‘Flavor’: It’s Not on the Tip of Your Tongue

Bob Holmes’ ‘Flavor’ will take wine snobs down a peg while lifting up everyone else.

Flavor The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense
Bob Holmes
W. W Norton
April 2017

My best friend has had two babies. During her first pregnancy, she mainly craved cherry-limeade from Sonic and those red, white and blue popsicles. During, her second pregnancy, she ate Taco Bell by the truckload.

Fast forward about ten years and consider that her elder daughter has a serious sweet tooth and her younger daughter lives mainly on chips and queso. The younger daughter already has fond memories of having to be repeatedly, hilariously told that the chips are not just a cheese delivery vehicle. She’d lick the chip and have dunked it 40 more times if she’d been allowed. Eventually, she dropped this crucial double-dunking knowledge on her younger cousin, and in 20 years, she will no doubt pass it along to her own kids. Queso will be forever associated with her mom and she’ll probably always think of it as comfort food.

Comfort foods are always a matter of memory. When I was a kid, my mom had this awesome way of making blintzes. She’d bake them into a very light egg soufflé, then put sour cream and strawberries on top. At some point in my adult life, I acquired a casserole dish that looked very much like the one my mom used to make the blintzes in. It prompted me to finally ask for the recipe for the delicious treasure of my youth. Imagine my horror when she replied, “just Google it. It’s the King Kold crepe soufflé recipe.” Remember that episode of Friends where Monica asks Phoebe for her grandmother’s secret chocolate chip recipe and in the end grandma got it straight from the back of a box of Nestle? Yeah, those blintzes and cookies taste good, but it would seem that our most cherished foods are not deemed most cherished because of their recipes.

We often say “taste” when we actually mean “flavor”. Even people who are hip to the distinction, who know taste refers to the tongue’s reception of food, and flavor refers to the brain’s much broader analysis of food, don’t generally think through the implications of flavor very completely. This is in part because food science is a lot of chemistry, which is difficult and boring to self-teach. But because we encounter and analyze flavors constantly, it is surely wise to supplement our food feelings and general instincts with a dose of the science. I’ve found Bob Holmes’ Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense to be an exceptionally clear and fascinating introduction to these matters that are equally appropriate for a layperson or a chef to dive into the psychological and philosophical machinations of flavor.

Most people understand: smell + taste + mouthfeel = flavor. Did you know that the smell is actually more than 70 percent of this equation? Did you know that there are two kinds of smelling? When the server sets the plate in front of you and a delicious aroma wafts up into your nose, that’s what most people think of as “smelling” a food. But the backdoor to these same olfactory receptors is in the throat. Most of the fragrance molecules travel up through the back of our throat, rather than through our nasal passages.

We know that tasting has to do with the taste buds on our tongue, but how many tastes are there? Sweet, salty, sour, bitter — perhaps you feel clever because you’re aware of “umami”. I doubt you know much about “goaty”, however. You may remember that upon scrunching up your face after your very first sip of beer or coffee, a bemused adult onlooker told you, “it’s an acquired taste”. You know they were right, but you don’t know how a taste is technically acquired. Did you know that when you drink a glass of champagne, it’s not actually the bubbles that tickle your tongue?

Otolaryngologists study the nose and throat, but also the ears. These are a connected system. Did you know, for example, that oysters taste better when you listen to a medley of ocean waves? That the sweetness of your chocolate can be amped up by adding more treble to the balance of whatever is in your headphones? What music goes best with spaghetti? Thinking about our ears and our food may seem odd, but we’re all finely attuned to the role of our eyes.

A nice plating is such a pleasure and a weird presentation is a delight to contemplate. I’ve always felt that red velvet cake tastes funny. It’s just cake with red food coloring added, but I’ll be darned if that red color doesn’t trick me in some odd kind of way. Red and yellow are the most popular colors in fast food restaurant decor because they somehow make us more hungry. The color scheme is good for boosting profits at McDonald’s.

You know what’s not good for boosting profits? Artificial flavoring. We like “natural” flavors, or we like to buy organic. We’re very wary of chemicals. Did you know that a strawberry grown in nature is made of over 2,000 chemicals and a strawberry-flavored Jolly Rancher created is a lab is made of fewer than 30 chemicals? Now we are on the verge of ethics. My mom always made blintzes with frozen strawberries, rather than fresh. We couldn’t afford tons of fresh ones, plus the growing season can be short and of course, the flavor is different. Many fruits and vegetables are frozen at peak freshness, as opposed to those meant for fresh sale that must be picked before they fully ripen.

Strawberries, sadly, do not ripen any further once they’ve been picked, which is why they always have white or green shoulders on top. A fully ripe strawberry wouldn’t survive packaging and transport, let alone have any proper shelf life. When the ice melts inside all the tiny pockets of a frozen strawberry, they get wonderfully squishy.

Artificial strawberry flavoring is made up of four chemicals whose fancy names amount to: cut grass, waxy, generic fruitiness, caramelized sugar. What does it mean when we say something tastes like chicken? In the world of flavor, it may walk and talk like a chicken but may be zero percent chicken. Or conversely, we know that white chocolate has just enough chemicals in common with caviar to make for a surprisingly excellent combo.

We can thank the gas chromatograph for these odd revelations, but some of them we know by instinct. When my wife is feeling miserable, all she wants for dinner is spaghetti with ketchup. To me, that’s disgusting. To her, it’s a comfort. Her mom used to make it, but even in my disgust, I know ketchup has tomato in common with marinara sauce. IBM’s supercomputer, Chef Watson, can give you additional suggestions for ways to combine spaghetti and tomatoes. Tomatoes now are nothing like tomatoes were 50 or 100 years ago.

Imagine if we could taste a 100-year old-tomato — not something actually that old, but rather, something created in a lab that effectively and objectively captures the flavor of that ancient tomato. Sliding around under there quite near the surface is an argument about genetically modified foods. Flavor and fragrance are the same science feeding two parallel industries, and you can easily buy a perfume that allows you to smell like a tomato.

Think about Willy Wonka’s three course dinner chewing gum. Have you ever eaten dehydrated “astronaut” ice cream? Ever tried to identify Coke versus Pepsi while blindfolded? Ever waxed poetic about the merits of propane versus charcoal grilling techniques? Ever wondered why you stink up the bathroom after eating asparagus and your wife doesn’t? Do you think cilantro tastes like soap? Do you ever get a hit of barnyard off a fine Bordeaux? What’s the hottest pepper you’re willing to eat?

Holmes speaks to all of these, and so much more. He compiles a huge number of studies on flavor and arranges them in such a way as to give a fairly complete history of the science. His language is straightforward enough to maintain comprehensibility for those of us without training, and specific enough to stay intriguing to those with more prior knowledge. This book will end up taking wine snobs down a peg while lifting up everyone else. Have you secretly envied a friend’s ability to talk about the differences between the 2004 and the 2006 Cabernet at dinner? They don’t have any more innate biological capacity for doing this than you do!

Understanding and then talking about flavor is a matter of practice and attention. You gather a lot of experiences, and as you grow your hands-on expertise, your language will grow with it. Flavor is a notion we encounter with overwhelming regularity in this life and Flavor is a keen, joyous way to be more mindful of it. Holmes is able to go both broadly and deeply into the science of flavor, giving us means to more substantively discuss it without diluting any of the nostalgic feeling that accompanies our prior food experience.