Sadie Lansdale

Afterthought on “Taste and Swallow”


This article responds to Casey Lange’s piece, Taste and Swallow.

“But the remarkable and distinguishing feature of the ‘person of taste’ is her ability to identify and evaluate new sensations and pleasures, to know something is good even if she has never encountered anything quite like it before.” -Casey Lange, “Taste and Swallow”

The premise here is that ‘Good Taste’ has to do with some kind of ineffable instinct. I don’t think it does; I think the rules are just hammered into some of us and they have a lot to do with comfort, wealth (but not too much), Whiteness, and above all, evasion of embarrassment. (Even writing “us” shows what I’m saying—recognition of so-called “good taste,” even if we don’t possess the taste instincts ourselves, has to do with a certain type of education.) “Tasteful” spaces don’t make us think harder than we want to, and neither does tasteful conversation; if something is tastefully decorated, it’s often well-lit (so we don’t have to squint), well-furnished (so we don’t have to sit on the floor), and not messy (so we don’t have to feel exposed to the truth of each other’s imperfect lives). When people speak in a ‘tasteful’ way, it’s often “proper” (meaning imitation of wealthy and White) General American English. What are the rules about first date conversation, or meeting the in-laws conversation, or office conversation? Avoid sex, avoid politics, avoid religion. Why? These topics are contentious and might make us uncomfortable. Sex, politics, and religion are three related facets of power; too much discussion among people unprepared for this kind of conversation might prompt painful internal interrogation. Dissecting one’s own privilege is, after all, an incredibly difficult, distinctly uncomfortable thing to do—and in fact, if you’re not uncomfortable doing it for the first time, you’re doing it wrong. Sometimes, even though it can be hard, I don’t really want to talk about anything other than sex, politics, and religion—anything else is missing the point.

“Most of us, who have learned to know and like what is good, who have more or less learned the canon...” Hold the phone! Surely the idea that ‘the canon’ is limited and imperfect because it consists mostly of the writing of wealthy White Western land-owning men who universalized their own experience and postured it as theory for all of humanity isn’t radical, or new, or deserving of further explanation. So here is the text I’m working from: my apartment.

The food I cook for myself is much hotter than it needs to be, hotter than restaurants, hotter than is comfortable, and I like it that way. It was also, originally, a way to bond with the roommate that I didn’t know very well. A and I would occasionally make dinner together when I first moved in and pile on the Sriracha, each of us trying, at least a little, to outdo the other. We buy different kinds of hot sauce and we give them to each other to taste, as if to say “no one else could handle this but you can, and so can I.” Taste, in this case, is something we have built together and it’s something that binds us together. We often have friends over for dinner, and we ask about their spice preferences, but ultimately we’re heavy-handed with the hot pepper flakes. As they say, if you can’t take the heat...

Casey says that a person of good taste “can find her aesthetic feet even in unfamiliar environs.” That’s not exactly how it works in my apartment. In my apartment you find your aesthetic feet in our shoes, on our terms, dictated by our space and our speech and our spice and the way we welcome you. And this gets really interesting—often, establishing a zone of comfort for ourselves can mean creating a zone of discomfort for others.

There are tampons everywhere. Also not hidden: dirty underwear, vibrators, birth control, lube, pictures of one roommate kissing her girlfriend. “Taste” in our apartment looks something like “acceptance and affirmation of our sexualities and bodies as three White cis females.” To move the tampons when boys come over or to leave them where they are; it’s a choice; I leave them out. Maybe it’s unnecessary but the act of leaving them on their shelf in the bathroom or on the floor in my room reaffirms that in my space, I am the tastemaker; in my space, I provide cotton in cardboard tubes as proof that I will not be made ashamed. (And to anyone who believes that there is no longer any shame surrounding periods or the functions of the female body in general, congratulations! You either have surrounded yourself only with incredibly loving progressive people AND remained totally sheltered from all media or you’re very ignorant!)

Our apartment is a safe space. In feminist-activist and Unitarian Universalist vocabulary, that phrase means it’s a safe space for queer folks, free from hateful, harmful or exclusive language. For me, it’s more than a space marked by the absence of hate—it’s a space characterized by active affirmation and love. C and I watch documentaries and rom coms about lesbians. There’s a huge pride flag hanging on the wall in my room. When we talk about relationships, we specify straight or queer. I have a friend who has a drag persona. Shimmer is invited, always, to our apartment, and those who wouldn’t make space for her are not. We send each other articles, we admit when we make mistakes or assumptions about other people’s partners, sexual orientations, or gender expression. We make a lot of mistakes, but we’ve made a place where exploration of those problems is acceptable.

This isn’t how things are in the world, and I am (occasionally, slightly) less strident in, say, a roomful of strangers or a meeting with my boss. But part of activism is occupying the space, when it’s not damaging to your safety, between the way the world is and the way we want it to be. Everything matters. Everything is politics. To acknowledge that fact and then to wave it off in favor of other things is to miss the point entirely: that wave is politics too. Unless we explicitly state our values, over and over and in everything we do, we’re complicit in systems that (probably) drive relentlessly against them. If I bring up the gender wage gap in conversation, it’s probably not for the purpose of education. Most of the people I talk to understand that men are paid more than women across all job sectors and racial demographics. Usually I’ll bring this up to express my rage so that I can continue plodding along at my job in real estate, the historical province of wealthy/land-owning White guys, and waving off the topic because you know it to be true is, again, missing the point. Probably I don’t want to educate you. Probably I just want to see if between us, in that conversational moment, we can build an alternative space that is comfortable for me built on my conversational proclivities.

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