How do you know what you like?

While partaking in a stupendous lunch, the conversation turns to the question of how do people know what they like?

Drinking deeply from his Effervecense de Pomme, PL chimes: There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better for worse as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

Tipping her fork into her delectably deconstructed Nicoise Salad, JL rejoins: Not for nothing one face, one character, one fact, makes much impression on him, and another none. It is not without pre-established harmony, this sculpture in the memory. The eye was placed where one ray should fall, that it might testify of that particular ray. Bravely let him speak the utmost syllable of his confession. We but half express ourselves, and are ashamed of that divine idea which each of us represents. It may be safely trusted as proportionate and of good issues, so it be faithfully imparted, but God will not have his work made manifest by cowards. It needs a divine man to exhibit anything divine. A man is relieved and gay when he has put his heart into his work and done his best; but what he has said or done otherwise shall give him no peace. It is a deliverance which does not deliver. In the attempt his genius deserts him; no muse befriends; no invention, no hope.

PL digs into his Fuji Apple Tart: Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.

Well, perhaps not quite so Emersonian, but our conversation did turn once again to experts, tastes, and professional critics – not just where preferences come from, but how do you know what you like? The example I favored (and favor) is cooking, which makes my point but does so at the expense of losing the social. Ignore that for now.
Cooking on a Continuum
Cooks, it seems to me, resolve along a curvilinear continuum. At one are novice cooks. They rely on recipes, following them closely to make dinner. The novice cook relies on the tastes of the cookbook author, assumes (not unreasonably) that because this person is an expert, their combination of ingredients and techniques is a good approximation for what is going to be tasty.

At the other end of the spectrum are professional chefs. Professional chefs don’t rely on recipes as such – but neither do they rely on their own personal tastes. Or rather, their personal tastes at the point when they are professional chefs approximate the tastes of the field. Classical French, Northern Italian, Japanese. Their tastes conform to the field’s tastes, with variations due to creativity, syntheses of cuisines, and the like. But when a chef adds more star anise to a dish, it’s not so much that they personally like star anise, it’s that they believe that star anise makes the dish better. There’s a distinction there.

In the middle are those whose personal tastes figure more prominently than either the novice or professional. I call these the Grandma cooks – their recipes may have once begun their lives as recipes, but are now tailored to the tastes of themselves and their families. Grandma Sylvia puts in parnips rather than carrots because Jon won’t eat orange foods; her own tastes and the tastes of those people she cooks for matter more.

So this is the point: someplace between those who know nothing and therefore rely completely on experts; and those who are the experts, and whose tastes are oriented to a broader field; in between are those for whom personal tastes figure more heavily. I’d like to hypothesize that this characterizes a number of cultural arenas, including art (both buyers and maybe painters), music, and of course cooking.

Do you believe me?

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