… That ‘chicken’ can (be the) taste of ‘everything else’ is but a reminder of how abstracted, statistical and synthesizable ‘chicken’ has become … ”Figur[ing] out what to make chicken taste like’ is just one aspect of the technical information-gathering needed to produce a growing range of chickenized products.
… Taste has the power to create a sensory bridge to a living reality ‘outside the matrix,’ one which implies an ecology of inclusion and relationship between culture and nature; one that promotes the activity of knowing as accessible, engaging and corporeal, rather than one pre-tuned for reception.
This is from the essay ‘Taste in an Age of Convenience: From Frozen Food to Meals in ‘the Matrix” by Roger Haden found in the collection The Taste Culture Reader: Experiencing Food and Drink edited by Carolyn Korsmeyer (2005):
… It has often been stated that once nutritional needs are met, the capacity of food to take on a plethora of culturally specific meanings pushes it beyond its role as nutrient and into that of being a ‘language’. In the pursuit of profit and through various media, commercial enterprise has exploited the fact that food is a mode of communication, one which continues to drive the sale of new food products. The sense of taste has been configured within such a context.
[ … ]
About 90 percent of the money that Americans spend on food is used to buy processed food … since the end of World War II, a vast industry has arisen in the United States to make processed food palatable. Without this flavour industry, the fast-food industry could not exist. [Schlosser]
This industry was engendered in the 1960s with the development of new technologies for commercial use (principally, mass spectroscopy and gas chromatography) which eventually enabled scientists to create thousands of artificially produced colouring and flavourings. So-called ‘natural food flavours’ could thereby be chemically copied. While product labels which boasted ‘natural flavour’ might have reassured consumers, this information could also be misleading, since the chemical reproduction of natural flavours capitalized on a loophole in labeling laws. With chemical solvents used to isolate a natural food’s flavour compounds, that flavour could then be replicated. Sold under the appellation of ‘natural flavour,’ any number of artificial tastes could, technically speaking, be added to any food (the latter being treated as merely a substrate). Furthermore, a base-product like milk could be flavoured, texturized, cooked, whipped, aerated or frozen, while other food items, like soy beans, could be used to create various ‘milk’ products — a process industry would call interconversion.
… Displacing any reasoned sensory engagement with food are the food-related discourses we willingly — but often unreflectively — enter into at the surface of things. In terms of taste, advertising mantras promise that products will deliver on pleasure, sensation and satisfaction, yet semiotically, they also trade on fears, phobias and anxieties linked to such issues as weight, health, beauty and social status. The ultimate cost of this mediation by advertising — between us, our food and our sense of taste — is that the total complement of possible gustatory experiences (which both nature and culinary craft provide) is circumscribed by contrived and prescriptive standards of taste set by media constructions of ‘health and ‘beauty.’
… The ‘commodification of sensation’ is a phrase suggestive of how the fragile, ‘chemical’ history of taste is being usurped by simulations, as the focus is tightened on the immediacy of thrilling sensations. Chemical additives simulate the qualities of tastes, textures and other gustatory sensations, as the experience of tasting an actual food, of thinking about that food and of the way it tastes, becomes an impossibility. Ultimately, such contrivance not only detracts from the appreciable diverse pleasures and healthful benefits gained through savouring flavours and foods; it also subtracts from the very possibility of knowing-through-taste.
… Our palates and tongues are ‘dumbing down,’ no longer able to judge or enjoy the living vitality and potential flavour variance of foods produced outside the networks of the industrial-commercial matrix. Combined in so many processed foods, the obliterating power of sugar, salt and fat (a seemingly perennial taste triumvirate) are complemented by cheep ‘filler’ and artificial flavour. Such foods seem designed to replace gustatory sensitivity with a taste bud ‘thumping’ [quoting a KFC commercial]. With recourse to high-speed data-processing of consumer-sourced information and to lab statistics based on tests using bionic ‘noses’ and ‘tongues,’ food product research, development, design and marketing strategies rapidly advance. Well synchronized, the invention, processing, packaging, transportation and retailing of food products takes place within a seamless web of operation which also produces taste.
… Within our present-day matrix, the interconversion of foods by ‘machines’ — that is, our own technologies of food, flavour and image synthesis — makes of food a substrate: a base product to which is added not only taste, texture, vitamins or ‘functions,’ but also added values: the signs of convenience, health or ‘sexiness’ — everything our minds need.
In a deeply ironic way, Lévi-Strauss’s dictum that food must be good to think about before it is good to eat reasserts itself at the cutting edge of contemporary taste relations. That ‘chicken’ can (be the) taste of ‘everything else’ is but a reminder of how abstracted, statistical and synthesizable ‘chicken’ has become: battery chickens engineered to industry specifications; the manufacture of various synthetic chickenized products; even the adoption of ‘chicken’ as a signifier — word, image or artificial taste. Since for most, chicken means chicken (if it tastes like ‘chicken’ then it is chicken), the media-brokered equality between words, taste and things remains the undergirding support of our particular ‘matrix.’ ‘Figur[ing] out what to make chicken taste like’ is just one aspect of the technical information-gathering needed to produce a growing range of chickenized products.
… taste is yet the corporeal register of a complex communication of living, flavoursome things which have now been overdetermined by semiotic ‘cookery’ and industrial interconversion.
The flavourless foods of battery production and the processed industrial flavours of the laboratory, mark the absence of real taste. By comparison, living food and flavour and the sense of taste, represent a biologically established nexus of pathways from which such knowledge took form, but which now has been undermined. Given that living food is assimilated by all organisms, including humans, the under-utilization of taste as a corporeal mode of knowing, linked to the gustatory qualities of natural foods, is a serious matter.
… Without engaging with taste as a mode of knowing in its own right , means experiencing sensory taste as a gustatory effect; as taste sensations cut off from any real knowledge of the morsel which transports them. Taste has the power to create a sensory bridge to a living reality ‘outside the matrix,’ one which implies an ecology of inclusion and relationship between culture and nature; one that promotes the activity of knowing as accessible, engaging and corporeal, rather than one pre-tuned for reception. Sea, sun, air, soil and water produce food and taste within interconnected living systems in which humans have evolved and often thrived; by our own efforts, we have learned how to enjoy the fruits of taste relations. The sensory mode we call taste is surely one ‘flavoured’ by culturally variable, yet corporeally robust, inter-sense relationships and linked perceptions, as much as by natural and culinary histories, cultural discourses, ideas and beliefs, and by food production and consumption practices. As Neo [of the movie The Matrix] must learn he is a fake before he can be real, so too as tasters we must also learn how taste is, and has been, constructed before we might benefit from re-engagement with the chains of forces and processes which link taste to a living and organic reality.
My most recent previous post from this collection is here.