In the early 18th century, in his Conversations with Eckermann, Goethe is known to have said: «One cannot develop taste from what is of average quality but only from the very best.» The two century old quote still provides us with words to live by, and its ethos has become logos in the third wave coffee industry of today. It is, however, highly debatable whether all coffee roasters are in fact only roasting coffee beans that are «the very best», but even more interesting is how people always seem to believe them to be. Maybe due to branding, or just because they don’t really care, happily buying into the hype. In the end, making it about the taste of taste – so to speak.
Taste is of course the thrills experienced by the buds on your tongue, but it is also an individual’s personal and cultural patterns of choice and preference. The reason why we like the taste of steam buns is not only due to the explosive umami flavor of the accompanying hoisin sauce, it is also about steam buns being the hottest new thing around. It is about identifying with (the people behind) blogs and Instagram accounts, wanting to be a part of a larger social group, while building ones own image in the mirror of those supposedly in the know.
If you have studied sociology, you might remember how Bourdieu calls this phenomena for habitus. Habitus is about the way the culture of a particular social group is embodied/internalised within the individual. More often than not, this is unconscious behaviour, and it appears through our choices in everything from clothing to literature, music to food. Yes, quite literary on our tastebuds.
As everyone who has had the smallest glimpse at hipster culture already knows, none of us are all that unique, although most of us often think we are. Habitus is, however, not a concept applicable only to hipsters, but all sorts of social groups. The hipster was not even invented when Bourdieu jotted down his theories that would later become mandatory sociology curriculum.
I must admit that I myself more often than not go with the flow, maybe not the majority of society, but the majority of my own social group. I buy clothing from smaller labels, preferably one like A.P.C., and I have become rather familiar with my natural wines after already mastering the craft of hand brewed coffee. I decorate with green plants, and I buy magazines like Kinfolk and Cereal. These are not things that make me special, but they are things that shape my identity within a larger group. These are things that provide me with a sense of belonging. Although I am aware of the mechanisms at play, I must admit that liking them makes me feel more like myself. Which is certainly a contradiction, but maybe one that is OK – one that doesn’t need to be resolved. Because, why can’t we just let people be left alone (in their groups) with their likes and their dislikes? Why do we have to judge, or analyze – or both? Why do we have to tell people they are not special for liking certain things? Why do we always have to tell people they are a product of something else, something they themselves cannot see, but can so easily be spotted from the outside?
And with an understanding of the concept of habitus, is it even possible to think that taste can be objective? Can our tastebuds ever speak for themselves? Is it possible to stop the world and only pay attention to the explosions on our tongue, and the aromas that hits our nostrils? Practitioners of mindfulness are certainly trying, but is it possible? And even more so, is it actually preferable? Isn’t the subjective taste of taste what makes it truly special, isn’t it ok if we give taste an extra boost with the add-on of meaning, memories, expectations or whatnot? If I like a really funky natural wine because I appreciate its history, how it is produced, how I dislike a McDonalds burger because of the association of global capitalism and poor labour conditions, isn’t that preferable to living life like a blind test often found in newspapers? Nothing appears in a vacuum, and taste is no exception. And I for one, am happy it doesn’t. I am happy that taste comes with a history, sometimes a moral or a political standpoint, and that taste gives me a sense of belonging, attaching me to like-minded peers. I have been so lucky as to have developed new friendships as a result of my particular love of taste, but old friends have also introduced me to new, interesting, life-changing ones.
Still, all connotations aside, there is nothing quite like those few precious moments in life when taste is just about the explosion of the tastebuds. When they meet the best of the best, and that’s where Goethe was right. A Tim Wendelboe coffee, a fresh scallop at Maaemo, that oyster you harvested yourself, the jumper your grandmother knit, are all highlights of life you’ll remember long after the moment has passed. But then again, who doesn’t remember the taste of a frozen Grandiosa pizza from their childhood just as vividly – even if they haven’t eaten one in years?