SHS Postgraduate Prize Winner: The Ambiguity of Taste

Katrina-Louise Moseley, University of Cambridge

As an avid viewer of cookery television programmes (I grew up watching Ready Steady Cook with my Grandad in the late 1990s, and continued to watch intently as the genre swallowed Ainsley Harriot’s gags to make way for the more haughty Masterchef Goes Large in the 2000s), I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of vicarious consumption. We can’t taste the food on these programmes — few of us will replicate a recipe shown on the screen — and yet, for some reason, the fascination still holds. Placing our trust in the tastebuds of culinary professionals, we are content to imagine the taste for ourselves; to continue about our day, visually satisfied.

The ambiguities of taste — real versus imagined; physiological versus cultural; blind versus packaged — were the subject of my paper at the 2019 SHS Conference. This paper grew out of my research into one particular Mass Observation ‘directive’: a questionnaire on ‘food, including drink’ issued to a panel of (mostly) educated research participants in the Winter of 1982. Despite important source biases (241 women responded, as compared to just 68 men, for example) these lengthy written materials are an invaluable resource for understanding food attitudes in the postwar decades. Reflecting on pasts, presents and imagined social futures, correspondents provided personalised responses to questions such as the following: ‘What foods do you now buy rarely because of their cost which you used to buy or (as a child) eat regularly?’ ‘Do you regard meat in some form as an essential food in the sense that you feel you should eat it once a day?’ The categories ‘moral’, ‘health’, ‘political’, ‘religious’ and ‘personal’ were given as possible reasons for avoiding certain foods, framing reflections on: ‘the things that you, your family, your relations and friends do NOT eat and why’. In the wake of the freezer boom in Britain, the directive also pondered whether the phrase ‘in season’ meant anything to respondents.

Mass Observation Archive, University of Sussex. Responses to Winter 1982 Directive. Respondent R585 [Female, born 1935]
Although I had initially approached these sources with the aim of chipping away at my wider research question about food’s role in the construction of the self, I quickly became more interested in the language of ‘taste’. Taste was everywhere in these sources — as knowledge claims (‘I can taste the difference…’), social judgements (‘people’s taste does amaze me’), and childhood memories (‘I can still remember the way it tasted’) — but it was extremely difficult, both for myself and seemingly for correspondents, to catch hold of taste’s shifting boundaries. Tastes and textures were shot through with contradictions: rich flavours were adventurous and exotic, but also ‘fussy’ and overcomplicated. The ‘plain’ food of a 1950s childhood was ‘dull’ and ‘boring’ the one minute; but in the next breadth, when talking about the rise of convenience foods, it was wholesome, satisfying, and virtuous. Context was key.

Advert for Gold Top Cream, Home & Freezer Digest, December 1985. Advertisers were met with new challenges in the 1980s as the perception of a taste difference between fresh food and frozen food grew stronger.

Of course, the boundaries of taste are always shifting. Just as the postwar decades saw chicken transition from a luxury to an ‘everyday’ food item, so it is the case that packaged sushi now lines the ‘lunch on the go’ shelves of British supermarkets. But these changing tastes for food have already been well documented. What I was interested in doing with this paper was exploring what taste meant to Mass Observation writers: what it stood in for, what it claimed to represent or to know, and what other feelings and emotions it worked to signal. Surveying these writings alongside a handful of other autobiographical and ethnographic sources, I argued that the inherent ambiguities of taste were particularly useful depositories of postwar feelings. Unlike sights or sounds, the sensory facts of which are observable, tastes remained (and remain) fuzzy, incoherent things, open to subjective interpretation. Whether real or imagined in the postwar decades, ‘off’ tastes and ‘underneath’ flavours, were thus used to validate new moral, health, racial and bodily anxieties.

These sensory claims set the boundaries between middle-class self and working-class other, as in previous decades. But they did so with new vigour in postwar Britain as a host of social and technological changes — immigration, mounting obesity levels, the rise of food processing, associated food scares, and the development of artificial flavour enhancers, to name but a few — muddied former distinctions between ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ flavours. Making sense of gustatory feeling means paying attention to the affective states that food created and activated within these contexts. These include togetherness and nostalgia, but also (and perhaps less obviously) sadness, grief, self-loathing and revulsion.

Overall, my PhD project aims to inject flavour and emotion back into an area of modern British history that is often quite bland in character. We know much about changing nutrition in the twentieth-century, and much too about the ethnic pluralisation of the British palate; but too little about the intimate social contexts in which food was prepared, gobbled down, deliberately avoided, shared together or eaten alone. From the vantage point of technology, the economy, and retailing, the history of food can only tell us so much. Taking our lead from sociologists, anthropologists and emotions historians, it is perhaps time to grab our forks and dig deeper into lived experience.

 

Click here to find out more about the SHS postgraduate paper prize

 

About the author: Katrina-Louise Moseley is an AHRC-funded PhD student at the University of Cambridge and the co-founder of https://bodyandfoodhistories.wordpress.com/. Her doctoral thesis investigates changing attitudes towards food and body weight in post-war Britain  She was the winner of the 2019 Social History Society Postgraduate Prize and is one of the Society’s postgraduate representatives.

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