Do you every wonder why people say something tastes like chicken? Because chicken, in the modern sense, only tastes like the seasonings under which it has been drowned. Unseasoned chicken would taste, to quote Julia Child, like the stuffing from the inside of a teddy bear.
Why does chicken not taste like chicken anymore? Because we have focused on raising a bird that gets to market weight in record time on a monotonous diet of industrial grains, which themselves do not taste like anything, in order to produce perfect little bland lumps of white meat to be dredged in seasonings and breading. A chicken is meant to spend its days pecking at bugs and greenery under the canopy of a bright blue sky. If a chicken is raised in such a bucolic environment it will taste like chicken and need little in the way of spicy chemical warfare.
This is the modern phenomenon that is chronicled in Mark Schatzker’s The Dorito Effect Why All Food Is Becoming Junk Food & What We Can Do About It. The central thesis is that food has become diluted in terms of nutrition and flavor, which are one in the same, due to the industrialization of production and the focus on yield above all other characteristics.
In essence, we are hardwired to seek out flavor because flavor, in nature, denotes nutrition, and if we are fed nutritious food we will be satisfied. When we are satisfied we will stop eating. Somewhere along the way, usually in post-World War II America, this connection got short circuited because we figured out how to create synthetic flavorings, which are bodies craved, that could be slathered on otherwise unsatisfying food vehicles, think about a tortilla chip with no salsa or nacho cheese dust. Thus, we would consume these now desirable, yet still unsatisfying, food vehicles with reckless abandon. Combine synthetic flavorings with the three horsemen of the food apocalypse—salt, sugar, and fat—and it is little wonder why a large percentage of our population is obese.
There is hard science behind the idea, but it comes down to the idea of nutritional wisdom. Our bodies learn what is nutritious and will crave those foods because those foods satisfy our needs for the basic building blocks of a healthy life. Flavor should be one of the signifiers of healthy food, but we no longer can trust that pathway. Think about diet soda for a moment. It confuses your brain into thinking that you have tasted something sweet, or at least an approximation of something sweet, yet the metabolic pathways indicate none of the biological aftershocks of sugar in the digestive tract. It is no wonder diet soda does not actually help people lose or maintain a healthy weight. You are just teasing your body with the false taste of sugar.
Food porn is a description generally applied to high end magazines that show glossy spreads of amazing tables or restaurant meals. However, I think the modern grocery store is a more apt place to view food porn. It is row upon endless row of seemingly amazing food—plump chicken breasts, sumptuous red tomatoes, etc.—that are in the end an unsatisfying stand-in for a real relationship with actual food. Just saying.