Correct Flavors

We all have weird things that we enjoy, and a minority of other people enjoy, and most people think is gross. I mush corn Chex into Cream of Wheat. I drink Orleans Bitters (which is, as the name implies, bitters) straight not as a mixer. It’s bitter. I like raw bread dough (and realize that eating a bunch of it would make me sick, so I don’t) and I like unsweetened baking chocolate.

It’s tempting, and fundamentally correct, to look at the variety of human taste preferences and decide there’s no real “wrong” flavor (there are wrong things to eat, like poisonous mushrooms, but some of those supposedly taste quite good).  Here’s the rub – when you’re selling a food product, you can have a “wrong” flavor if it isn’t what your target customers prefer. That’s basic business sense. You can also have a “wrong” flavor if it’s something many people don’t like and that confuses customers more generally, beyond your immediate customer circle.

An example of that second scenario is buddy maple syrup. Some people describe buddy syrup (made after the trees start to bud) as tasting like tootsie rolls, and will even seek out slightly buddy syrup from backyard sugarers. Those backyard sugarers, if they were to market their buddy syrup, would have a small circle of appreciative customers. Other people (I’m one of them) think that buddy syrup tastes like licking out the inside of a ripe compost pail. Not that I’ve done that. But to me this syrup has the sort of sweetness that comes with decay and even a little is disgusting. In deference to the “gag me something has died in here” reaction that folks get to buddy syrup, it’s considered an off flavor, and won’t pass a maple quality inspection. There are other reasons why it’s off, science-y things related to tree metabolism, but as a non-scientist I’m focused on the flavor thing.

Do we want Texans arriving in Vermont for their first taste of real maple syrup and ending up with the negative buddy reaction? And assuming that this is how all syrup tastes? No. In that regard, buddy is wrong.

This question of “wrong” flavors came up again as I finished an article about grass-fed beef for the spring issue of Vermont’s Local Banquet. For a while, almost nobody had 100% grass-fed beef that was fully fattened before going to slaughter. Folks got that fat onto cows by using grains to finish them. 100% grass-fed were ultra-lean cows, which can result in various off flavors (gamy, livery, etc.) in the meat. Now, for reasons that I discuss in the article, many farmers do have properly finished, fattened grass-fed beef.

The question raised is whether the people who either naturally liked the ultra-lean meat, or who learned to like it because that was what we had available, were “wrong”. Of course, for themselves they aren’t wrong, but for the grassfed beef producers taken as a group, these flavors are wrong. Most people will prefer the flavor of fully fattened beef. If they believe that they can’t get that flavor from grass-fed options, they’ll often choose not to purchase grass-fed meat at all (or only very occasionally), instead of realizing that they could seek out a different producer who has the desired marbling.

It’s a difficult balance here among the Vermont food producers. On the one hand, many producers attempt to introduce products that go against the conventional norm – traditional (ie not sweet) hard ciders, the early wave of modern craft beers (they definitely didn’t taste like Budweiser), heirloom produce, grass-fed meat. That work involves being bold about pushing customers to try new, unfamiliar flavors, having the courage to say “Bud Light is not how all beers should taste.” On the other hand, go too far into foods that don’t taste quite like all the others (even if they taste good to you personally) and folks will be left thinking that all late season maple syrup tastes like compost and all grass-fed beef is gamey. . . and they won’t be thinking it in a good way. And, your colleagues will be pissed that you’ve driven their customers away.

Do I have an answer? Ah, no. Just an observation. That’s what makes this a blog post and not a full op-ed.

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