The way something tastes can transport you. Intimately linked to your sense of smell, the most powerful memory trigger of the 5 senses, your sense of taste is linked to memories of some of the most unique experiences in life. Your first taste, the perfect taste, the taste you crave — all are tasted on the tongue before they can be processed by or catalogued in the brain. Taste is not just an experience either, it’s also a symbol. Tastes stand in for things. When your aunt gives you a glass of “wine” on the sly as she’s cooking and it tastes like vinegar, adults (and adulthood) become that small bit more incomprehensible. Cherry ice cream becomes synonymous with the time you and a friend cut class on a warm day and eat a whole pint together, trying to bring summer to the schoolyard. Taste then, and our memory of how something tastes, is an extremely intimate diarist of our daily lives.
For me, the most fascinating part of taste is that intimacy, and its connection to our desire for stability and consistency in our lives. Consider a cookbook of family recipes, for example. The point of the recipe is not that you can make Blueberry Coffee Cake generally, but Mum’s blueberry coffee cake specifically. You don’t want just any combination of ingredients. You want the combination that repeats what you had in the kitchen on a holiday weekend, and I’d argue that you often don’t just want the cake either, but rather the whole scene in which it was originally experienced. In that sense, a curated collection of recipes tells us about two people through its use: author and reader/user.
The author of a recipe collection reveals a kind of self-constructed narrative. The cookbook performs an autobiographical function, detailing the ways in which they break with traditions, have tested new ground, and develop a sense of what they like, dislike and value. We collect recipes, and in passing them on, we give away a carefully curated version of ourselves and our history to another person. The recipient of a cookbook is privy to all of that information, and by using the cookbook, develops a new level of relationship with the author. Variation becomes personality, and reproduction becomes an affirmation of value. Over time however, even variation becomes routine and establishes itself as someone’s tradition. It’s not uniqueness we’re chasing after all.
Initially, there was no real option to leave the home to eat. Dining out is a modern convenience. Food’s initial move from the familial space to public space as a kind of short lived entertainment or reward was a novelty. As with any other emerging activity, it became social. The social inevitably becomes tied to status, so on a level that had not previously existed, food became mixed with status, and trendsetters emerged, predicting and reviewing the things that others should or should not eat. As food moved out of the home, and into the landscape of the Ford era (in North America at least) our conflicting desires became linked to industrial standards of cleanliness. Health is a staid and standardized affair, so the urge to clean, process, package and individually portion became tied to our desires for stability; the industrialization of the food process alienated food from the home, while intensifying our desire to reproduce the memories, tastes and feelings of a home-cooked meal. In a twist only money could possibly inspire, the covetous urge to be singular reared its head in the food world. Quickly, restaurants began to seek ways to cement their positions as purveyors of sensations impossible to find elsewhere. Unsurprisingly they turned to the law.
A trademark is supposed to legally register and protect the uniquely identifying characteristic of a company or product. In the food world, this identifiability is key to profit. Toblerone, for example, has the European trademark on chocolate made in a triangular shape. That trademark is the newest legal lock-and-key for the company; they’ve had a patent on the shape since 1909. Being singular in the chocolate market is a difficult feat, but Toblerone’s strange shape has helped inspire myths about its origin (it’s shaped like the Matterhorn! no, the folies bergeres!), and sustained interest in the product as a novelty.
To this date, no taste has been trademarked. A recent ruling by the European Court of Justice stated that scent meets all the requirements for distinguishing a product, but since there is no international cataloguing system for smell the way there is for colour, ‘scent-marks’ cannot be registered. A chemical formula is not enough either. In this, taste is a near parallel situation. Trademarks identify and restrict the reproduction of distinguishing characteristics of a product; they label the elements of something that make its origins obvious. In this way, the food world is difficult, with technology making it possible to do things like grow food underground (the definition of unorthodox origins), or chemically reproduce in labs things that used to only be available through farming (e.g. vanilla). A company would need to prove that the element they seek to trademark is the underlying factor in any uniqueness the product possesses. This is incredibly difficult to do with essential flavours (where does ‘orange’ come from, really?), but insofar as geography and physical science constrain the conditions of food production, the desire to catalogue and recognize origin already exist in some capacity through schemes like Country of Origin Labelling or Protected Designation of Origin status. In acknowledging the role that geography plays, the international food system has broadly rejected a necessary element of marking flavour — the idea that there is a central identifiable kernel of flavour for our variable ideas of ‘cheese’, ‘apple’, et cetera. Flavour is diverse, and personal.
Nor can patents act as the solution in this case, as they require public domain documentation of the secrets that go into making a unique dish taste the way it does, something akin to taking out a newspaper advertisement explaining to all who care to find and read it, the secret of your family recipe for a treasured piece of heritage like Christmas fruitcake. Instead, companies that seek to protect the unique tastes of their brand turn to trade secrets law instead. Employees sign non-diclosure agreements and can be pursued on an individual basis if they choose to break rank and reveal the secrets of how to make the meals we’ve come to know and love (or hate, or hate ourselves for eating). There is no way to own taste. The closest we’ve come is to owning the methods of preparation and the human efforts to produce a meal, or cataloguing the location it came from. This is a great thing. By ensuring that a taste is not something we systematically isolate, courts and countries are affirming the social and cultural value of eating. Food (read: sustenance) can be grown in labs, isolated, modified and remade in a new form. Flavour exists in a hybrid place that combines tongue, heart and mind.
What keeps us coming back to our favourite meals isn’t always an inability to create the dish ourselves. McDonald’s, ultimate symbol of food’s ubiquitous modernization, has revealed the ingredients and the process for making its “special sauce”. What keeps us coming back to a meal is its meaning. We seek, in reproducing food, to capture the ephemerality of consumption by repeating the act — a powerful metaphor about our economics as well as the human experience. It is the social nature of food that gives us a relationship to a dish, and to the people we share and create it with, and this applies as much to fast or mass-produced food as to that made in the home. By ruling that the literal taste, the composition of flavour is not enough to constitute a food’s uniqueness, courts are participating in the creation of eating as a space for expression of our emotions, beliefs and efforts for and about others. We can argue about which family member makes Nonna’s pasta the best as well as who makes it closest to the original recipe, and those can be different things. Food is most exciting when we care about it, and about each other.
Our personal connections to taste, flavour and feeling are fleeting and complex. They are not designed to be catalogued. They do not exist in isolation. The designation of origin that matters most to us ought to be that of the heart.
Originally published on my previous blog nextbite.wordpress.com under the same title on 27 July 2015.