Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Pleasure of Eating: 4, Taste.

It is Day 4 of our foray into the words of the author of Dining and its Amenities, by a Lover of Good Cheer (New York, 1907) on the role of the senses in the pleasure of eating. Today it is the turn of the most obviously relevant sense – that of taste. Again, his science is out of date, but his thoughts are still worth a little of our reading time. 


The gustative sense, than which there is no more precious gift of the Creator to the creature, is cultivable to a high state only by man, even from the humblest beginnings. It is likely that the first taster, perceiving what is now called sapidity in an odorous object, after bruising it in his mouth, swallowed it because good, and finding a second object malodorous and unsavory rejected it because bad or because it failed to cause the pleasing buccal sensation producedby the first. It may be said, therefore, that gustation or taste is the perception as well as the distinction of certain properties of ingested aliments. Perhaps a glance at the derivation of gustation and taste may help to a clear conception of the value of these terms; the one from gustare and the other intensively from tangere and formerly used synonymously with totest, to try, to feel, as appears when Hotspur says: “ . . Come, let me taste my horse who is tobear me like a thunderbolt,” and when Toby Belch says to Cesario: “Taste your legs, Sir; put them to motion.”

The French use altogether  goût while we have the two words gust and taste to convey the same idea or even different shades of meaning, and base thereupon our stock of qualifyers, etc.; thus from gust come gustation, gustative, gustatory, gustable, gustful, gustless, ingustible, disgustible, disgust, disgustful, disgusting, and from taste, tasting, tasty, tasteful, tasteless. Other expressions relating also to quality, such as sapidity, saporific, sapid, insipid; savor, savory, unsavory; flavor, flavoring, flavorless, etc., are in great request in gastronomy.

Strictly, to taste is to test, try, feel with the tongue any alimentary or other substance put into the mouth with a view of ascertaining whether sapid or insapid, good, bad, or indifferent; the perception of these characters being seated in the gustative center of the brain whence is reflected the general sensation of pleasure or displeasure.

Taste, like many other words pertaining to alimentation, is much used figuratively, as in the expressions good or bad taste, or simply its want, in written or in spoken language, and in dress, deportment, art, etc.; the old adage, "De gustibus non est disputandum'' being applied to both the original term and its figurative usage. For instance, an aliment which is agreeable to one individual may be repugnant to another. A particular work of art may give great pleasure to
an uninformed gazer and fail to satisfy the aesthesis of vision of a good judge of such productions. Some forms or combinations of colors which are pleasing to the eyes of the multitude are often offensive to the few whose visual sense is highly cultivated. Certain
odors are pleasing to some persons and displeasing to others, as in the case of meeting of an Athenian with a Spartan woman whose hair exhaled the penetrating stench of a rancid unguent shocking to the olfactive sensibility of the delicately perfumed Athenian woman whose refined essences were equally repellant to the Spartan woman, so they simultaneously turned away in disgust.

In gastronomy, taste requires long cultivation, and seldom reaches its maturity before the age of forty, despite refined home surroundings. Except, of course in the case of the fair sex, where is to be found the perfection of daintiness and veritable gourmetism which is of the rarest occurrence in adolescent males. The hunger of youth is imperative and its cry is mainly for quantity. It is well known that many aliments disliked at twenty are relished at forty, and vice versa. The excellence of certain wines, such as those of Burgundy and of Madeira, is scarcely appreciated by the young who crave the sweet and sparkling. The gratification of the sense of tastegives the highest attainable pleasure only to the experienced gourmet who is wont to eat and drink, always in moderation, but with the greatest attention and reflexion; and remembers the Master's aphorism to the effect that ''Those who feed to surfeit and tipple to saturation know not how to eat or drink."

The seat of the end-organs of gustation is chiefly at the base and sides of the tongue which are the regions of the calciform papillae and of their adjuncts the fungiform; the filiform papillae, disseminated upon nearly the whole lingual surface, being purely tactile. However, the concurrence of the tactile and olfactive senses is essential to perfect gustation and to thefull enjoyment of delicious aliments.

Some experimenters have reached the conclusion that there are but two veritable savors; the sweet and the bitter, while others recognise three additional savors, the saline, the alkaline, and the acid; but all reject the idea of acrid savors which really result from the mechanical action of acrid substances upon the tactile papillae of the tongue and indeed upon the whole buccal membrane. They all very properly discard the so-called aromatic savor which belongs exclusively to olfaction.

Tasty aliments are often designated palatable, although the palate is passive as regards gustation;
its office being purely mechanical. It serves as a firmly fixed surface against which the tongue bruises the food to express and diffuse sapid particles for quick action by the saliva without which there would be no gustation. The other parts of the buccal cavity are said to possess no more than tactile properties.

