The Taste of Place

In Taste of Place: A Cultural Journey into Terroir, Amy B. Trubek explores the multiple connotations of terroir, a French word loosely translating to “the taste of place,” in both France and in the United States. The author uses stories from France, California, Wisconsin, and Vermont to examine how perceptions of a food’s taste and value change depending on particular cultural myths, meanings, and memories. Trubek begins by delving into the notion that food and wine in France can often evoke feelings of a romanticized French identity and agrarian nostalgia in an era of increasing globalization. The author ascribes this discernible difference in taste to the idea that how a food is perceived is dependent on the cultural value it is ascribed in addition to how it is produced; French food and wine are understood as being produced with traditional French values.Through the association of local foods and other culinary practices with “a certain time and place, and then creating value for [them],” French food is understood and experienced as different from other food (53).

While the ever-changing definitions and concepts of terroir did get tiring, I enjoyed reading Trubek’s analysis of the taste of place and how the United States has reappropriated the French importance of local foods. As someone who is fascinated by the interconnectedness of culture, politics, history, and consumption, I was enlightened by the author’s connection between French nationalism and American entrepreneurialism with regard to valuing food. 

In the United States as in France, food is often touted as being local to certain regions—such as cheese and maple syrup to Vermont or wine to California—which would seem to produce the same phenomenon as French food in France. However, Trubek argues that unlike the French and citizens of other “Old World” countries, Americans do not have strong culinary or agricultural roots to the United States and thus restaurants, artisanal food producers, and farmers have to create a sense of value in certain region-specific foods. Trubek explores how this American terroir becomes more of an urge for food sophistication in a culture historically based on abundance. By looking at the “foodie” movement and food activism that idealizes locally grown food, Trubek demonstrates a growing correlation between place and taste in the United States. Trebek’s analysis of cultural values with regard to taste in France and the United States demonstrates a fascinating connection between culture and food perception. 

While I found the comparison between terroir in France and that in the United States interesting, the association was not entirely helpful for me when considering the importance of food being “local” in the U.S. The author posits that American culture “relies on external information, not personal knowledge” and that “taste is defined chiefly in relationship to status” (37). She argues that American food values are driven by the idea that “authentic” foods from certain places–foods that are processed in the traditional fashion–taste better than those that are mass produced. Yet while Trubek addresses this cultural desire for sophistication, she fails to properly place the need for “local” within this need for “countercuisine,” despite touting it as the basis for this. Moreover, Trubek does not adequately examine how home cooking and domestic farming–the ultimate “local” with regard to food production–relate to the taste of place.

Instead of focusing on how a certain locale can affect a food’s perception in pop culture, Trubek focuses on how the representation of a food as “authentic” can give it cultural value. For example, she shows how labeling a bottle of maple syrup as from Vermont makes it more valuable because it implies a certain process was used to create the syrup. Yet she then shows that she and a team of scientists and syrup connoisseurs tested to see if they could tell the difference between different syrups, implying the average American–who consumes syrup far less consciously–did know immediately know, either. Thus she reaffirms that the value of Vermont maple syrup is not in its place of origin, but rather in its brand.

While interesting, this analysis does not fully mesh with the author’s analysis of French terroir, which is almost entirely contingent on specific location. Trubek does note that the concept necessarily differs between cultures; however, the fact that she failed to adequately outline the importance of location in American food values with regard to taste left me wanting to conduct my own investigation into localness. In general, I enjoyed learning about the association of taste and place, and I would certainly recommend the book to anyone remotely interested in food culture or culinary heritages. However, I would suggest readers keep in mind that valuing a food’s origin is quite different from valuing its social worth.