Tuesday, March 3, 2009

taste tested

I've never really understood acquired tastes. I have them, of course--beer tastes a lot better now than it did 15 years ago, when I first swilled it. And while beer has the benefit of getting one tipsy, it's not like there aren't other beverages that do the same, so there's something else that makes beer worth going back to frequently enough that I worked through the grimaces and began to genuinely enjoy it. Part of that was drinking better stuff (I developed my beer taste buds in Oregon, aka Beervana, so this wasn't hard), but even that took a while. I kept trying beer because it brought me a certain social cachet.

I thought of this when I read this Science article about a dog food tasting. The experimenter, as a lark, conducted a blind pâté tasting with his friends. He included two expensive pâtés, two cheap imitations, and one dog food (the testers knew there was a dog food in the mix). The taste ratings perfectly correlated with the price -- the priciest spread averaged the highest ratings; the cheapest (the dog food) rated the lowest. That's semi-surprising, given that wine prices have little to no correlation to quality--it's tempting to lump all connoisseur fetish items into one category and feel smug for just shopping at K-Mart.

But what's really surprising -- and what made me think of acquired tastes -- is that even though most tasters rated the dog food the lowest, none of them were willing to guess which pâté was actually dog food. The tasters didn't trust their own preferences enough to assert the logical conclusion -- that dog food must taste worse than chicken pâté. Obviously there's no social cachet in professing to like dog food, but there is negative social cachet in admitting to preferring dog food to chicken pâté. Blind taste tests are usually meant to discourage tasters from being influenced by the loaded message a brand may carry -- the quintessential taste test experience is that the unknown brand surpasses the Cadillac of cola, or brownies, or whatever. That's not what happened here: The tasters knew unilaterally that the inferior brand sucked, but they wouldn't make the proclamation. (You could argue that they just didn't know what dog food tasted like, but it's hardly a stretch to think that it probably tastes like, well, dog food.)

So both the dog-food tasters and people who develop acquired tastes aren't sticking to their initial impressions about food, at least in part to maintain or improve their social stance. It makes me wonder about all of my preferences: Do I love my Oregon beers because they're made by superior brewers, or because I want to maintain my claim to the Oregon psyche? Do I actually love Big Macs and have merely convinced myself that they're chalky and gross because it's fashionable in my Fast Food Nation-revering crowd to think so? Inversely, do I actually like foie gras, or do I eat it when I want to shirk my mantle of liberal-ecoconscious-friend-to-all-creatures political correctness, and just eat a fatted liver already?

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