Grown Up Palates: Why Certain Tastes Are 'Acquired'
This past week has been intense. I won’t go into detail, but it was a massive mix of seemingly polar opposites: responsibility and fun (I even did my laundry). What I couldn’t have predicted last Monday were all the different flavors I was about to encounter, the people I met, the music I listened to, and the things I drank.
Wednesday was the beginning of an era. I was inside a garage in Muskegon, MI sitting on a 5-gallon bucket with my guitar, jamming with my fantastic denim-clad, mustachioed friend named Jordan. After having some greasy local fast food and a few Redd’s Apple Ales, Jordan’s sister brewed us some coffee because it was stupid cold in that garage. I loved that coffee. But don’t get me wrong: I hate coffee. Hate it. It’s bitter and terrible. But for some reason, last Wednesday, I loved coffee. Coffee and I were one.
Fast forward to Sunday, when I was sitting at a table at Applebee’s with like 50 of my friends (not even hyperbole). My friends sitting closest to me each ordered a beer – nothing fancy, one ordered a Corona, the other a Bud Light. I took drinks of both, and I was blindsided by wanting to have more. What is wrong with me? Much like coffee, I hate beer. Hate it like I hate cold toilet seats and the band La Dispute because they are all terrible, wretched things. So why, kind sir, am I enjoying such swill?
(Insert Long Sigh)
I will be the first to admit it. I’m not immune to the inexorable forward march of time. I’m getting old. Not OLD old (I’m 22.9 years old OKAY?), but to the age where I am expected to succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome that is having “acquired tastes” and a “mature palate.” This apparent step forward into manhood that I just took made me wonder: How do we acquire certain previously despised tastes? It would be logical to assume that if something is terrible, it will always be terrible, right?
Right. The taste of black coffee and Bud Light isn’t changing; I am. It’s very interesting how taste works and how it evolves over time. At age 40 or 50, we usually start losing our taste buds, and the ones that we keep start to atrophy, making it harder for our tongue to discern sour from sweet. But for the average 22- year–old, it’s a very different story. From what I have read, there are three ways we acquire tastes.
All of us can think back to our childhood and remember eating the things we love today. Everything that we have regularly eaten from our prior years becomes the building blocks for what we enjoy. Not necessarily the flavor, but the “principle” behind the food. Consider: If someone were to grow up eating insects, that would be perfectly normal and is perfectly normal to many non-American cultures. However, if you grew up like me, the thought of eating an insect would probably be repulsive, but only because of the preconceived notion that bugs are “icky,” not because you sat down and tried a cricket salad. Thus, a taste can be acquired if a food is readily accepted as “normal” among the local population. Our brain knows that drinking beer is a thing and that we like vinegar with our oil.
Hunger can make a man do some crazy things. Or so I hear from movies where a slightly deranged man explains what happens after 20 months at sea (A whale eats you, that’s what!). It does make sense that when a body gets deprived of energy enough; anything edible starts to sound delicious. Even if you’re not starving, if all there is to eat is food that doesn’t strike your fancy is all that’s available, eventually it probably won’t taste too bad.
3. Because we want to fit in.
I am completely okay with hating beer. But I will painfully admit I have always had the desire to like beer and the same goes for coffee. The reasoning is, with no surprise to all involved, completely narcissistic. When someone else cannot only consume, but also enjoy something that the general populace cannot, it almost feels like his or her taste buds are elevated over mine. As outlandish as that sounds, I can almost guarantee it is true of everyone during at least some point in their life. I have never been one to seek out beer or coffee claiming to be an aficionado. But, I have had multiple exposures to both over the past few years of my life, and to my chagrin/delight I am starting to enjoy them.
In all of the mentioned ways to acquire a taste, there is a change in the way our taste buds talk to our brain. However you look at it though, it’s absolutely fascinating. With my brain and taste buds evolving, I wonder what my favorite drink will be in a year or 10.