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June 21, 2007 / Tony

Is the food medium the message?

I ran across an interesting article on Slate yesterday.  Here’s what I thought was the juiciest part:

It was less encouraging to discover how easily the nose can be led astray by the eyes. For his next stupid human trick, Wysocki produced two jars, one labeled “Food,” the other “Body.” I was told to sniff each. I actually was one of the few people not fooled by the experiment: I said both jars smelled like vomit. In fact, both jars contained the same chemical compound, butyric acid, which can be perceived as vomit but also as perspiration or Parmesan cheese. Wysocki told me he often conducts this test at seminars and that, on average, 60 percent of the people in the room will claim they enjoy the aroma in the “Food” jar, with most saying it’s redolent of Parmesan cheese; but when he asks if anyone found the “Body” jar pleasant, no hands go up-the participants invariably claim that it smells of puke or body odor. He mentioned similar work done with wine by Frederic Brochet, a French cognitive psychologist. Brochet has shown that people given a white wine that has been dyed red will describe it exactly as they would a red wine. He has also found that if he serves the same wine in two different bottles, one labeled a cheap vin de table and the other a pricey grand cru, people invariably lavish praise on the latter and scorn the former. Brochet has dubbed this phenomenon “perceptive expectation.”

What made this excerpt interesting to me is not the fact that environment can affect how a person tastes.  That proposition is common sense.  Hunger itself is a factor that plays a huge role in how we taste food.  Everybody knows that food tastes better when you’re hungry.  What is interesting, however, is how great an effect environmental factors can have on taste perception.  In fact, some of these factors seem to be more determinative than the actual taste.  Think about it: if the same white wine, when dyed red, is described as tasting like a red wine, than the test subject is not tasting wine, he or she is tasting their environment.  And that is a very powerful concept. 

And I think that concept explains a lot.  For starters, I think it is the main reason why people think restaurant food tastes so good.  Restaurants take great pains to create and choose the correct atmosphere and all that is attendant to that (lighting, china, silver, furniture, etc.).  They also take great pains to provide the best presentation of their food as possible.  Many meats, even if microwaved, exhibit grill marks.  Garnishes are always put on dishes.  Food is piled high on plates, creating a sense of height.  Rims of plates are scrupulously clean.  Food is presented to a guest by a server with the best part of the dish closest to the guest.  And the list could go on.  Restaurants do all of these things for one reason-it creates the atmosphere and/or illusion that the food is beautiful, bountiful, safe, and carefully prepared.  If it pulls this off, then the guests will be pre-disposed to think their food will taste wonderful.  As one of my former CEO’s put it: people eat with their eyes first.  This careful orchestration, coupled with the average American’s less than discerning palate, has created the plethora of bad chain restaurants we have today.  Restaurants have learned that a lot of substandard food can be sold as long as it is put in a pretty package in a pretty restaurant.  Remember that they next time you’re out to eat.  Think about how you’re being manipulated.  I’m not saying restaurants are wrong in what they are doing.  I’m just saying be aware of it and really taste the food instead of your environment.

This concept may also be a contributor to the problem of people not being able to cook at home.  (See this post.)  If the average American cook can’t make beautiful food at home (like a restaurant can), than isn’t he or she already pre-disposed to think that restaurant food tastes better?  And if that is so, isn’t that another reason not to cook at home?  I wonder. 

Finally, I think this is why I am almost never satisfied with my own cooking.  I already know how it all came together and what went into the dish.  I know all the grit that went into it.  No matter how pretty I make it, I don’t think I can fool myself into thinking something is better than I know it is. 

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