Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Beyond Yucky & Yummy

An experiment - does the food you are eating taste the same if you plug your nose or unplug it? Most likely, when you plug you nose, it loses... something.

Salty - Sweet - Sour - Bitter - Umami. That's it. All we can taste with our tongues. And yet the world of food is full of more flavors than that. That is because we smell as much - or even more - than we taste. But many of those smells that we work into taste are ephemeral, fleeting. And capturing and keeping them is at best a tricky, and at worst an expensive business. As a result, food that can sit around and not go bad is heavy on taste, and light on smells. Well, maybe a few of the cheaper, stronger, stable smells. But those complicated smells-of-our-dreams are missing.

Case in point; Coffee and all attendant manias. Few people would quibble with the statement - there are few things so pleasant as the aroma of fresh ground freshly roasted coffee. In fact many non-coffee drinkers still enjoy the smell, and even bemoan the difference between the scent of coffee and it's flavor - such a disappointment. Thence, the pursuit of the perfect cup of coffee, distilling that ephemeral scent into liquid form, unadulterated by that bitter alkaloid barb that dwells in each bean. This is expensive. And thus, the brief flash of the $10 cup of brewed coffee (the ill timed Clover ), and the incredulity that went with it. As wasteful as such a price may seem, a part of me must admire the artistry and obsession of the engineers. I also hope that such coffee is enjoyed unadulterated, with the ceremony it deserves. I suspect it doesn't. I bet some people even Splenda(tm) in it.

Which brings me back around to my point. We have lost touch with our senses. We slather on the sensory input (e.g. music, TV, computer, conversation *and* driving) and then show off to each other how much we can block out. But if we spend all of our time blocking things out, what are we really taking in?

Back to food. Are we fueling up, or our we dining? Most of the time, I suspect the former. What happens when we are just eating for the calories (or the nutrition), and stop dining for enjoyment? We loose sight (or in this case taste and smell) of what we are after. All these fabulous instruments of food enjoyment must have been of use to us at some time, and yet now we barely use them - even ignore and over power them.

What this is all about is paying attention to what we taste (and smell). Learning to describe it, give it meaning in our head - so we can move beyond the judgement of "yucky or yummy."

There are many layers to those two terms far beyond the 5 tastes. Find a food you like and follow along.

Sight: What does it even look like? We are a "pretty food" people. It starts young. How many kids take one look at something and decide, "this is not food for me."

Smell: Even before we begin to mingle taste with it, smell gets into the game. Kids often use this as a cue as to what they determine is "food" and "not food." All too often food marketed to kids smells sweet. What does your favorite food smell like? I bet your least favorite food has a smell too. Please don't put a banana peel in a trash can of a room I am in. That is psychological torture for me.

Texture: how does it feel in your mouth? Crunchy, crispy, soft, chewy, sticky, spiky, slimy and so on. Amazingly, for many THIS is the determination of yucky. Because we feel food even before we really taste it. My own issues with peas and lima beans lie here.

Finally - and very last - Taste: But remember there are only 5 tastes. To truly and only taste food, you would need to hold your nose while you ate it. A tricky prospect; you would be hard pressed to tell an apple from a onion. For they have similar, crunchy texture - and under all that sulfurous hand waving - an onion is sweet. And that is all we can taste.

Take the time to think about what you are experiencing when you eat food you like, and don't like so much. This will teach you more than you know.

Next time... tricking us. Apple flavor vs. Apple

1 comment:

Lesa Sullivan said...

Great post! This makes me think of a great book by Mr Molecular Gastronomy, Herve This-it's called Kitchen Mysteries. It's all about the science of taste, and how (and why!) we think thinks are yucky or tasty. Fascinating tidbits about how we actually *learn* to like or dislike a food, and how socially constructed our preferences are. Okay, I'm going to go make more BBQ. Ha Ha.