Surely it can’t be merely coincidence that, in our language, “taste” has two separate meanings which however are somehow in sync with each other. One kind of taste relates to the tongue and the palate. The other, on an entirely different level, has to do with culture, esthetics, and educated appreciation.
But they are both highly individual and idiosyncratic. In fact, it’s a deeply engrained maxim of our folk wisdom that, “there’s no accounting for taste.” There is however one exception, at least as far as the first meaning is concerned. That exception is sweet. Compared with the other major flavors — sour, salt, and bitter — sweetness would win any popularity contest. Nature is aware of this (wise old Mother Nature!) and uses it, for example, as an attractant in the process of reproducing flowers. When it comes to a wide range of critters, including us, “Candy is dandy,” as Ogden Nash put it (never mind liquor being quicker).
But it wasn’t until recent times that sweetness, in such forms as sugar and molasses, became a large-scale commercial commodity, greatly contributing, I’m sorry to say, to the importance of the slave trade, which supplied the labor needed for cultivation and harvesting of the sugar cane.
Ironically, today one of the world’s favorite forms of sweetness — chocolate — is derived from a plant called cacao, whose beans are as bitter as those of the coffee plant. And it’s only sugar, and other forms of sweetener, which make chocolate palatable for most of us chocoholics.
Compared with the other major flavors — sour, salt, and bitter — sweetness would win any popularity contest.
But long before the sugar cane and sugar beet became firmly affixed to the world’s sweet tooth (to the universal profit of the dental industry), the standard source of sweetness, since ancient times, has been honey. As if to attest to this antiquity, the British firm of Tate & Lyle, one of the largest producers of sweetness products in the world, has, since 1881, used as its logo a picture which illustrates a somewhat bizarre story taken directly from the Old Testament. On every can of Tate & Lyle’s Golden Syrup, you will see what appears to be a reclining lion, surrounded by a crowd of black dots. What is going on here?
Believe it or not, that lion is not resting or sleeping, but dead. And the “black dots” are a swarm of bees!
It all goes back to the “Book of Judges,” in which Samson, the Hebrew hero, has a fight with a lion, which, we are told, he kills with his bare hands. Then, sometime later, he notices that a swarm of bees have made their home inside the lion’s carcass — from which Samson is able to extract some honey. This gives him the idea for a riddle, which he asks at a wedding. The last line of the riddle says, “Out of the strong came forth sweetness.” Of course, nobody can explain it, and this leads to all kinds of complications.
But, for us, the point is that Abram Lyle, the founder of what became Tate & Lyle, (which is now the world’s oldest brand name) was a very religious man, knew his Bible, and decided to put the lion, the bees, and those final words of the riddle, on his product, where they are all now still to be seen.
But next to sweetness in our flavor preferences must surely come salt. Nowadays we hear a lot about the dangers of too much salt, but the other danger is of not getting enough. In any case, most of us feel the need for seasoning, to enhance the flavor of our food, and, despite the appeal of exotic herbs and spices, good old table salt is probably the cheapest and most readily available.
But what about sour and bitter? Why do they have such an unsavory reputation? Surely it relates at least partly to the flavors associated with the unripe or over-ripe conditions of many foods. But they too have their place in the culinary catalog. Where would we be without sourdough bread or bittersweet chocolate – to say nothing of Angostura Bitters?
And when it comes to the other kind of good taste, I’m not sure where we would be without Emily Post, Amy Vanderbilt, Miss Manners, and all their subsequent socially sagacious sisters. As for my own standards, I’ve never been accused of excessive, or even adequate, good taste — but, as somebody said of pornography, I know it when I see it.