'Flavor': It's Not on the Tip of Your Tongue

Do you think cilantro tastes like soap? Do you ever get a hit of barnyard off a fine Bordeaux? Flavor will end up taking wine snobs down a peg while lifting up everyone else.

Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
Length: 320 pages
Author: Bob Holmes
Price: $26.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2017-04

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 is 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.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

Keep reading... Show less

Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

That the political class now finds itself relegated to accidental Alan Partridge territory along the with rest of the twits and twats that comprise English popular culture is meaningful, to say the least.

"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

Keep reading... Show less

The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

Keep reading... Show less

To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.

Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

Keep reading... Show less

Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.