Why Not Just Admit It? Flavor is About Pleasure, Not Survival

pleasureMost cuisines can be identified by the characteristic flavors they use to enhance their dishes: Chili peppers, tomato, and lime in Mexico; soy sauce, rice wine, and ginger root in China; tomato, garlic, and olive oil in Southern Italy, etc. As Elizabeth and Paul Rozin point out in their well-known essay ”Culinary Themes and Variations”, (reprinted here) these flavor principles persist through the history of a culture and, in fact, are more persistent than the staples employed in a cuisine, which undergo more change. And people will overcome considerable obstacles to make sure they have access to these flavors. (Think of the resources Europe devoted to the spice trade in the age of exploration.)

Apparently, flavor principles are really important to human beings.

Why are they so important? Why do human beings spice their food? Animals don’t, and the practice doesn’t seem to serve a nutritional function. The Rozins argue that, nevertheless, there must be an adaptationist story to tell. Their hypothesis is that flavor principles provide a kind of identification system for safe food. As omnivores, we have a natural interest in eating a wide variety of foods and we get bored when variety is unavailable. Yet, we live in a world with lots of toxic substances and have a justified fear of eating anything unfamiliar. Thus, we need an efficient way of identifying foods that are safe to eat. That is the role of flavor principles. They mark food with a distinctive and familiar flavor as safe to eat. And whether new foods can be accepted or not depends on whether they are prepared with that familiar flavor principle.

Furthermore, by introducing rich and subtle variations of these flavors and modifying their combination, we overcome the boredom of eating the same thing all the time. Hence the attention paid in Mexican cuisine to the subtle differences in varieties of chili peppers or in Indian and Southeast Asian cuisine to varieties of curry.

This explanation strikes me as wildly implausible. If people are familiar with a food why would they question its safety if it is not spiced. And if they are unfamiliar with a food, why does adding a flavor principle overcome their fear. Surely the spices are not making their food safe. The use of flavor principles to mark food as safe just seems irrational. Furthermore, as the Rozins point out but don’t explain in this essay, some cultures, specifically the Northern tier countries such as Germany, England, and Scandinavia don’t employ flavor principles. Their traditional foods are largely unspiced. Yet there is no evidence they are especially fearful of their food.

There is a much simpler explanation for why we flavor foods—it tastes good. The aesthetics of everyday life are important because the small things we do to make ordinary life enjoyable and interesting—spicing food, decorating homes, celebrating holidays, etc.—make life worth living. In the absence of adornment and decoration, life would be drudgery much of the time. Small things like adding flavor to food thus become enormously important for beings capable of doubting life’s meaning. (There is another adaptive explanation at work. We are hardwired to seek pleasure in our food persistently throughout the day since that encourages us to take in the calories we need to survive.)

What about the northern tier countries that lack flavor principles? Do they not care about everyday aesthetics? The simple explanation is that most spices were historically unavailable to them—they do not readily grow in cold climates. Thus, northern cultures focused their aesthetics, not on flavor principles, but on the various textures and ways of presenting animal fats. The Germans especially are adept at conspiring to get as many types of animal fats on the plate as possible.

What I find interesting about the Rozins’ explanation is that they seem to ignore the obvious explanation—that the persistence of pleasure is fundamental to everyday life.

Might there be some residual Calvinism loose among food anthropologists?

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