Even when technological advances allowed diamonds to be extracted at an unprecedented rate, they were almost all under the control of De Beers, whichmaintained a near-complete monopoly until recently (prices have plunged since). Throughout the twentieth century,
De Beers artificially restricted supply at the same time they blitzed the market
with ads fixing the rocks as symbols of commitment and luxury.
Truffles are the culinary equivalent of diamonds, so much so that the humble European mushroom was nicknamed "the diamond of the kitchen" by the early food critic Jean
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin. The mushroom's flavor is subtle yet unmistakable, and has experienced a recent resurgence in popularity, finding its way into
everything from chocolate to french fries.
The fungus grows wild in France, Italy, and Croatia, and historically resisted efforts
at cultivation. Trufficulture, as it came to be known, was only made possible in the early 1800's, when Joseph Talon sowed acorns from infected
trees which later formed the basis for the French truffle forests.
Sadly, the post-war rural exodus in France brought trufficulture mostly to a halt. Today truffles are exceedingly rare, and current populations are being threatened by global warming .
Predictably, prices doubled last November as the rain-starved
Italian forests yielded a pitiful harvest.
Like truffles, most delicacies are blessed with a unique flavor, one which is not easily imitated by cheaper alternatives. But unlike truffles, the flavors
that underlie many of those foods are not quite so subtle (just ask anyone who hates asparagus). How is it possible that one person will pay hundreds of
dollars for a dish that will ruin another's day just by looking at it?
You Say Tomato, I Say Disgusting
One of the most difficult predilections new parents must deal with is their child's desire to eat everything in sight. (Freud noticed this phenomenon as well).
With the exception of a few evolutionary triggers -- such as a positive response to sweet tastes and a negative response to bitter, irritant, or otherwise
strong tastes -- babies have no food preferences. Until the age of about two years,
children regard pretty much anything as a potential snack
Much of a child's early education involves learning what is and is not edible. By the time we become adults, we are laden with a culturally-specific
framework that dictates which foods are acceptable, which are most desirable, and which are off-limits. These preferences vary wildly across cultures; this scene from Sky1's An Idiot Abroad, where English
everyman Karl Pilkington tries sushi with fish that has been fermented for three years, illustrates this cultural relativity in excruciating detail.
Within the limits of our cultural biases, however, our perception of food's taste and desirability is surprisingly elastic. The prevalence of acquired
tastes, e.g. for coffee, or moldy cheese, or even humanity's oldest friend, alcohol, is a testament to the malleability of our food preferences.