The Absence of Social Quality in the Sense of Taste Essay
The Absence of Social Quality in the Sense of TasteThe word “social” means “friendly companionship” or being “friendly,” sociable,” and “gregarious.” From this very definition, there is no implication of anything negative whatsoever. Diane Ackerman, in her book A Natural History of the Senses, argues that “taste is largely social” (Ackerman 127), that it fosters unity and sociability. However empirical evidence through personal experience as well as several ideas of Ackerman herself proves that there is never any social quality in the sense of taste.Proofs for the Absence of Social Quality in the Sense of TasteFirst of all, the sense of taste is not the subject that Ackerman is defining as something that has a social quality but food itself. Ackerman defines her thesis in the line “taste is largely social” (127) and presents an overwhelming body of evidence on the social quality of taste and its other aspects.
She presents in great detail the various events where taste plays a significant role in getting people together such as in matters of “love, friendship, [and] business” (127) and even related the role of food in religion (128). She also traces the origins of one’s taste of food from the time that people “taste milk from our mother’s breast” (129). She also asserts that “we’ve been hunter-gatherers” (129) and she further emphasizes why one works hard for food (129). This may be fine way of defining the role of food in fostering unity among people but it never proves anything about the sense of taste. Taste may be permanently associated with food but just because it is so does not necessarily mean that it has exactly the same social quality that food brings. This is the main problem with the support she gives of her main argument.
To prove the above statement further, one should take a look at the other pieces of evidence presented by Ackerman herself and in the process unknowingly contradicts her thesis.The sense of taste is not a social sense for it is even considered a taboo in several religious and cultural groups to eat certain kinds of foods. Ackerman points this out when she mentions that “Jews don’t eat pork, Hindus don’t eat beef, and Americans in general won’t eat dog, rat…or many other palatable foods prized by peoples elsewhere in the world” (135).
Although this statement may apply only to particular groups of people so that this may sound more like the exception than the rule, this still means that food is restrictive and not social. How can large groups of people socialize when their religions and cultures prevent the eating of several otherwise delicious foods?Another proof of the lack of social quality of the sense of taste is the idea of cannibalism. Ackerman points out that cannibalism is an idea that is “so far from our ordinary lives” (136) and she further describes the rather gruesome rite of manhood in New Guinea where the copulating couple is killed, roasted and eaten (137). She also mentions that the explorer upon Dr.
Livingstone’s death, “his organs were apparently eaten by two of his native followers as a way to absorb his strength and courage” (138). Although these cannibalistic rites may appear social on the outside, it still falls short of such quality for two reasons. First, cruelty and brutality is simply a source of criticism and condemnation and not of companionship.
Second and more importantly, the cannibal seems to use his sense of taste not exactly for socialization but for fulfilling tradition and “to absorb strength and courage.”A third proof of the lack of social quality of the sense of taste is the mere fact that the tongue itself is made up of 10,000 taste buds. These taste buds are “grouped by theme (salt, sour, sweet, bitter), at various sites in the mouth” (138). However, there is no proof, nor Ackerman has presented any, that these taste buds actually by themselves foster companionship and social relationships. In fact, certain taste buds such as bitter, sour and salty may be generally disliked by certain people.
If one offers a bitter piece of candy to a group of children, or if one makes the kids give a bitter candy to one another, he cannot expect any form of friendship that will come out of it. The taste buds and their social quality, if ever they have any, are largely based not on the taste buds themselves but rather on who is eating, what is being eaten, and with whom something is eaten. Hence, this so-called social quality of taste is nothing but relative and therefore non-existent.Perhaps another proof that taste is not a social sense is that, even if it is, it is still largely dependent on the other senses. This means that without the help of these senses, taste may not be able to truly or completely perform its social function. One thing Ackerman points out is that “smell contributes grandly to taste [and that, as an example,] without smell, wine would still dizzy and lull us” (141).
Ackerman even emphasizes that “smell hits us faster [and that] it takes 25,000 times more molecules of cherry pie to taste it than to smell it” (142). This simply shows how much profound the influence the sense of smell has on taste, that the latter cannot even seem to function at all without the former. Aside from the sense of smell, the role of texture and sound in defining taste are also heavily emphasized. (142)One last proof of the lack of social quality in the sense of taste is the idea that, based on history, the sense of taste was rather used as an instrument of pain and cruelty rather than a way to foster unity and friendliness.
This is evident in the bloody gladiatorial combats that added gore to Caligula’s dinners (145) as well as to Mizald’s rather grotesque way of preparing roasted duck (147). Although the bloody meals of Caligula and those with Mizald’s roasted duck may have fostered camaraderie and companionship of some sort even for just a few moments, still the sense of pity some guests may have had over such appalling sights may have possibly overturned some weak stomachs, hence there was no real social value in the sense of taste when used in this way.Conclusion Taste has no social quality at all. If ever there is anything that social quality should be attributed to, it must be food, as Ackerman herself has pointed out several times. Social quality may also depend not on the sense of taste but on who is eating, what is being eaten and with whom it is shared. Moreover, the presence of generally negative taste buds such as bitter and sour may not lead to any friendships at all. Another thing is that the sense of taste largely depends on other senses especially the sense of smell, with which taste seems to lose its original social role, if ever it really exists.
One last proof that taste has no social quality is that cannibalistic rites as well as the so-called macabre meals and gory Roman feasts of ancient history may not actually have been purely social gatherings but rather mere expressions of cruelty. Taste may perhaps be an elaborate sense as Ackerman has pointed out, but still it does not deserve to be called “the social sense.”Works CitedAckerman, Diane. “Taste.
” A Natural History of the Senses. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1983. Print.