduction of ingredients to abstractions like comfort and tang is not limited to the New York Times. Everyday Food magazine recently counseled adding cabbage to salads "for crunch." The Financial Times wrote about a young Canadian chef who extolled "the lightness of lettuce, the saltiness of the cheeses, the bacon's smoky richness" in his "reimagined" Caesar salad. In The New Yorker, Elif Batuman described a Turkish version of tabbouleh featuring "the bitter edge of sumac and pomegranate extract, the tang of tomato paste, and the warmth of cumin." Are those even accurate descriptors for tomato paste and cumin?

Describing physical sensations poses legitimate problems in speech and writing. Lars Eighner is a writer of many things including pornography, which after all describes physical sensations not entirely different from eating. In Elements of Arousal, his primer on writing erotica and an excellent guide to writing other things too, Eighner recognizes that sensations and desires are too complex to translate into prose. So he advocates for minimally descriptive writing that allows readers to fill in the qualities they desire by assembling details from their own experiences and imaginations:

Because language is ambiguous, the writer cannot describe the thing exactly. The thing the reader reads about becomes something close to the reader. Something the reader has seen, or something made of bits and pieces of things the reader has seen.... The reader envisions the thing vividly, but he does not envision exactly the same thing the writer had in mind. (73)

Eighner cautions that "while each detail of a description will add an appeal for some readers, it will also run against the tastes of others.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Leave it there" (75). As with erotica, bringing extraneous qualities into a description of a dish or ingredient can be alienating or confusing. For a braised rabbit, Clark tells us "I also stirred in whole coriander seeds because I wanted their earthy crunch, and sage and rosemary for their piney notes." Earthiness and piney notes might not appeal to people who actually do enjoy coriander, sage, and rosemary. For those who have not yet tried coriander, sage, or rosemary, the whiff of dirt and Pine-Sol might not make those spices sound like they're worth trying. And trying is the only way to figure out what you like. Antoine Hennion, a French sociologist, critiques the idea that there are inherent qualities to be discovered in things. He advocates for the centrality of repeatedly trying as a means of formulating tastes and things together. Hennion uses the metaphor of a rock climber testing different routes up a mountain. The climber's object is not to reach the top, which might just be the parking lot. The climber climbs to feel himself climbing, and in so doing he maps the mountain, making it visible, climbable, and appreciable:

Taste is not an attribute, it is not a property (of a thing or of a person), it is an activity. You have to do something in order to listen to music, drink a wine, appreciate an object. Tastes are not given or determined, and their objects are not either; one has to make them appear together, through repeated experiments, progressively adjusted. The meticulous activity of amateurs is a machinery to bring forth through contact and feel differences infinitely multiplying, multiplying indissociably "within" the objects tasted and "within" the taster's sensitivity. These differences are not "already there." Through comparison, repetition and so on, things that are less inert than they appear are made more present. They must be made to appear in and through contact: to taste is to make feel, and to make oneself feel, and also, by the sensations of the body, exactly like the climber, to feel oneself doing. (101)

Hennion argues against the idea implicit in Bourdieu's Distinction and much of the cultural sociology that follows it, namely that tastes can be explained by hidden social causes. He instead insists that developing tastes involves physical practices, "letting oneself be carried away, overflowing with the surprises that arise through contact with things" (109). If we develop taste by tasting real things, rather than by aligning ourselves with theoretical qualities, then food writers should be able to dispense with intangibles. But Clark recently brought us "a simple carrot soup with loads of garlic and lemon for punch." Ouch. How could soup need "punch"? Clark described pureeing "loads of raw garlic and a little lemon zest for brightness" in a winter pesto. Is brightness the quality that lemon adds, or is it in fact the flavor of lemon?

Joe Dressner, a New York-based distributor of minimally processed wines, once mentioned at a tasting that when winemakers drink, they don't think of things like notes of honey and fig with tobacco and graphite on the finish. They taste specific grapes grown in specific places in specific years under specific weather conditions. It is not surprising that winemakers' experience of the wine they make is much more precise than that of a blind taster. But some people do manage to write about taste and cooking with comparable, admirable precision. Marcella Hazan, in Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, describes pesto as a sauce invented by the Genoese "as a vehicle for the fragrance of a basil like no other, their own." Hazan's emphasis on the singularity of each ingredient is consistent with her strong preference for what she calls true flavors. She begins Marcella Says with a discussion of insaporire, typically the initial browning step in a recipe, which she admits to translating awkwardly as "making tasty." "A crucial step in the making of most Italian dishes, insaporire is what you do to draw out and develop the flavor of a single or several ingredients." She tells us that "the guiding principle of insaporire is to cause an ingredient to bond its flavor to that of another and thus expand them both."

