Making Taste Public
Making Taste Public

Carole Counihan

Carole Counihan is Professor Emerita of Anthropology, Millersville University, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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and Susanne Højlund

Susanne Højlund is Associate Professor in Anthropology at Aarhus University, Denmark. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

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Bloomsbury Academic, 2018


Content Type:

Book chapter

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Making Taste Public

An Ethnographic Approach


Carole Counihan

Carole Counihan is Professor Emerita of Anthropology, Millersville University, USA. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications
and Susanne Højlund

Susanne Højlund is Associate Professor in Anthropology at Aarhus University, Denmark. Author affiliation details are correct at time of print publication.

Search for publications

DOI: 10.5040/9781350052710.ch-001
Page Range: 1–8


Anthropologists have shown that different cultures have different taste preferences and flavor principles embedded in cuisine. But how does taste become part of culture? Taste is often described either as a characteristic of food, or as an individual perception of or response to an outer (cultural) world. Instead of seeing our senses as passive receptors, impacted or shaped by culture, we turn the perspective around and ask how we use our senses to bring taste from a private experience to be part of the public. We define “the public” as the social space between people and food, a space where taste becomes accessible for others to engage in and possibly to share. We assume that human interaction, communication, and practices of distribution shape taste, and the central focus of this book is how this happens. We take up David Sutton’s (2010: 220) call to anthropologists to examine, “everyday life and the multiple contexts in which the culturally shaped sensory properties and sensory experiences of food are invested with meaning, emotion, memory, and value.”

In this book anthropologists use ethnographic case studies to explore how people share our senses of taste and the experience of eating, with whom, and under what conditions. The chapters focus on how the taste of food—the sensual experience and the preferences, identities, and meanings associated with it—is and becomes social. We think about how tastes are made and shared between us in public settings where they are sometimes exalted and sometimes abhorred. We examine how tastes are socialized, who are the key actors, what are the key sites, where are the spaces of taste exchanges and clashes, and how values are attached to tastes. We analyze how through different forms of exchange tastes become part of our sensorial apparatus and identity in a range of cultural contexts.

Chapters focus on ethnographic examples combined with theoretical discussions of the process of making taste public. They examine definitions and mobilizations of taste in different sites, institutions, public places, and regions around the world, depicting ethnographic understandings of how people learn and practice taste. Cases include the construction and sharing of tastes in infant feeding (Van Esterik) and Danish and Solomon Island meals (Christensen and Hillersdal, Crawford), cooking lessons in Danish and North American schools (Højlund, Trubek and Carabello), Danish and Japanese chefs’ constructions of meals (Østergaard, de St. Maurice), French cheese tasting panels (Shields), Wisconsin dairy farmers’ choice of feed for their cattle (Overstreet), northern Italian viticulturalists’ production practices (Black), and food activists’ political strategies in Italy and Sweden (Counihan, Siniscalchi, Green).

Why Study Taste?

There is a huge tradition in anthropology on the study of food, so why should we need to outline one more food related field? What makes taste more significant to study than “food”? First, the concept of taste expresses a relation between humans and their food. When taste is put in the forefront we are looking for definitions, interpretations and experiences of this relationship. Without denying the physiological dimensions (Shepherd 2012; Spence and Fiszman 2014), we focus on taste as a social construction and especially on how people are externalizing their sensory knowledge (cf. Berger and Luckmann 1991 [1966]). We are interested in how attractions and repulsions, pleasure and disgust, meanings and opinions are created in the space between people and their food and how they lead to different definitions of quality, and to shared social platforms for performance, lifestyle and identity. In taking this perspective we are very much in debt to the writings of Genevieve Teil and Antoine Hennion (2004), who have created an analytical approach for thinking about taste as activity, reflection, and performance. Thus, in choosing “taste” and “tasting” as analytical concepts we stress food and eating in specific social, sensory, and cultural contexts.

Second, we want to expand and challenge the argument that a special interest in taste is either a luxurious interest or driven by necessity (Bourdieu 2013). We acknowledge that taste also is about class and lifestyle distinctions, and that there are moments where nutrition and coping with hunger must stand at the forefront rather than taste. But this does not mean that only elites should care about taste, or that taste does not matter in situations of scarcity. We hope to show that taste is a central daily part of people’s eating habits, affecting what and how much they consume, what it signifies, and whether it satisfies not just their nutritional but also their emotional and social needs. Following this argument, we see taste as a societal issue, e.g. playing a role in obesity epidemics (Schatzker 2016), being part of a larger aesthetic economy (Michalski 2015), and creating conflicts and debates on national identity (Tellström et al. 2003). Throughout the book, we thus argue for a broader perspective on taste involving analyses that understand people’s everyday relationships to their food in a comprehensive social context.

