I’m sure most of you have heard that the human tongue can only detect four tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Can you think of anything you have ever tasted that does not contain at least one of these elements? If you have been following along, then you can probably guess that this conventional “scientific” wisdom is not true – we can also taste “umami,” or “deliciousness.”
Even when I don’t read a book about food, the book ends up talking about food. This chapter begins with French chef, Auguste Escoffier, who defied the popular custom of his time by focusing on the flavor of food rather than the presentation (fancy food used to be served buffet style, cold, and with an emphasis on visual appearance over tastiness). Once again, there is a lot in this chapter, and I cannot possibly share it all with you here, so I’ll only give you some highlights.
Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda first discovered the taste sensation “umami” (which means “delicious” in Japanese). It’s an amino acid, L-glutamate, which is uncovered when a particular protein is cooked, fermented, etc. The discussion of the science in this section is fascinating – foodies will likely enjoy reading this entire chapter. Long story short, MSG is a synthetic substitute for L-glutamate – it makes food taste delicious (Lehrer does not mention anything else it does).
“Why wouldn’t we have a specific taste for protein? We lover the flavor of denatured protein because, being protein and water ourselves, we need it. Our human body produces more than forty grams of glutamate a day, so we constantly crave an amino acid refill. (Species that are naturally vegetarian find the taste of umami repellent. Unfortunately for vegans, humans are omnivores.) In fact, we are trained from birth to savor umami: breast milk has ten times more glutamate than cow milk. The tongue loves what the body needs.”
Escoffier served his foot hot, which allowed patrons of his restaurants to involve their noses in the eating experience – some of the molecules of hot food drift to our nostrils. Much of what we think we taste when we eat, we are really smelling – up to 90%, according to Lehrer. This must explain why, when I had a cold last week, nothing was worth eating – I couldn’t seem to “taste” ANYTHING because I couldn’t smell anything. I think our brains can compensate for this when there is trouble though, because some people have no sense of smell and they can taste things. I once had an upper respiratory infection that left me unable to smell for a few months (even after I was no longer sick – I worried that it might not return, and was relieved when it slowly came back – I guess I was regrowing damaged receptors) – food still had flavor.
Escoffier also paid attention to other details, from the dishes and silverware to the outfits of the waiters, making sure everything was very fancy so diners would expect fancy food too. Lehrer uses some of the same examples as in How We Decide to illustrate that when we think we are getting something expensive, our minds think we are getting something better, even if we are not. Have you guys ever tested this? I think that I am not susceptible to the idea that expensive always means better, though I may be fooling myself. Let’s see – I buy store brand medications, and I try the other products too and only reject them if they are not up to my standards (for example, I am picky about pickles – store brands rarely do it for me).
One more thing about the great Auguste Escoffier – he invented the menu because he realized that not everyone has the same preferences in food. The science behind this: we have thousands upon thousands of taste and smell receptors, and the ones we don’t use wither away. The more we smell and/or taste a particular flavor/scent, the more receptors we grow for that particular flavor/scent. This is how we can develop a taste for something that we previously did not like. As Lerher puts it, “because the sense of taste is extremely plastic, it can be remodeled by new experiences. It’s never too late to become a gourmet.” (Note to Hubby – Honey, there is hope for you and vegetables yet!).
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