Ever tried making your mother’s signature casserole only to discover it doesn’t taste quite the same? Or devoured that perfect pastry in Paris, only to try it again and find that it doesn’t live up to your memory? These quirks in our experiences of food is exactly what Marc Murphy, celebrity chef and restaurateur, found fascinating enough to start his podcast, Food 360, digging into the culture, history, and science of food. In this episode, he’s joined by Bob Holmes, science writer and author, as well as Gail Simmons, celebrated chef and television personality, to talk about the roles memory and expectation play into our eating experience, and why champagne and fried chicken together is scientifically delicious.
Bob Holmes literally wrote the book on tasting; as the author of Flavor: The Science of Our Most Neglected Sense, he knows about everything flavor-related, from why some people think cilantro tastes like soap to how foods interact to elevate - or ruin - their respective flavors. With Marc, he revealed that normal people have the same sophisticated palate as the most highly-trained sommelier (or as Marc called them, “cork dorks”), but we don’t have the same ability to describe what we’re tasting. “I think one of the big reasons that flavor doesn’t get the attention that it probably deserves is that it’s so hard to talk about. We don’t have the vocabulary,” Bob pointed out. “Most of the flavor of a food comes not from taste itself, which is sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami, which we actually have words for. But most of it is to do with the sense of smell. And we don’t have words for smell. If you’re describing what something smells like, it’s all by analogy. ‘Well, it smells like lemon. Smells like mint.’ And we just don’t have the objective words.”
Marc reminisced about his childhood in Italy, eating Nutella on toast, wondering, “I would bring that exact same Nutella back to America and find a very good country bread in America and have the same breakfast in an apartment in New York City, and I didn’t like it.” Bob explained that it’s all about the expectation of the experience, saying:
“If I serve you two glasses of the same wine and I tell you one’s expensive and one’s cheap, you’re going to like the glass that I told you was expensive better, even though it’s the very same wine. And that’s because of expectation...Strawberry mousse, I think, tastes sweeter on a white plate than it does on a black plate...the redness stands out better against the white plate. That makes you expect it to taste sweeter and strawberry-er.”
Marc’s next guest, Gail Simmons, understood the role expectation and memory plays in food very well, saying:
“I’ve spent so much of my adulthood on the road because of my job, and I take a lot of notes while I’m traveling, and I come home and want to cook...I end up adapting and creating recipes out of those memories….I’m remembering them in this pristine way, which isn’t necessarily truth.” Marc recalled a sublime raspberry soufflé he had once in France that he’s afraid to order again because of that same quirk of memory: “It’s so perfect in my mind, I don’t want to ruin it.”
Join Marc and his guests as they find out more about our experience with flavors, try a bunch of weird potato chips to find out if they’re supertasters, and swap stories about judging food on some of America’s favorite cooking challenges, Top Chef and Chopped, on Food 360.
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