Third, we find it important to contribute to the newer discussions on how we sensorialize our world (Chau 2008). Traditionally taste has been excluded from such analyses, giving primacy to sight and hearing (Korsmeyer 1999). These two faculties have been objects for the “agency paradigm,” which conceptualizes them as active senses rather than passive. Scholars have discussed “ways of seeing” (Berger 2008), and “ways of listening” (Clarke 2005), but no-one has conceptualized “ways of tasting” although David Howes and Constance Classen (2013) come close in their book Ways of Sensing, where they also remind us that sensing is a synaesthetic activity (ibid:152). We contribute to these discussions by seeing taste as the product of an holistic engagement of all the senses with food mediated by the complex relationships between mind, body, people, places, and comestibles. We propose that analyses of taste focus on the multisensorial agency of people, and on how taste is produced, either on the plate, in our communication, through our hands and craftsmanship, or in our sharing of values and activities.

Even though we stress this “production side” of our sense of taste we recognize that culture creates a context that cannot be ignored. Taste is an irrevocable part of culture and therefore impacted by it and generated in relation to it. Joan Gross’s chapter, for example, shows how Latin Americans’ concepts of “fresh” are linked to their home place and to just-harvested local products, which are far from North American meanings of fresh. Crawford’s chapter shows that taste may not emerge as a cultural concern until contrasts with new foods arise and call out taste distinctions, much as Rick Wilk (1999) found that in Belize the concept of local food only developed when global food arrived. Taste arouses passionate feelings in many, but there are cultures where people seem to have little investment in it, such as the Kenyan Samburu pastoralists (Holtzman 2009: 157) or the Solomon Islanders in Crawford’s chapter. Taste can stimulate experimentation and learning about new foods and forge connections to new cultures and places, as in de St. Maurice’s chapter on the mission of the Japanese Culinary Academy. But perceived bad tastes can also produce and signify distance, rupture, and exclusion, as Siniscalchi’s analysis of Slow Food reveals ( see also Rhys-Taylor 2016; Walmsley 2005).

Methods for Sensory Ethnography

There is growing interest in “sensuous scholarship” (Stoller 2010), “sensory anthropology” (Howes and Classen 2013: 11), and “sensory ethnography” (Pink 2009), but until recently there has been a dearth of clear direction on how to study the senses of people in other cultures, even in important texts like Pink (2009), Stoller (2010), and Sutton (2010). Dara Culhane and Denielle Elliott’s (2016) Different Kind of Ethnography, is a step in the right direction and we accept their challenge to take sensory experience seriously as “epistemological and political critique” (11). Dara Culhane (2016) lays out how anthropologists can “begin paying close attention to sensory experience in a critical, purposeful way” with exercises to attend to, record, and present what we see, hear, smell, taste, and touch. She aims for “sensory embodied reflexivity” (61)—a deeper awareness of one’s own and thus others’ sense perceptions.

Several researchers have talked about using their own bodies to take in sensory experience and to develop critical awareness of how their own sensory biographies affect their perceptions (Chau 2008; Rhys-Taylor 2016; Stoller 2010). Here Penny Van Esterik describes her own overwhelming disgust at the taste of fish to hypothesize about how early-childhood feeding may set up life-long taste preferences. Rachel Black (2017) provides useful exercises to stimulate students’ sensory acuity, e.g. having them compare different qualities of pizza dough and shape it totally by hand, and then adorn, bake, admire, smell, and finally taste it.

Being there with all the senses unfurled is critical to sensory ethnography (Black 2017; Culhane and Elliott 2016 ; Pink 2009). Anthropologists’ longstanding tool of participant observation broadens to become “participant sensation” (Howes 2006:121)—here demonstrated particularly richly in Katy Overstreet’s chapter “Taste Like a Cow.” She describes accompanying a farmer as he walks through a hay sale and decides which hay to buy for his cows, joining him in visual assessment of the hay’s texture and color, handling it to feel its smooth or “pokey” texture, and smelling it for freshness or mold. Højlund’s chapter relies on participant-sensation in a different way as she uses all her senses to gather the diverse perceptions of Danish middleschoolers. She also records their words and interactions surrounding taste at school cooking classes and interviews, and participates in making food and evaluating the tastes produced.

