Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Taste Worth Not Knowing

“I hear dark chocolate is the better chocolate nowadays. But I’m pretty sure my granddaughter likes milk chocolate—”

“The best chocolate is the chocolate you like. If your granddaughter likes milk chocolate, encourage her to eat that.”

This was a snippet of conversation I overheard in Fog City News about a week or two ago while on my lunch break, browsing the store’s madly stocked shelves in preparation for Valentine’s Day. When an elderly gentleman asked for advice about what to get his granddaughter, Adam (or at least I believe it was Adam, the owner of Fog City News) of course made the right call in dispelling the customer’s myth. But even better, I appreciate that he used the word “encourage.” We’ve heard the same song and dance a hundred times about wine: The best wines are the ones you like to drink.

So, “good” wine, chocolate, and well, any food or drink is the one you like. There’s no other way to judge quality except by personal taste. This mantra, unfortunately, is two-pronged. On the one hand, it’s true that people should not be swayed by statements of nonsense and snobbery, including but not limited to: “There’s no such thing as good merlot”; “One must learn the A, B, Cs of wine: Anything But Chardonnay;” “Dark chocolate is divine. Milk chocolate is crap.”

On the other hand, these flaming accusations came from somewhere, and may even have an inkling of truth behind them.

A History of Accusations

Like any great stereotype or over generalization, these statements were generated for some reason. The stigma against milk chocolate, for example, has developed as a reactionary stance against turn of the century cheap chocolate, specifically Hershey’s, as pointed out by Steve Almond in his book Candy Freak, as well as mentioned by A.K. Crump at his book-signing talk for French Chocolate the other night at Books Inc. in San Francisco. As Crump speculated, as the appreciation for chocolate grew in America, a reactionary stance developed that rejected the old Hershey’s chocolate taste, which was primarily sugary. And since milk chocolate is typically sweeter tasting than dark chocolate, even when it is made of very high quality cacao and doesn’t contain an overwhelming amount of sugar, some people turned their noses to it in favor of the darker varieties on principle alone. As a result, fewer people even venture into milk chocolates.

I’m sure what happened with wine is similar, though I won’t pretend to know the history of the last 100 years of wine trends in America. However, two older women told me, through their thickly European-accented English, that chardonnay in particular was not only widely available in the U.S. for years and years, but also cheaply produced, made to be overly buttery tasting, and so on and so forth.

Flavor Association

The residual issue is that the majority of the population, the people who are not wine connoisseurs, who have never examined how cacao tastes without an overload of sugar and preservatives, only know what they are exposed to, and so they develop a taste for Hershey’s or Heinz ketchup or Stouffer’s lasagna or Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. The development of those tastes and the solidification in the brain that those tastes are desirable are what further fuel the processed foods and fast food industries.

Back to the scene in Fog City News. What I liked about Adam’s response is that he said he would “encourage” the girl to eat milk chocolate. By saying that the grandfather should “encourage” the development of the girl’s initial taste preference, Adam very subtly tapped into the problem so many people face with food snobbery, which is this: If one only thinks one knows what one likes without experimenting fully, then one never develops a true verdict—only a limited sense of how one thinks a product should taste.

With wine and chocolate, it’s especially hard to be totally objective. Any taster is immediately informed by price tag fore mostly, packaging, presentation, brand-association or name, as well as the perceived quality of the retail purveyor (for example, the same bar of chocolate as purchased from a mass chain supermarket versus a small chocolatier, specialty shop, or organic grocery). A $25 bottle of wine will taste better than a $7.99 one. A tiny truffle served on a stylish white square appetizer plate with mint leaf garnish will taste better than the same truffle eaten out of a napkin. A jar of Dagoba organic drinking chocolate from Safeway seems less reputable than the same one purchased from Whole Foods Market.

Beans, It’s What’s for Dessert

While I personally don’t know a whole lot about chocolate, and even though I know even less about wine, I know literally next to nothing about dim sum. I don’t even have the same prejudices about packaging or cost or esteemed purveyors when it comes to dim sum. So in a sense, it represents for me truly uncharted territory where I can taste new foods for myself, without influence.

Before I moved to California, I had never even heard of dim sum. I’ve since learned that it basically refers to a way of eating, sort of like “brunch” or “snack,” without referring to any specific food or dish.

Because the majority of my pleasure from eating originates in texture, I felt good about dim sum from the get-go. I savored the gooey, gluey steamed rice flour concoctions. I fiddled with soft baked pork buns, stretching the dough and pulling bits off with my fingertips before popping them into my mouth. I slurped long rolled rice noodles that resembled lasagna sheets. I tried it all. I can’t say I relished every single bit that passed my lips, but overall, I’ve liked almost everything I’ve tried. Within my first two encounters, it became evident that I was inclined to try anything with sweet red beans, anything wet and slimy (like some dumplings) with pockets of hot broth, anything containing egg custard. I tried take-out first, and more recently, sit-down service, where little clanging push carts made a racket throughout the long meal and servers had to be shooed away every other minute as they tried to unload tray-fulls of food on our table.

Why did I like what I liked? Because it tasted good. I don’t think I’ve ever paid more than $1.50 for a piece of dim sum, with $0.33 being more like the average, so cost wasn’t a persuasive factor. I went in with zero expectations and zero anticipations (and zero hesitation). For me to experience food with an open mind, I had to venture into something I knew nothing about whatsoever. Eating something that I had no preconceived notions about was a valuable experience—not to mention refreshing—and I would encourage others to reinvigorate their thoughts about how food should taste by delving into some cuisine that their taste buds know nothing about. It’s worth it to not know because how you approach the food changes.

I don’t think I’ll ever be able to step back far enough from my preconceived notions of chocolate or wine to fully appreciate them anew; my exposure to has simply been too long to shake them. At least I have dim sum.
—Jill Duffy

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