Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Smell This, Taste Good?

It is that time of the year when colds and flues happen regularly. Sometimes it affects your ability to taste. It is one of my fears to lose my sense of taste. A couple of years back, I wrote about this and included some thought about Grant Achatz and a feeding tube that one of my wife's relations was using after cancer surgery. 

This year, another bunch of serendipitous moments got me thinking again about tasting and its relation to smell. 

One of the first bits floating around was a Human Rights Tribunal decision against Le Papillon on the Park where most media reports focused solely on the tasting of pork as the reason for the discrimination. I link to the full decision because although the reaction by many commentators centered around the pork issue, it appears that there were a lot more things going on in this case. It did bring up an interesting question for me. How many chefs/cooks don't taste their food? 

Watching many years of Top Chef and other sport cooking shows, I have seen many chefs not taste their food for a variety of reasons: religion, allergies, and veganism among them. Often, they get another contestant to try the food and adjust that way. I still would like the person making my food to try it and make sure it is what they want it to be. 

Then I come across Season to Taste by Molly Birnbaum. A young woman preparing to enter culinary school gets into an accident and loses her sense of smell. This greatly affects her taste. She can still taste the primary flavours of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and savoury but all other nuances escape her palate. It makes me wonder if the additional taste sensations are, in fact, one of the extended senses. 

We often think of ourselves as having seeing, hearing, touching, smelling and tasting but there is some disagreement about these. Other experiences that are up for nomination include balance, temperature sensing and pain. Other animals have an organ that sense chemicals in the air called a vomeronasal organ. Humans have the genes for this organ but not the architecture or expression of this gene. Is our linked sense of smell to taste an expression of this? I dunno.

This book wanders in the same vein as an Oliver Sacks book and in fact, Birnbaum consults with him several times within these pages. The meandering is what caused me to think more deeply about the connections between smelling and other stuff.  

Emotion is one of these things that scents can evoke. Early in the book, she talks about children learning to differentiate between good and bad smells. In turns out that sensing bad food may be learned. I have a story that I remember but I can't find it on the internet that underlines this fact. A horror writer, possibly Bradbury, defined horror as sitting on one's toilet wondering what that sweet, wonderful smell is and finally coming to the realization of what the scent truly is just before the disgust sets in. 

Another one of the other smell connections include partner selection. Maybe that is why, for me, food, sex and love are intertwined. There are some primal food smells that make me think about my wife or even lovers in general. The scents include vanilla, truffles, cinnamon and cocoa. I'm not sure how individual these scents are but I'm sure that some of these are universal and others are learned. 

In Birnbaum's quest to regain her sense of smell and by extension, her sense of taste, she works at training her sense of smell. She comes across this technique through perfume and food additives. She attempted to retrain watch she was sensing with a smell, to try and relearn what she knew. Reminds me of another book about coffee and teaching coffee appreciation called The Coffee Story that I reviewed. Smell differentiation needs to be learned. 

When we are eating supper at the table, I will often ask my family what they are tasting. This makes my wife upset and nervous sometimes. She often doesn't know or doesn't care to differentiate and therefore doesn't find any nuance. I think that sometimes she thinks that I consider this a defect. It isn't. Differentiating taste is a learned skill. In fact, there is an experiment that shows that if you are given two similar products that you will perceive one as better after repeated tastings solely based on the fact of comparing. That's what we do. I'm sure that this skill probably started as an evolutionary benefit to help us get the best bang for our buck which explains our like of sugar but I've got no proof.

Of course, Grant Achatz enters into the discussion as he has consistently had one of the best restaurants in the world for quite some time. He can't taste. He had tongue cancer and the treatment robbed him of his ability to taste. He relies on his underlings and the sense of drama and textures to make his food work. The way food "tastes" doesn't solely rely on the common flavours or the sense of smell but are enhanced by texture, setting, expectations and other external to the tongue sensations. 

As a veteran drinker who has started down the path of continuously drinking new brews, I find that my reference points for flavours sometimes gets out of whack. I keep thinking that I should revisit the basics of taste and smell. It goes with the suspicion that as I get older, I am either losing the acuity of my taste buds or forgetting the library of tastes that I used to have. If you read more books, you will begin to muddle or forget the ones that you have read. I feel that taste can be a little like that. There are kits and kits on the internet for keeping up. Maybe through constant reeducation, you can keep your neural connections strong.

It surprises me that on these cooking shows, the best palates in terms of sensory tests aren't always the ones who win but it seems that food is not only a matter of taste but also the other stuff that goes along with it. 

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