Massimo Marcone’s Acquired Tastes
Key Porter, 2010

The subtitle of Massimo Marcone’s book gives it all away: “on the trail of the world’s most sought-after delicacies”. After briefly considering what constitutes a delicacy, and how the concept shifts across time and varies between cultures, the author focuses on a handful of highly prized foodstuffs: truffles (not the chocolate kind), saffron, mite cheese, insect tea, whale meat, and Amazon chicha.

His style is informal and the subjects have been chosen as much to entertain as to educate. Did you know there was a 14-week-Saffron War? Were you aware that before the 17thC anyone caught transporting the seeds or plants that would produce Arabian coffee beans would be put to death, “no questions asked”? Have you heard that cocoa beans were used as currency?

In a casual tone, Acquired Tastes considers cost (and wow, the dollar value of these items will shock you), means of trading, and methods of regulation: Massimo Marcone covers all of this, albeit briefly. But what he covers even more briefly are the ethical issues related to the harvesting of these delicacies.

The section titled “Morality and Ethics” is less than two pages (although he does refer in passing on occasion in relation to specific items) and it has the air of having been included at the publisher’s or editor’s recommendation.

Statements are broad and appear without context. So, for instance: “In order to obtain the foie gras a disease state of the liver is deliberately induced in the liver of these birds.”

It would be interesting to know, for instance, how many pounds of foie gras are consumed annually, and how much of an industry has built up around its production. Even if he did not want to take the Michael Pollan route and explain that statement in physiological and practical terms. (Pollan does a fantastic job of not only explaining how cow’s digest corn — or, don’t — but also of explaining why readers need to understand that.)

But there is no wider context for the foie gras industry and it follows an equally brief mention of the “inhuman treatment and unnecessary pain and suffering” of sharks slaughtered for their fins.

What isn’t discussed is overfishing or the reality of extinction, with estimates ranging from 26 to 73 million sharks finned per year, or the prevalence of industrial finning, which requires that storage space on vessels be reserved for fins alone, so that the creatures have their fins hacked out and then they are tossed back into the sea, where they sink to the bottom and suffocate, immobile.

As André Maurois said: “In literature, as in love, we are astonished by what is chosen by others.” True of books, and true of books about food, and true of the delicacies in Acquired Tastes too.

I want to know why people pursue consumables that might seem odd, even abhorrent, to me, the lengths to which they will go in their pursuits. I want to understand how communities organize and reorganize to facilitate trade in these bizarre commodities. I find the idea of Acquired Tastes vitally interesting.

But I also want to marvel at the emergence of underground markets and counterfeit products. I want a wider understanding of the risks, the devastation, the corruption, and the exploitation. If these elements had been given an equal weight in the stories that Massimo Marcone tells, my interest would have been sustained more resoundingly.