Gopnik on taste (and queues)

A queue outside a restaurant is a potent thing. And they’ve multiplied of late. I’ve noticed in my neck of the woods there are lines forming in unexpected places. There’s that ramen cafe just around the corner, a Thai hole-in-the-wall at the top end of Bourke, and dumplings in a grubby laneway off Collins. Melbourne’s weather might change by the moment, but those lines don’t quit.

I don’t like queues, and I’ve been known to sniff at the fads of popular taste. Honestly, though, the longer the line, the more cracks in my resolve. While my superior self might look away with nonchalance, another part of me eyes these happy, smiling queue people with a certain insecurity. Am I missing out??

The truth is, the notion of ‘good taste’ is an extraordinarily subjective thing. Clearly, it’s impacted by more than the eccentricities of a particular set of taste buds. What happens inside my mouth may be an intensely private experience, but I never eat alone. Taste is shaped as much by social context as it is by personal preference.

Maybe Gopnik is right. Perhaps the experience of taste is about more than the food at the end of the line. It has something to do with the line itself and our shared anticipation, that sense that if we love it, then maybe I’ll love it too!

‘None of us can escape the web of competitive, cyclical, counterintuitive, imitative relations that shape the social role of taste. There is no privileged space from which we can look down and say, ‘Your tastes are trends, my tastes are truths.’ All taste effects depend on contexts. The smell in our nose changes the taste in our mouth, and the length of the line outside the restaurant changes of our view of the taste of the food we’re waiting for, and even how much we’ll spend to eat it. We are what we eat? Probably closer to the truth to say that we eat what we are: the total self we bring to the table shapes the way we choose, and even how we chew. Our morals and our manners together drive our molars.’

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food, London: Quercus, 2011, 105-106.

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