Iain Murray: Taste is all about the right tongue and a good memory

In a politically correct world, is it fair to criticise food and say that one person’s sense of taste is better than another’s? Or should food simply be enjoyed? asks Iain Murray

Browsing through my copy of that estimable journal of opinion, Wetherspoon News, I came across an item the implications of which could be far reaching for the marketers of food.

The nugget in question was buried in an article by Egon Ronay, helpfully described by Wetherspoon’s editor as “a renowned food critic and commentator” (if he’s renowned, we don’t need to be told: it’s like describing the Queen as a well known monarch). Mr Ronay clearly speaks from experience when he tells us that “however politely you disagree with anyone about his or her opinion of the taste of any food item, it always affects the person’s vanity… frequently, and unreasonably, it causes lasting animosity”.

Such misunderstanding and misplaced irritation, explains Ronay, springs from the fallacious assumption that all men, and no doubt all women too, are born with equal taste buds. Not so, says Ronay, who is of course blessed by nature with an exceptionally fine and discerning palate. After all, his tongue is his fortune.

The remainder of the article is devoted to scientific exposition of the reasons why, when it comes to the taste of food, some people are better qualified than others.

The tongue, explains Ronay, is covered with receptors. Sweetness is tasted at the front of the tongue, where the sweet receptors are situated, bitterness is experienced through the receptors at the back of the tongue, and acidity on its sides.

In our egalitarian age, when it is considered an affront to civilised standards that some should be thought better, cleverer, or more winsome and charming than others, it seems inconceivable that receptors should be scattered on tongues in a manner so random and arbitrary that some are given thousands and others practically none at all. But Ronay assures us that this is so.

He says: “There is a given number you are born with. So if you are born with a poor palate there is nothing anyone can do about it. It is similar to tone deafness or colour blindness… Try as you may, even if you would like to take up good food as a hobby, I am afraid a poor palate cannot be improved.”

Since the prevailing doctrine of political correctness decrees that no offence must be given to anyone (save the middle classes for whom it is always open season), it behoves us to choose our words carefully when dealing with someone who expresses a liking for, say, pizza. W

e must learn to think of them as receptorially challenged. And should they express a desire to take up good food as a hobby, we should shake a sorrowful head and gently point them in the direction of counselling and a hot dog.

However – and now we come to the implications for marketing – Ronay tells us there is another reason why some of us cannot be relied upon to make a sound judgment on the merit of roast quail in a red wine sauce. It is – and let us for a moment suspend the laws of political correctness – that some of us are irremediably stupid. (Very well, just to be on the safe side, some of us are persons with tasting difficulties.)

“If you are able to recognise a certain flavour, for instance that of a herb, does it mean you have a good palate?” asks Ronay. “Not at all,” he replies. “It only means that you have a good memory.

“Hence wine experts – and they hate to be told – don’t necessarily have a good palate, only a good memory gained in countless wine tastings.”

Reading Ronay, one gains an insight into why the pleasures of eating fine food and drinking fine wine are so fraught with irascibility and bad humour. It is because those with an abundance of taste receptors cannot refrain from either politely disagreeing with other people or, in the case of wine buffs, informing them that their palates may well be inferior. We beer aficionados suffer similar problems. Our reset noses and scar tissue about the ears attest to a comparison of tasting notes (“Tastes like wet spaniel.” “Wouldn’t wash my car with it.”) followed by the robust exchanges that so often accompany differences of opinion.

At any rate, Ronay sums it all up by saying that the experience of a vast amount of flavours and smells, and their context and combinations, constitute the relevant whole that he likes to call the databank of the palate. But the databank of itself it not sufficient.

First, you must have a tongue laden with plenty of receptors. Secondly, you must combine everything subconsciously, and have a brain capable of performing that function. “Which means intelligence,” says Ronay, adding, “I have yet to meet a dullard with a good palate.”

So there you have it: good food is wasted on idiots. It follows that in marketing indifferent food, it pays to couch your message in terms readily understood by morons. It was no accident that when searching for a promotional device McDonald’s chose a clown.

It’s a mark of idiocy, I know, but there is a part of me that still believes food is to be eaten and enjoyed, not expatiated upon. I have yet to meet a gastronome who was not only stupendously intelligent (that goes without saying), but also inclined to bore the receptors off you.

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