Frederick the Great used to make his own coffee, with much to-do and fuss. For water he used champagne. Then, to make the flavor stronger, he stirred in powdered mustard.
Now to me it seems improbable that Frederick truly liked his brew. I suspect him of Bravado. Or perhaps he was taste-blind.
Almost all people are born unconscious of the nuances of flavor. Many die so. Some of these unfortunates are physically deformed, and remain all their lives as truly taste-blind as their brother sufferers are blind to color. Others never taste because they are stupid, or, more often, because they have never been taught to search for differentiations of flavor.
They like hot coffee, a fried steak with plenty of salt and pepper and meat sauce upon it, a piece of apple pie and a chunk of cheese. They like the feeling of a full stomach. They resemble those myriad souls who say, I don’t know anything about music, but I love a good rousing military band.”
Let the listener to Sousa hear such music. Let him talk to other music-listeners. Let him read about music-makers.
He will discover the strange note of the oboe, recognize the French horn’s convolutions. Schubert will sing sweetly in his head, and Beethoven sweep through his heart. Then one day he will cry. “Bach! By God, I can hear him! I can hear!”
That happens to the taste-blind in just some such way. He eats apple pie, good or bad, because he has always eaten it. Then one day he sees a man turn his back upon the cardboard crust and sodden half-cooked fruit, and eat instead some crisp crackers with his cheese, a crisp apple peeled and sliced ruminatively after the crackers and the yellow cheese. The man looks as if he knew something pleasant, a secret from the taste blind.
“I believe I’ll try that. It is – yes, it is good. I wonder——“
And the man who was taste-blind begins to think about eating. Perhaps he talks a little, or reads. All he really need do is experiment.
He discovers that cream is good in coffee in the morning, but after dinner black coffee is better. He looks for the first time at soup, and pushes it away if it is too pale, too thick or too thin.
Potatoes become more to him than the inevitable companion of meat, and he finds unsuspected tastes in the vegetables he has been gulping since his infancy.
He is pleased. He is awakened. At last he can taste, discovering in his own goodtime what Brillat-Savarin tabulated so methodically as the three sensations: (1) direct, on the tongue; (2) complete, when the food passes over the tongue and is swallowed; and most enjoyable of all (3) reflection – that is judgment passed by the soul on the impressions which have been transmitted to it by the tongue.
Yes, he can taste at last, and life itself has for him more flavor, more zest.
Of all the present nations, France has the simplest school of cooking, in spite of the complicated subtleties of her great chefs – simplest in the sense of primitive and natural. Herbs, much sweet butter, cream and long heating in pots of earthenware, give the Gallic cuisine its characteristic flavors, and the juices from boiled and roasted meats are the base of almost every one of its sauces.
It has been said that the foundation of all of French cookery is butter, as that of the Italian is olive oil, German lard and Russian sour cream. In the same way water or drippings may be designated, unfortunately, as the basis of the English cuisine, and per haps the flavor from innumerable tin cans, of American!
France today possesses what is probably the most intelligent collective palate. I do not mean that her crudest ragamuffin can name each nuance in Fruits aux Sept Liqueurs, or give the year of a vintage wine from its bouquet. Indeed, there are many Frenchmen as callous to the harmonies of taste as any American hotdog-gobbler or English connoisseur of teashop Cornish pasties.
In general, though, France eats more consciously, more intelligently, than any other nation. It may be quails financière, or it may be a stew concocted from the rabbit that Papa Jacques caught you yesterday under the hedge. Whichever France eats, she does it with a pleasure, and open-eyed delight quite foreign to most people.
The quails are an artful lure to the most refined of palates, and the rabbit stew, steaming, aromatic, is made just as tempting with an onion or two, pepper freshly ground, a little bacon, and a dash of cheap pure wine.
In Paris the gourmets eat with quiet deliberation, rolling each mouthful slowly toward their gullets. In Jacques’ little cottage three or four friends inhale the stew’s rich fumes, and eat it down like the hungry workingmen they are. In Paris and in the village there is a gusto, a frank sensuous realization of food, that is pitifully unsuspected in, say, the college boarding-house or corner café of an American town.
In America we eat, collectively, with a glum urge for food to fill us. We are ignorant of the flavor. We are as a nation taste-blind.
Cautiously we blink at a faint glimmer in the gloom,. It seems, just now, that we have become conscious of a few subtleties. There is a faddish demand for roomy salad bowls, for pepper mills, which might bring a permanent light to our national palate. Already an occasional shamefaced protest is heard against calling a California white wine “dry” Sauterne, or a mild titter over some such synthetic gastronomy as prompted an advertisement saying, “This is a vintage year for maple syrup.”
These feeble but encouraging signs must survive as best they may, however, while ten million men rush every noontime for their ham-on-white and cherry coke. Those ten million men may die taste-blind as well as stomach-ulcered, unless they are shocked into recognition of their own powers of enjoyment.
It might be good if you could go to them, quietly, and say, “Please, sir, stop a minute and listen to me. Can you imagine eating bananas and Limburger cheese together? You have never thought about it? Then think. Taste them separately in your mind, the banana, the Limburger. Taste them together. Ah! Is it horrible? Then how about mutton chops with shrimp sauce? And try herring soup with strawberry jam, or chocolate with red wine.”
Some of those ten million men would listen. Some of them would eat with their minds for the first time. You would be a missionary, bringing flavor and light to the taste-blind.
And that is a destiny not too despicable.
- M.F.K. Fisher, Serve it Forth, 1937.