Taste is complicated. In different contexts, it’s a physical sense or a social grace, something you feel immediately and certainly, or something you learn bit by bit over years. Its many meanings are clear from the different ways we use the word: I have a taste for vermouth. Our own Léon Phillipe is “a man of taste.” Some people are tasteful, and some are tasty. Sometimes it drives appetites, and sometimes you want just a taste.
We can’t cleanly separate literal taste from the metaphor—the chemistry of the tongue from the whole cultural field of pleasures and preferences. From around the turn of the eighteenth century, Denise Gigante suggests in Taste: A Literary History, this combination produced a distinctly modern form of aesthetics. Taking consumption (rather than looking or hearing) as its principal metaphor, this modern form binds judgements—which are social—to the most individual of the senses. This is why it’s so difficult to discuss: we tend to see taste as a gut feeling, but we still want other people to agree with us.
In Gigante’s book, the most voluptuous figure is King George IV, a man of so much taste he was nicknamed “Prince of Whales,” but the subtlest portrait is of the poet John Keats. His poems are full of heavenly foods, yet he also writes dolefully to a friend: “perhaps I eat to persuade myself I am somebody” (he’s on the slow coach to Winchester, putting away slices of beef). Keats published a poem under the pseudonym “Caviar,” but his critics associated him instead with “that sugar and butter sentiment.” His taste was constantly rubbing up against his claims to artistic refinement. And in the novels of the same period, everything from the clothes you wear to the kind of soap you buy became crucial aspects of character. The eighteenth century is when the British married taste to that dismal science of class, making people’s preferences the measure of their social standing.
Perhaps it’s inevitable that a nation’s anxieties would express themselves in an idea as contradictory as taste. But no standard of cultivation or consumption ever soothed them. As the protagonists of all those novels learn, there’s always something a bit more refined than what you have. For all its obvious limitations, though, taste is also a way to imagine an education in delight. When I think of people with taste, I don’t picture those who know the right colors for a bathroom, or when to buy Burgundy. I think of people attuned to their own joy. Whether it’s books or clothes, music or film, they experience each new encounter with the thrill of their first. They thirst for specifics—a certain beat in a song, or a note in a perfume—because the singularity of that experience connects them to people and places they love. Their tastes are often sophisticated (at least by my standards) but attach to the simplest things: the bright acid of lemons, the texture of a sweater, the dull fog of a morning run. They are full of taste but never constrained by tastefulness. Theirs is the kind I want: a sharp hunger for good things, that binds us to others and to the earth.