Taste That!

I am interested in tasteNot the sense that enables us to distinguish a jalapeño from a bell pepper, but the nebulous, learned, and unknowable inside all of us that determines what we like. Do you listen to death metal, even in a candlelit bath? Do you drink Beam rocks through a fine meal? Blume or Bukowski? Your answer betrays your taste.

What I am most interested by are acquired tastes: those things that are unlikeable, uninteresting, ,or even repellent when we first experience them. They can be off-putting in their audacity- think blue cheese, Tom Waits, rye whiskey, or cigars- or bafflingly bland when first encountered. The first time you get a taste of them you either exclaim "How could anyone like this!?" (the audacious, dissonant, and/or stinky) or simply wonder why anyone would like this (the subtle and seemingly featureless).

Some things are pleasing the first time. Coca-Cola. Titanic. Hostess products. Call Me Maybe. Don't nitpick my examples- you know what I'm saying. They please from the get-go, they ask very little of the enjoyer, and their pleasing elements endure, even if their popularity does not. 

But there is more in the library stacks than Twilight, and the cheese counter does not just stack brick upon brick of Kraft Singles. Why? Because our tastes vary way beyond that, and even beyond cheddar and mozzarella and the other prom queens of the dairy world. They include raclette and Taleggio and Morbier; the goths and Warcraft geeks and programming nerds of le monde fromagial. Yeah, yeah, I know; these outcasts are beautiful on the inside and all that, but let's keep it real; their social skills lack, and it's not hard to understand why, after meeting them for the first time, no one really wants to hang around 'em. 

But we rarely dismiss them forever after our first prickly encounter. We'll stay away from them for a while, but we always come back- or are led. When I asked chef Richard Neal why he thought we keep giving these things chance after chance, he responded without hesitation. "Peer pressure" he blurted out, giving a clue into the forces that may be to answer for his own peculiar tastes.  Just because you don't like something doesn't mean those around you are going to quit liking it, and offering it, and your own fear of missing out will compel you to try it again and again until you're a fan or you're done- for good this time. So why not just say no after disliking it the first time? Your friends will think you're a knob.

Could it be that simple? Maybe it is. Maybe we are generous with the chances we give strong cheeses for the same reason we smoke that second cigarette after the first one made us choke- because our friends do it, and we want to be like them. But we must also want to like whatever offensive food or vice is out there, just as we, as little kids, know what we want to do when we grow up. We don't know what it takes to write a book or play professional football or be a veterinarian, but we like what we see when we picture ourselves at the typewriter, on the field, or in the white coat. So we press on gamely- writer's block and bruises and squeamishness be damned- until we are what we wanted to be way back before we knew what it took to be it.

Peer pressure aside, there must be something internal that goads us into trying and retrying the initially unlikeable: an yen for satisfaction deeper than that provided by our cultural Slurpees. If there weren't, we wouldn't have ever felt the need to look beyond nachos after having been seduced by them as kids. Maybe the specifics of my example differ from yours, but believe me- there's a nacho in your history that, like a "fun" college chick, pleased you amply and didn't make you work too hard for it. But you didn't marry the first coed who dropped her Sevens for you after Pint Night, did you? (That was rhetorical. But in all seriousness: you didn't, did you?)

No! Of course you didn't. Because somewhere between that first fumbling, sour-breathed and sloppy (but looking back now still pretty pleasurable) first encounter, you sobered up and realized that you might require satisfaction on a deeper level. Maybe with someone who, even if she couldn't school you on the Romantics, could at least build a respectable case as to why your team has a chance to win the division this year. Somewhere along the line, what is initially appealing becomes grating, and subtleties that were initially ignored or undetectable are now virtues. Have you ever noticed that the backslapping, overly jocular Insta-pals that you meet in bars often turn out to be the biggest assholes? Same principle applies with everything: the things that please at the start seldom last.

I bought a Take That! album in 1995 (I know, I know...). The single Back for Good was a cloying piece of pop mastery that sounded great on the radio. After hearing the chorus a time or two, you could sing along; after hearing the whole tune a few times, you could kill yourself. A couple of years later I bought OK Computer, unwrapped it, and gave it one spin. It took months before I listened to it again, and another month passed before the third listen. It was tough record to cozy up to, but I have listened to it over a hundred times since then. I mean, where will you find "I have listened to it at least a hundred times" written in reference to a Take That! album? In the memoirs of a tortured soldier recalling the harrowing cruelty that finally broke him?

My taste at this very moment is for Oregon pinot noir and getting to bed before 3. Until next time.

PH