Hazan eschews most spices as "borrowed rather than true flavor." In More Classic Italian Cooking, she notes the mention of cinnamon in some traditional recipes for pizza rustica, "but I loathe cinnamon, so the less said about that the better." She tells us that her kitchen has no spice rack at all. But even recipes that use abundant spices can be explained in ways that emphasize the specificity of the food rather than alluding to abstract qualities. Diana Kennedy brings many spices into play in The Essential Cuisines of Mexico, based on researched recipes often credited to Mexican cooks identified by name and hometown. But she rarely alludes to anything besides the dish itself, its geographic origins, how she learned it, or the way it is typically eaten. In a pork roast, "the number and amount of spices used, with the predominant flavor of allspice, are characteristic of the food of that area around Tuxtla Gutierrez, Chiapa de Corzo and San Cristobal de las Cascas." For a Yucatecan salsa, Kennedy rejects the reduction of chili peppers to their relative spiciness and highlights the material specificity of each variety: "Despite the fact that the habanero chile has the reputation of being one of the hottest chiles—if one really can compare—it has a delightful flavor, and this, not its heat, is supposed to be imparted to the sauce."

Good food writing often uses evocation in a largely negative way. The writers can tell you what not to do but have to trust that you'll know when you get it right. Elizabeth David, in Summer Cooking, describes the many ways that a certain dessert can go wrong: "An iced souffle or mousse neither cloying nor rubbery, neither pasty nor rock hard, but creamy, light and with just enough gelatine to make it set and hold its shape, is quite a rarity." Her own version "is never gluey in either taste or consistency," but presumably just right. Sybille Bedford, in Pleasures and Landscapes, acknowledges:

It is easiest to say what a good pate should not be—fat, too close or gelatinous in texture, too salty, underseasoned, all peppercorns and gristle, overherbed, soused in cheap brandy, stale, too high, too fresh, worst of all not made of plenty of sound meat. Ours were none of these things: they were made of duck and pork and hare and couldn't have tasted better. (36)

In a green tomato salsa, Kennedy just warns "don't overdo the onion and garlic." Compared to the piney notes, musks, and zings, non-allusive food writing can sound almost naive. In In Pursuit of Flavor, Edna Lewis' constant rationale is that she does things in ways meant to make food taste "good." Discussing Virginia ham, smoked shoulder, bacon, and sausages, she writes, "I think their good flavor appeals to nearly everyone." She declares, "I do not believe in cooking stock for a long period of time; it loses its good taste." For a dish of simmered tomatoes and onions, "you have to use the full measure of olive oil, since this is what gives the dish such good flavor."

Food writing that invokes theoretical qualities or that references supposedly universally known attributes is striving and anxious. Should we try to telegraph the essence of Morocco or capture summer in a bowl? Is this the year to add drama to our pastas or whimsy to our cakes? It's neither. Hazan, Lewis, David, and Kennedy aren't telling us to cook things in order to evoke other things. Their cooking and writing do not calculate and assemble premeditated qualities—crunch, sweetness, musk, punch. They ask us to trust them and to engage in the physical practices of cooking, tasting, varying, and tasting some more. In that way, their approach to food and taste is hospitable and democratic. We can judge for ourselves and so participate in assembling our own associations, tastes, and desires. When making beef and barley stew, Lewis advises, "Roasting the meat and bones in the oven seems to be the best way to get good taste." I'll have to try it.


Batuman, Elif. "The Memory Kitchen." The New Yorker, April 19, 2010.

Bedford, Sybille. Pleasures and Landscapes. New York: Counterpoint, 2003.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Clark, Melissa. "Braised Rabbit, Easier on the Fat." New York Times, February 4, 2009.

"Bluefish with a Crunchy Bite." New York Times, August 11, 2009. "The Comfort of Coconut." New York Times, September 18, 2009. "Feeding a Runner with Miles to Burn." New York Times, November 20, 2009.

"Inventing Tahini Soup." New York Times, April 2, 2010.

David, Elizabeth. Summer Cooking. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1967.

Eighner, Lars. Elements of Arousal: How to Write and Sell Gay Men's Erotica. New York: Masquerade Books, 1994. Everyday Food. "Use It Up: Cabbage." Everyday Food, April 27, 2010.

Fabricant, Florence. "Liqueurs to Color the Holidays." New York Times, December 1, 2009.

Hazan, Marcella. More Classic Italian Cooking. New York: Knopf, 1978. Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking. New York: A.A. Knopf, 1992. Marcella Says.... New York: HarperCollins, 2004.

Hennion, Antoine. 2007. "Those Things That Hold Us Together: Taste and Sociology" translated by Martha Poon, Cultural Sociology 1 (1):97-114.

Kaufman, David. "A Young Chef's Innovative Cuisine." Financial Times, November 7, 2009.

Kennedy, Diana. The Essential Cuisines of Mexico. New York: Clarkson Potter, 2000.

Lewis, Edna. In Pursuit of Flavor. New York: Knopf, 1988.

Sifton, Sam. "In the House of the Claw," Review of Imperial Palace Restaurant New York Times, October 28, 2009.

"South of the Moon, North of the Sea," Review of Tanoreen Restaurant

New York Times, February 24, 2010.

Willoughby, John. "Pimenton: It's Spanish for 'Better Than Paprika.'"New York Times, April 13, 2010.

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