We believe that recording how people talk about taste at interviews, tastings, meals, and other events is an important addition to participant-sensation and fieldnotes. Trubek and Carabello’s chapter is based on recordings of cooking practices and subsequent interviews with students in a university Food and Culture course. Subjects’ words are a vivid window into their subjective insider perceptions of taste. Videorecording is the most complete because it includes facial and tactile gestures, body language, and relationships, as well as words and tone of voice, but it is complex to carry out and analyze, whereas voice recording—accompanied by photos if possible—is simpler to carry off. Transcriptions are excellent for capturing feelings and meanings about taste, as Counihan’s recording of a Sardinian caper tasting reveals. In interviews researchers can deepen discussion and elicit metaphors, memories, and comparisons by posing questions such as “What does it taste like? What does it remind you of? How does it compare to other things you have tasted?”

Ethnographers still face the challenge to find sensually rich ways to communicate beyond our trusty reliance on the written word. Culhane (2016) encourages dance, music, performance, fiction, photography, and film. A fine example of a multi-dimensional, multi-sensorial exploration of taste was the “Creative Tastebuds” symposium held at the Aarhus Theater in Aarhus, Denmark, September 4–5, 2017.[1] Four panels addressed “how brain and culture collaborate on taste,” where creative mediators—a writer, chef, architect and performance artist—pushed four pairs of natural scientists and anthropologists to converse about taste. There were “innovation showcases” with tastings, sound-taste labs, art projects, and performances; “soap box dialogues” with the public about topics of interest; on-site lunches to experience taste through commensality; and a thoughtfully prepared, delicious, and convivial dinner for all conference attendees. Participants had the opportunity to engage socially, intellectually, sensually, emotionally, and corporeally with taste.

Taste Socialization: Family and Culture

An important theme of this book is that tastes are socialized through people’s interactions with others—in the family and other social groups. Van Esterik explores humans’ earliest feeding experiences and ponders how they might affect lifelong decisions to embrace or reject new tastes. The mother’s foods and flavors pass to the fetus in utero and continue to pass to the infant through breastmilk, socializing the child to familial and cultural tastes—whether chili peppers, hotdogs, or camembert. Van Esterik asks about the taste repercussions of feeding infants industrially produced formula based on cow milk or soy protein. Formula may well predispose them towards “the industrial palate” of salty sweet artificial flavors that typify processed foods, whose production is the focus of recent work by Ella Butler (2017), Anna Mann (2018), and others.

Quotidian meals express changes in taste over forty years in Crawford’s chapter on Solomon Islanders whose acceptance of canned fish and spicy foods calls forth the blandness of the traditional diet and offers an interesting case study of the widespread phenomenon of dietary transformation. Daily meals are the battle ground for changing family diets and taste preferences in Christensen and Hillersdal’s chapter on women undergoing weight loss surgery in Denmark, whose need to transform their post-surgery eating habits has repercussions on family dynamics, gender roles, and commensality.

Taste, Place, and Intersubjectivity

A key determinant of taste is place—the places where plants and animals are raised and processed into comestibles, and the places where they are eaten. Amy Trubek (2008) has written about the taste of place or terroir—which refers not just to climate and landscape but also to the skills, traditions, and human and animal relationships involved in making food. In her chapter on “taste landscape,” Black learns the taste of Carema wine by hiking through steep northern Italian vineyards, convivially drinking as well as formally tasting diverse vintages, and interviewing producers. She shows how the evolving relationship to place due to mechanization, trellising, cooperative production, and export markets changed the taste of Carema wine, but nonetheless its importance to local identity has persisted. Similarly, terroir is essential to the taste of Comté cheese, the focus of Shields’s chapter. She focuses on how the jury terroir, a panel of trained volunteers, defines Comté cheese at their monthly meetings where they taste and describe diverse exemplars. This practice enhances jury members’ feelings of relatedness to each other and the wider natural world, showing how taste is social and intersubjective. Katy Overstreet’s chapter extends that taste intersubjectivity from humans to animals by exploring the many sensory ties between Wisconsin dairy farmers and their cows around selection of the best and tastiest feed.

