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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Food for Thought

Once again, a small offhand comment triggers a mental debate in my head that needs to come outside and play. It started as I pushed away the remains of my Caesar Salad for lunch with a disgusted look on my face.

"Why don't you finish your salad ever?" she asked.
"Because it's disgustingly bland and they use so little dressing," I replied.
"Well, food isn't supposed to be delicious - it's supposed to maintain life," she retorted.
"No," came my reply.

Just "No." Food IS supposed to be delicious. We wouldn't be here (in America) if the facts were any other way. If she were right (and she is not), we would have vitamins and calorie pills and flavorless mush like you read about in bad (and some good) science-fiction pieces. Such is farthest from the case. Sure, some idiots out there choose a bland and flavorless life in order to get nutrients and sustain life and nothing else - but it's just a minute population that it barely is worth mentioning at all.

The rest of us in the normal human race understand that food is supposed to be tasty. That's why we have taste buds in the first place.

Argument #1: A rational deity/entity would not have provided us with taste buds if food were not meant to have taste.

The atheist corrolary to that would be the concept of Nature or chaos theory or something like that. Fact remains that we HAVE taste buds. Ergo, food is meant to have taste. Otherwise we would have evolved to no longer HAVE taste buds. Humans not only have been focus on taste (and its partner in crime, smell) for so long that we recently discovered a new taste: umami. We continue to strive to understand how we taste and what the building blocks of taste are - which we would never have done if food were not meant to be delicious.

Argument #2: Cooking is proof that flavors can be created, enhanced and mixed - which would never have been necessary if food simply needed to be consumed for survival alone.

It's called COOKING. Recipes exist to remember what flavor creations have been created so that they can be replicated. Some are kept secret (something about 11 herbs and spices?) so that others cannot replicate those flavors for themselves. If food were not meant to be delicious, then why would billions of dollars and jobs be dependant on one flavor or recipe being more delicious than another? Why would billions in advertising be spent to compare one taste to another similar taste just to boast about which is more delicious?

Argument #3: Without spices, exploration would have been stagnated.

Spices have always been where the money is. In fact, ever since ancient Rome, spices have been vital to life and prosperity. Salt, for its curing purposes long long before the days of refrigerators, was a freakin' CURRENCY. That's how Roman soldiers were paid - and how the word "salary" came to exist. In fact, a poor soldier was not "worth his salt". As culture progressed, we searched for MORE flavors and spices, not fewer. With each new spice, new trade routes were established and this led to the whole notion of the "faster route to India" and all their lovely spices. Which accidentally led to, well, Columbus and the New World debacle.

I could go on further. I REALLY could. You don't want to mess with a fat guy who enjoys food and goes on a rampage when you insult his food or food in general. Sadly, though, I must get back to work now.

Your thoughts?


Bridget said...

As someone who thinks eating is one of the finest pleasures in life, I wholeheartedly agree with you, but may I suggest a different argument that I think supplements/replaces your first one? Our ability to taste--and to like sweet things and dislike bitter things--is crucial from an evolutionary perspective. Many things that are bitter are poisonous, so it is a very healthy response to dislike, and therefore not eat, such items. In contrast, sweet things like fruit are typically safe to eat, and we need electrolytes provided by salty things. Our reactions to all these tastes are therefore adaptive.

As for argument #2, cooking also has huge health/survival benefits, namely killing germs and making normally inaccessible sources of nourishment edible (for example, acorns are abundant but you have to leach them in order to remove the poisons). Argument #3... I'm not going to try to pull AP Euro facts out of my ass here, but as you point out, remember in any case that salt is very different from spices that only served as flavor-enhancers: it's also a necessary nutrient and moreover a very important preservative that allowed critical sources of protein, i.e., meat & fish, to be eaten year-round before refrigeration.

AaronBSam said...

But on the contrary, it further proves MY point. The evolutionary basis of taste for the purpose of identifying which things are safe to eat and which are not contradicts her argument that food is meant only for nutritional value and not for taste at all. Without taste, we could NOT survive. Therefore food IS meant to be tasteful so that we CAN survive. I win, she loses. Again.

rachel said...

You're both right; you're both wrong. It's not an either-or thing. If I had to choose I would go in favor of her argument simply because sacrificing taste for nutrients is healthier than sacrificing nutrients for taste.

Your argument does make sense that taste exists for a reason, though I think Bridget's explanation makes more sense - that taste helps us distinguish between bitter/poison and sweet/ok to eat. It also has led to the development of cooking as an art form.

When it comes down to it though, the primary purpose of food is to nourish and sustain the body. It's like chlorophyll for fauna. I'm sure basking in the sun all day feels absolutely heavenly but the main reason plants do it is to get their source of nutrients. I do think that in the modern world, where food is in abundance and there is no risk of starvation, taste has supplanted nutrition in some people's minds. But those aren't the healthiest people.

Taste is an important part of food and it plays a role in which food we choose to eat when we have that choice available, but biologically speaking the purpose of food is to sustain life. That's only the second half of her argument though. The first half, "food is not supposed to taste good" is a perfect example of false dichotomy.

After all, why can't it be both?