On Taste and Politics

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If you were fortunate enough to snag a ticket to hear author Adam Gopnik at the Newport Beach Public Library on March 8, you got an earful.

Speaking with a New Yorker’s hyperactive speed — though he never got ahead of his lucid thoughts – Gopnik shared his passion for the history, culture, and philosophy of food. (A lengthier examination of the subject can be found in Gopnik’s national bestseller, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.)

Gopnik is a provocative thinker, able to make connections among such disparate subjects as the origins of the restaurant, the pleasures and mysteries of our cookbooks, and the modern-day sensibilities of a Victorian-era foodie, the English writer Elizabeth Pennell.

Gopnik is especially interested in changing tastes in food and how they inform our values. He alluded to the cultural implications of our food preferences, for example, to be identified by the restaurants we choose to dine in, the food we put – or do not put – on our tables at home.

Oh, mea culpa, I thought. During the mid-1990s, my husband and I lived in San Francisco part time, where we explored the city’s marvelous array of cafes and restaurants. We discovered young chefs on the rise and ethnic cuisines formerly unknown to us.

I returned home with a taste for chrysanthemum flower tea and a serious case of culinary snobbery. Back home in Newport Beach, I complained about the numerous mundane chain restaurants and few innovative, independent ones. We began to cook more at home. My usually helpful husband rebelled, “Why do I have to chop all these onions all the time – can’t we just buy them frozen?”

“Trust me,” I’d say. “Fresh is better.”

Meanwhile I fell prey to tomato-mania, growing far too many varieties of heirlooms – love that Brandywine – which I raised organically. In short, our stay in San Francisco changed my tastes and values about the food I was willing to purchase and consume.

During the Q&A, a member of the audience asked how Gopnik’s interest in food affected his politics. Gopnik replied by saying, in effect, that in the United States should your dinner host offer you an appetizer of ethically caught fresh salmon on a bed of organic arugula, you can pretty much tell that he or she voted for the guy currently in the White House. In France, however, which Gopnik knows well, you would not be able to tell your host’s politics by the food served at the table. Such an appetizer could as easily be served by someone on the far right as by a Socialist.

Gopnik argues that taste matters, defining it as “the social customs and practices that let us negotiate between our fashions and our values. A taste is more durable than a fashion, more mutable than a value.”

He goes on to write, “The best way to get people to change their values is by first changing their fashions, and it takes a new taste to do that. We show people that organic apples taste better, and we hope that the values of sustainability and true food will penetrate; we want people not to bait bears or hold cockfights, and we make it unfashionable before we can make it immoral.” Liberals embrace this; conservatives resist this. This is what roils our country right now – the evolution of the changing mores of gay rights and gun violence and reproductive rights.

At the library, Gopnik remarked, “Values are always worth arguing about.”

How true — true in our tastes in food; true in baseball (hey, the season is about to begin); and true in our political discourse. The American democratic tradition demands that we engage in discussion and argument. If we choose only to read and listen to those who confirm, rather than challenge, our own opinions, we lose the chance to grow intellectually and to hone our beliefs against the slew of new data that inundates our age.

It’s like dining on the comfort foods of our childhood every day – we know what they’re going to taste like; they never disappoint or upset. But we miss out on the adventure of discovering a new taste, like, say, chrysanthemum flower tea.

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  1. “If we choose only to read and listen to those who confirm, rather than challenge, our own opinions, we lose the chance to grow intellectually and to hone our beliefs against the slew of new data that inundates our age.”

    Beautifully articulated. And tell the hubby to stop complaining about the onions – they’re good for him, and the communal act of preparing food for a meal is one of the most intimate and bonding exercises two people can share. Thanks to author Jean Ardell for reminding us of that. Heirloom tomatoes and chrysanthemum tea all ’round!