People living in San Francisco can find a soil tasting in a nearby art gallery; the rest of us can e-participate through a website (tasteofplace.info) run by performance artist and “agricultural activist” Laura Parker. Parker strives to answer the question “how does soil touch our lives and affect our food; and why does it matter?” To stimulate public dialogue, Parker fills wine goblets with various soils and adds a few teaspoons of water to release the aromas and flavors. The soils aren’t ingested, but participants place their noses deep into the wine bowls, inhaling the newly released molecules to the backs of their tongues, where taste receptors lie. The website even provides “Tasting Notes,” such as the soil of “Apple Farm-Indian Camp Ground, ‘Arrowhead Reserve,’” which has a “texture like ground espresso between your fingertips with a rich, chocolate color. The nose is both flinty and grassy with finesse and subtlety.” After the soil tasting, participants dine on food grown in the various soils and identify the qualities of the dirt in the food to strengthen the connection between what we eat and where it’s grown.
“It used to be,” writes William Bryant Logan in Dirt, “that a good farmer could tell a lot about his soil by rolling a lump of it around in his mouth.” Today, apparently, it is harder to find someone who literally eats dirt:
Not in Texas, nor Vermont, nor Kentucky, nor California, nor western New York. Everybody knew somebody who once did it, but nobody could quite remember the name of the fellow.
Soil contains bad bugs as well as good ones, and the physician did not want to have to sort them out in Wolf’s guts. But back in the days when he chawed, Bill could tell acid from alkaline by the fizz of the soil in his mouth.
A very acid soil would crackle like those sour candies that kids eat, and it had the sharp taste of a citrus drink. A neutral soil didn’t fizz and it had the odour and flavour of the soil’s humus, caused by little creatures called “actinomycetes.” An alkaline soil tasted chalky and coated the tongue.
Having conducted this simple taste test, Logan explains, farmers could apply calcium carbonate to the Sprite-flavoured fizzy soil and gypsum to the Milk of Magnesia tongue-coating soil, which would then “react with the hydrogen of acid clays and the sodium of salt-clays, respectively,” in order to re-balance the soil’s pH and improve its structure.
Most Indian men, at least those I see about town on the street, dress in what I call the “dude uniform”: a light-colored button-down long-sleeve shirt, slacks, and black sandals. As far as uniforms go, it’s pretty functional, working equally well for home and office, and requiring little in maintenance.
Younger guys, however, replace the sensible slacks with over-the-top denim: emulating their favorite Bollywood stars, they buy jeans that are dyed, streaked, distressed, and bedecked with clasps, latches, snaps, and pockets. Most of the time the pants are flared, giving them a bit of a disco feel.
On top, they wear a variety of shirts that make European clubwear appear dignified. Most are made of synthetic materials; gold lamé and neon orange are popular at the moment. Solid one-inch-wide black and orange vertical stripes were big in Fall 2008, but 2009 seems to favor a trompe l’oeil sweater-vest-over-T-shirt garment, usually in pastels. As far as I can tell, it’s the guys scraping by who wear the flashiest clothes. Too far down the socio-economic ladder and your duds turn to rags. Too far up and they become the dude uniform. Somewhere in between, though, is ‘70s gold.
We may disagree about our favorite artists and musicians, but it’s relatively easy to agree that a particular color is blue, or that a particular note is C-sharp. They’re described by wavelengths and frequencies along a clearly defined spectrum. That’s why the technologies of visual and auditory reproduction—photo, video, audio—work so well, relatively speaking.
With taste and smell—the so-called “chemical” senses, which are more complex (humans have about 400 different types of olfactory receptors) and less well understood than the others, we don’t have the luxury of those points of reference. That’s why we so often resort to loose analogies—“tastes like chicken”—and it’s also why reproducing tastes and smells is so difficult (grape soda doesn’t taste much like grapes, and nobody’s yet synthesized a bottle of 1945 Pétrus—an activity that would surely yield tremendous profit).
To challenge this barrier, we resort to analogy. Coffee tastes like nuts and chocolate; Sauvignon Blanc smells like grapefruit and cat pee. In a Sauternes, you might sense the brine of the first green olive you tasted in Italy; in a Pedro Ximénez sherry, the viscous maple syrup that your grandmother once drizzled on your pancakes.
But how carefully are we really choosing these adjectives and analogies? How often do they correspond to real chemical commonalities? Does that matter? Do the analogies more frequently serve a more poetic (or at least suggestive) purpose, forging new neural assemblies that connect relatively arbitrary taste and smell memories with each other—connections that, reinforced over time, turn into sensory reality?
Recommender systems can increase the experience of diversity. By drawing attention to items individuals have not found by themselves, they can lead to new experiences. But individual diversity is different from overall diversity. Some systems can increase both individual and overall diversity. Other systems increase individual diversity but, at the same time, prompt consumers to be increasingly similar to each other. Their selections then come from an increasingly narrow range of items….
The word “community” is widely used in conjunction with recommender systems, but they do little to build communities. Their use is essentially an individual, isolated act. Groups and networks are as important in the creation and experience of culture as individuals. Recommender systems will play a role in how culture is experienced, but they are not necessarily a strong force pushing us either towards or away from a healthy culture.
Recommender systems only filter culture, in various ways; the point is to create environments in which culture can prosper.