Taste Education and Sharing: Identity and Community

Because of its ability to make connections, taste plays an important part in teaching and learning across a variety of occasions and institutions. De St. Maurice explores how a formal institution, the Japanese Culinary Academy (JCA), musters various strategies to make the taste of Japanese cuisine public, shared, and authentic to strengthen Japanese identity and traditions against the threat of globalization. The JCA project reveals an understanding of taste as a multi-sensory phenomenon inextricably linked to cultural values. The emphasis on all the senses also pervades the cooking classes at the University of Vermont studied by Trubek and Carabello and the Danish middle schools observed by Højlund. These encourage students to fully engage with the sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound of food. Moreover the classes emphasize the important social dimension of learning, and students develop their skills and sensory perception by making taste together.

Taste, however, acts not just as glue but also as disruptor. This is revealed in Østergaard’s chapter on Danish professional chefs’ interactions in a restaurant kitchen. They learn and share understandings of taste through their adherence to the kitchen’s prevailing collective know-how that develops skills, practices and relationships to create distinctive tastes from raw materials. But an apprentice lost his job because he failed to adapt to the material and social practices of the kitchen and produce the collectively sanctioned tastes.

Taste Politics

Taste is often implicated in power relations, hierarchy, inclusion, and exclusion. Bourdieu (2013: 31) has famously noted the “basic opposition between the tastes of luxury and the tastes of necessity,” referring to how elites can play with tastes but common people must eat what they can get. Even in conditions of scarcity, however, people care about taste, and its recollection may be a means to transport them to better times, as happened when the Jewish women starving in the Terezin concentration camp wrote down and exchanged recipes of favorite dishes they could only savor in their minds (De Silva 2006).

Taste has become instrumental in diverse activists’ efforts to transform the food system and establish food sovereignty such as those of the Sámi reindeer herders of northern Sweden discussed here by Amanda Green. Reindeer fat from free-range animals has a distinct taste of place from their diet of lichens, mushrooms, and grasses. Activists educate consumers to distinguish this particular taste and understand its dependence on access to land and Sámi cultural practices—both threatened by encroaching state power and food globalization. Eating the free-range reindeer fat enacts resistance to those threats.

In Italy, taste has longstanding salience and activists use it as a lever to promote local and sustainable food and agriculture. Counihan’s chapter discusses Slow Food’s efforts to support Sardinian capers by exalting their tastes and teaching about them at a commensal caper tasting. This case supports Sarah Pink’s (2009: 73) affirmation that you can learn a lot about taste while people are eating together. Siniscalchi’s chapter examines Slow Food’s construction of taste as a moral, economic, and political tool of the movement. Slow Food creates boundaries between “bad” and tasteless industrial food, shoddy producers, and non-discerning eaters on the one hand; and “good” local producers, their products, and the consumers who recognize their quality on the other. Taste is a powerful lever to manipulate consumption, resist globalization, and preserve heritage cuisine and national identity.

Lingering Questions

This collection of ethnographic essays on making taste public hopes to spur further research. We need studies that extend what we know about artificial flavors and how they affect our relationship to food, plants, and animals. We need to know more about institutions that feed lots of people—schools, hospitals, prisons, and workplace cafeterias—and how they mobilize, diversify, or ignore taste. We need to continue to explore how diverse and unfamiliar tastes can be bridges rather than barriers between people across race, ethnicity and national origin, and we need to explore how gender affects taste perception and socialization across class and ethnic lines. We need to know how families teach taste and inculcate or disrupt preferences across generations. And last, we need to know how we can use taste to bring just, sustainable, healthy, and delicious food to all.


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[1] “Creative Tastebuds” was led by Susanne Højlund and Mikael Schneider and sponsored by the European Capital of Culture Aarhus 2017 and the Aarhus/Central Denmark Region 2017—European Region of Gastronomy, Taste for Life/Smag for Livet (which is funded by Nordea-fonden), University of Aarhus, More Creative/Region Midtjylland and Fonden Aarhus 2017. See http://creativetastebuds.dk accessed October 4, 2017. Conference papers are forthcoming in a special issue of the International Journal of Food Design edited by Ole G. Mouritsen and Michael Bom Frøst.