The only truly gustible aliments are those containing sweet, bitter, saline, alkaline, or acid principles. Hence the free use of condiments of such nature in good cookery, and of pungent condiments in moderation to stimulate all the papillae of the tongue. Fats are gustible from their mildly saline principle but generally need an addition of salt or sugar. Bread without salt would be tasteless. Sweet and acid fruits are always enjoyable when sufficiently ripe. Nuts of divers kinds are liked on account of their bitter or acid principle, and their taste is often improved by a sprinkle of salt or sugar. Distilled water is insipid but rendered sapid by the addition of atrace of salt or sugar. Wines are gustible by reason of the sugar therein contained; it is their aroma that gives the greater pleasure through olfaction. Very dry wines, with but a trace of sugar, act mechanically upon the lingual papillae, and their ethers are enjoyed through the sense of smell. Rum is gustible owing to its sweetness. The love of cocktails and other equallyinjurious mixed drinks is because of their bitter, sweet, and acid ingredients. Beer would be insipid but for its contained lupuline or other bitter substance.

Taste, then, with its closely associated olfactive and tactile senses, may be regarded, gastronomically, as the special and general sensation of pleasure or displeasure evoked by the perception and specialisation of the temperature, succulence, sapidity, and perfume of aliments; and figuratively, as a judgment of the beautiful, the sublime, and the picturesque.'


In view of the author’s strong opinion on the ‘injurious nature’ of cocktails and other mixed drinks,’ I feel obliged to spring to their defense. I give you therefore, a few words on ‘Punch’, because the mixing of good punch requires us to consider and balance several of the various taste elements which we can distinguish – sweet, sour, and bitter. The words are from Cooling Cups and Dainty Drinks (1869) by William Terrington.


Whene'er a bowl of punch we make,
Four striking opposites we take-
The strong, the small, the sharp, the sweet,
Together mixed, most kindly meet.
And when they happily unite,
The bowl is “ ragrant with delight."

THIS delicious beverage, which, if compounded in a proper manner, is not so intoxicating as it has the character of being, is a composition of sugar, lemon, water, or milk, and spirit, with the addition of some aromatic or cordial; wine being sometimes substituted for the spirit. There is no precise rule for making punch, no two persons agreeing in the exact proportions of the ingredients. The great secret is that the mixture should be so happily compounded that nothing predominates. …
A decoction of tea, especially a mixture of green and Pekoe, is preferred to water for the liquor of punch. …
Punch is much improved by adding a very small quantity (which the size of the bowl will regulate) of flowers of benzoin ; it imparts the flavour of arrack to the punch.
A piece of butter, about the size of a filbert nut, is used by many people to soften punch; this size will be sufiicient for a quart.
Guava or apple jelly makes punch truly delicious.
The following formula will give a good idea of the general method of preparing punch on a rather large scale :

Begin by paring the rinds of 30 lemons very thin ; pound them in a mortar with sufficient sugar to form a dry stiff paste ; strain the juice; collect the pips, which put in a saucepan, and pour on them a pint of boiling water; keep hot, so as to draw out the thick mucilaginous flavour; mix together and strain clear, adding a little boiling water to the remains in the strainer ; when ready, taste the sherbet; add more acid, or sugar, if required, and the liquor (tea or water); to every quart of sherbet add % pint of rum, and 1 pint of brandy. This punch, if not made too weak with liquor, will keep some time. It can ‘also have whatever addition the taste or fancy of the manipulator may choose to prescribe for the sake of variety.

Tolpsey’s Account of a West India Planter’s Punch.
“He made his appearance with a respectably sized bowl, an enormous jug of boiling water, and a large paper bag filled with sugar. Our punch-maker then commenced operations, and having extracted from his secret store a bottle of his matchless rum, his limes, and a small pot of guava jelly, he brewed about a pint of green tea (2 oz.), and, the infusion finished, two-thirds of the sugar was dissolved in it. After the tea leaves had been thrown aside, the remainder of the sugar was rubbed on the lime ; Mr. Hamilton observing that the essential oil, which conveyed the exquisite flavour, was much more strongly diffused throughout the compound than when the skin was peeled; then the delicious acid of the fruit was added to the already impregnated sugar, and as soon as the several lumps had imbibed the proportions required, the guava jelly (and without this confection no punch can be pronounced perfect) was dissolved in a pint or so of ' boiling water. This done, the tea, the sweets, and the acids were commingled, and the foundation or sherbert tasted by the experienced palate of the grand compounder; six glasses of Cognac, two of Madeira, and the bottle of rum were added, and over all about a quart more of boiling water, and, as a finishing touch, the slightest possible sprinkling of nutmeg.

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