Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

The De-Touching of America, Part Two: Taste

Thanks to the food multinationals, our sense of taste is growing dull

Salt is one of the addictive agents
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Americans are functionally deaf, due to the high noise of our environment; this was the subject of the previous post on Shut Up & Listen. But noise, in the sense of extreme input that, because of its volume and/or nature, ends up deadening the person receiving it, is something that affects all our faculties. Taste, smell, sight, even touch, are all being deadened because of the volume and intensity of our high-speed, high-intensity way of life.

 (This post will focus on the first faculty, taste: the next post will concentrate on sight, and subsequent posts will show how the desensitization effect affects our mind, our world view, our lives—and what we can do about it. Because we can do something about it ...)

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So, take taste. One facet of a society massively controlled by big business is that the products of giant consumer-products multinationals are relentlessly advertised, branded, marketed, until they become ubiquitous. Not only ubiquitous, but lusted after by most consumers; so popular and widespread that food and restaurant multinationals can afford to slash prices and cattle-drive competitors off Main Street.

Here are two key aspects of these food and restaurant products: First, they're the same everywhere. I remember trying to find a "Southern" restaurant on my first visit to South Carolina and driving for at least twenty miles and seeing nothing but Denny's, McDonalds, Burger Kings, Roy Rogers, Olive Gardens and their ilk. No mom and pop diners serving grits, chitterlings, collard greens. Not one. all I could find to eat was Whoppers, Chicken McNuggets, and Roy's Real Roast Beef Sandwich.

The same is true of food stores. Sure, a handful of farmers' markets have cropped up to assuage the foody pretension of wealthy liberals, but the vast majority of Americans buy chow from Texas-sized supermarkets whose produce looks, tastes, is the same, from Point Reyes, California, to East Boothbay, Maine.

And how are homogeneity and popularity achieved? By cramming the foodstuffs with preservatives, salt, fat and corn syrup. According to WebMD, multinational-produced mass-market foods are crammed with sodium, and various types of processed sugars and fats. All of these are unhealthy in the proportions used in what we are sold. All of them hit our taste-buds with a bang, because of what they're crammed with. That's because they're also sought after by our brain, which was conditioned over millennia to seek them out over other tastes, since in an agricultural or hunter/gatherer society salt, sugar and fat were both necessary and relatively rare.

But our brain doesn't know when to stop! WebMD suggests that, like an addict far gone on smack, the more of the deadly SFS (salt, fat, sugar) trio it consumes, the more it wants. Not only does this lead to obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other deadly health problems, but it reduces—has reduced—the variety and richness that stem from an environment of hundreds of thousands of small, individual producers of foods, both prepared and raw.

That small elite of rich foodies read cooking mags, travel to Calabria to sample ethnic pasta, and expand their dictionary of tastes. The rest of us have grown addicted to what the big food companies inject us with: the SFS. Corn syrups, various fatty oils and meats, with side-orders of sodium or MSG in everything.

And because of our eating habits, we no longer eat, or support, foods that don't fit the mold. The slightly burned homemade apple pie at the diner that used to exist on Maple Street. Chitterlings at the roadhouse in Alabama. The tastier, if tougher, thigh from a hen or rooster that's been around the farmyard block a few times, as opposed to the hydroponic, swollen test-tube chicken that Tyson's sells. Sure, old-fashioned and local foods contain fats, sugars and salts; but unprocessed fats and sugars are much easier for the body to digest, and anyway occur in such lesser quantities in home-made foods that most of us don't seek them out much anymore. Geez, Mom this stuff's unsweet, unsalty. And it took you hours to make ... Why don't we just go to the Olive Garden?

And I haven't even begun to address the other additives that preserve the mass-produced food, disguise its artificiality, and contribute to the blandess of its taste. Men's Journal lists fifteen perfectly legal additives that occur in supermarket produce; all are profitable, because they appeal to the SFS addiction, or extend the product's shelf life. All are also artificial, most are carcinogenic, and none would be needed in food that was produced and sold in your immediate area.

Does any of this matter? Well, yeah. It affects our health—no surprises there. But by depriving us of variety and even the appetite for variety, it impoverishes our sensory world. I'll discuss this further in the next post.

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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