Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Tasting Ambition, Smelling Confusion

In my last post, I suggested that the analysis of "taste" –– what did it tell us? what was it used for? –– was a subject of great interest among botanists, physicians and other sundry early members of the Royal Society.  Yet as time went on, it seemed as if the Baconian optimism that once charged scientific studies of taste seemed to wane.  Perhaps the record of a scientific project I found in the archives might shed some light on why and how this occurred.

“Tasts and smells” was one of three principle categories in the F.R.S physician John Rutty’s attempted overhaul of the Materia Medica. a project undertaken in 1729-30 in order to both “reduce the knowledge … to a greater certainty,” (in his words) and sever it from the “farrago of superstitions and incredible virtues with which botanic writers abound.”  But despite measuring tastes and smells the best he could –– collecting testimonies of past authors, his own experiences, as well as those of an assistant acting as a blind taster –– he still ran into problems.  “The difficulties attending an account of taste and smell [result] from not only our inability to express by words many Ideas we receive this way,” he remarked, “but also from the diversity of both in different persons.”  Not only do subjective experiences differ, but even existing flavor vocabularies were deemed unreliable approximations of the true essence of things.  

Thus, Rutty’s only recourse is to dumb his system down to the lowest common flavor denominators, ignoring subtler notes and aromas as “useless and perplexing” and trying to pin-point “predominant qualities” upon which most tasters could agree.  The project –– weighed down with too many ambiguities –– must have inevitably failed, as I never heard it mentioned again after 1730.   

But this silence can be unnerving.  Does it mean that scientists no longer cared about studying taste?  Did they give up?  Or has the stage of the cultural conversation moved elsewhere?