The next time you weep in disbelief as a friend happily consumes a bag of jellied eels, bear in mind the Roman phrase ‘de gustibus non est disputandum’ (tastes are not to be disputed). While originally used in the context of art preferences, or more likely sexual leanings, the expression also lends itself to people’s choices in food.
The list of foodstuffs that inspire love or loathing is seemingly endless. Asked why they despise a particular food, people will build their damning arguments on a combination of smell, appearance, consistency and taste.
As everyone knows, particular smells trigger a desire for food. Many a vegetarian has been turned by the smell of frying bacon. Supermarkets are renowned for their use of in-house bakery aromas to induce bread-buying frenzies among shoppers. Unfortunately, some don’t even have a bakery. In July, the Net Cost grocery store in Brooklyn got into trouble after it was revealed that the aromas of chocolate and baked bread that suffused the outlet were all artificial and pumped in using a machine.
The power of smell goes beyond mere food. Scent can also be used to influence generosity, trustworthiness and political leanings. Inexplicably, the smell of citrus-scented Windex has been shown to induce people to be more generous to charities.
In October 2010, a New York politician mailed campaign flyers that were impregnated with the aroma of rotting garbage to 200,000 registered Republicans. The text suggested that Democrats were corrupt betrayers of the public. Happily, in this case, the ploy failed.
The appearance of food undoubtedly influences our ability to enjoy consuming it – the food coloring industry has banks bursting with dollars to prove it. People like and expect foods to be certain colors. Anything that fails to meet these expectations is in risky acceptance territory.
When Crystal Pepsi and Tab Clear were launched in 1993, they were a resounding flop. Why? As one industry expert said at the time: ‘The companies have spent 100 years convincing people that colas are dark. They’re dark because they put coloring in them, but that’s beside the point. People will ultimately go back to the darker sodas because they will decide they prefer colas that are “real”.’
One of the most universally unappealing colors for food is apparently blue. According to suburban satirist, Urma Bombeck, ‘There is no known navy blue food in the refrigerator, it signifies death.’ Film director, Alfred Hitchcock put the anti-blue idea too the test in the 60’s when by throwing a dinner party for his Hollywood chums.
Hitchcock asked his chef to make everything blue – the martinis, meat, mashed potatoes and even the peas. Several bottles of food dye later, Hitchcock was pleased to see that his guests were thoroughly disgusted.
The consistency of food is an important factor influencing many people’s likes and dislikes. The main bugbear for many is sliminess. Perhaps understandably, a lot of people don’t like putting slithery eel-like things in their mouth.
A BBC top 20 most-hated food list produced a number of oozing items, such as tripe, snails, oysters, black pudding, squid, kidneys, haggis, mussels, tofu, oxtail and anchovies. People are often averse to eating foods that come from ‘ugly’ animals. Witness the renaming of fish so as to be more palatable to a suspicious public.
In 1977, a businessman from Los Angeles discovered that five-foot Patagonian toothfish were being discarded as waste by fishermen in Chile. By changing its name to the delicious-sounding ‘Chilean sea bass’, said businessman turned the fish into a valuable commodity.
Other species have received a similar treatment. The yucky ‘Slimehead’ become the yummy ‘orange roughy’ and ‘Stumpknocker’ became ‘spotted sunfish’. The so-called ‘Pacific red snapper’ is, in fact, more of a brand name that covers 13 different species of rockfish.
The fish enjoyed as part of the infamous British ‘fish and chips’ is no longer cod. The hungry tourists on the beaches of Brighton or on cruises out of Southampton are most likely tucking into dogfish – a shark-like species that is confusingly known as ‘rock salmon’.
Despite the popular notion that ‘there’s no accounting for taste’, it’s unlikely that any slimy blue products are going to be brought to market anytime soon. And while it’s true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, the public doesn’t seem quite capable of extending this generosity to its food.