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A taste of gastronomy, digestion on the page

Recently a friend treated me to her newest creation: a magnificent fabrication of dark chocolate sensitively fused with caramel and sea salt. The delicate harmony of tastes tenderly frolicked in my mouth as my eyes rolled heavenward in rapture and delight. While a lesser woman would have gone into a coma from sugar shock, given the total quantity I finally consumed, I merely tingled as I continued to savor. What a lovely afternoon. But it was not just the individual flavors that captured me, it was the meticulous blending of the master chocolatier that had me literally enthralled. How can one person have such sensory, gustatory talent? And why does it matter?

It seems I am not the only one who asks these very questions. Barb Stuckey, a professional food developer, provided the science behind my chocolate euphoria in her book, “Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good.” She understands the sensations stimulated by exquisite confections. Furthermore, she clarifies that flavor differs from taste. Things became interesting. Stuckey notes that curious eaters can improve their tasting ability which, in turn, expands the ways of understanding flavors. I was almost as hooked as with the chocolate/caramel/salt confection — I read on.

Our tongue reacts to five basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt and “umami,” but only a small portion of what I taste is in my mouth. Much more happens with all my senses working together. This is called “flavor perception,” and we can enhance ours by trying some cool experiments she suggests that help us identify our personal “taster type.” This will create a more sophisticated palate. Enlightenment follows and eating becomes a true sensory pleasure every time we sit down to a well-designed meal. Wait a minute — five? What happened to the four tastes on my tongue I learned about in biology 101?

It turns out that part of delightful eating is an increased ability to analyze umami. Umami, a word borrowed from Japanese, is a savory taste. Stuckey goes into amazing detail on the mouthfulness of umami because it is one of the reasons Japanese dining differs so dramatically from Western cuisine. Western foods, especially those built on French technique, generally rely heavily on fat to carry the flavors. The Japanese chefs give that job to umami. This sensory satisfaction, which differs greatly from every other taste sensation in our mouths, is one of the main reasons Japanese cuisine is so exciting to our senses. Parmesan, by the way, is the most umami-rich ingredient on land. Kombu is the richest from the sea.

How all this can affect my waistline is actually pretty amazing. I learned how to really understand flavor and taste, tune in to my total palate, and not eat food I simply like. Instead, I should only eat that which I love! If I don’t love it, I don’t swallow it. Which really cuts down on my total consumption and at the same time makes what I do eat an all-consuming pleasure.

But why do I love specific foods? I had to look beyond the personal and delve into culture, evolution and my genetic inheritance. John Prescott outlines this very nicely in “Taste Matters: Why We Like the Foods We Do.” Prescott adds his own comments on food manufacturing and how our tastes can be influenced by molecular gastronomy and extreme science in restaurant commercial kitchens. Further analysis covers why we find certain foods to be repellent and what happens when we uncouple taste from nutrition. Prescott contends that this is due in part to media coverage of the molecular gastronomy chefs and their appealing quirky dishes. Yet there is more — and it has to deal with the affluent society to which we belong. There is a growing feeling in wealthy countries that taste itself is a sense we should pay attention to, right along with exploring the smell of expensive perfume, feeling rare silk, viewing a magnificent painting, or listening to a symphony. The desire for food goes well beyond a need for calories — and Prescott tells us why, in excellent and very readable ways.

After all this talk about those lovely taste sensations my next question was: Where does it go next? “Gulp. Adventures on the Alimentary Canal” by Mary Roach told me. She covered questions such as: Can thorough chewing lower the national debt? Does noxious flatus do more than clear a room? And did Elvis die of constipation? Roach explains quite graphically that lunch is really just the opening act to the marvelous functions of digestion that follows. No matter how delicious and visually appealing the meal was, it still gets chewed thoroughly while mixed with spit, sent via a stadium wave of very regular contractions into a sack of hydrochloric acid and then tossed into a leach field for final processing.

Somewhere out there are singular-minded scientists who research very narrow fields of study. Roach has collected their research and compiled it all into a digestive trip worthy of five travel stars. Her research gathering is, as always, impeccable and, while some have noted that her writing is “as probing as an endoscopy,” I can easily say never have I enjoyed digestion quite so much or with so much laughter.

If you are not familiar with this writer, check out some of her previous books as well. She is truly America’s funniest science writer and worthy of our attention. Roach makes the alimentary adventure my food takes a vivid, funny and highly detailed trip.

So remember, slithery, slimy, bouncy, crunchy, squelchy, gristly, gloopy, gristly, gelatinous and bony are textures not often associated with eating. Yet Victorian cookbooks contained all of these words, and they were used frequently in their kitchens and at their tables. Our tastes have changed, as well as the flavors we savor, and certainly the words we use to describe them. A strong link exists between what we find familiar and what we have learned to like. But we should not fear novelty or be unwilling to try new things. This is called “neophobia” by the way. Take a plunge, fuel your curiosity, eat a different flavor that appeals to your sense of taste yet make sure it can be described with at least one of the adjectives outlined above. Bon Appetite!

Elaine Holden of Peterborough is a nationally recognized expert in the diagnosis and treatment of dyslexia. She is the director of The Reading Foundation and Senior Lecturer at Rivier College Graduate School of Education. She wants everyone reading.

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