Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid
Date read: 21 February – 05 March 2016
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Challenges: 2016nfc, 2016poss
Hardback, vii, 291 pages
Published 2015 by Scribner
Source: Own. Bought via Amazon July 2015 (released January 2015).
- 1 The Tongue Map
- 2 The Birth of Flavor in Five Meals
- 3 The Bitter Gene
- 4 Flavor Cultures
- 5 The Seduction
- 6 Gusto and Disgust
- 7 Quest for Fire
- 8 The Great Bombardment
- 9 The DNA of Deliciousness
1 The Tongue Map
Covers the origin and spread of the infamous tongue map.
Edwin G. Boring, in his “magisterial survey of the science of the human senses,” Sensation and Perception in the History of Experimental Psychology (1942), reviewed an experiment (1901) by David P. Hänig (2):
“He [Hänig] found the threshold for detecting each taste varied around the edge of the tongue. The tip, for example, was more sensitive to sweetness and to salt than was the base.
It wasn’t clear what this meant—if anything—and the differences were very small. But Boring found this notion interesting and went to some lengths to illustrate it. He borrowed the data from Hänig’s study and turned it into a graph. The graph was just a visual aid; it had no units, and its curves were impressionistic. But the result was that—perhaps to dramatize the point, or perhaps inadvertently—Boring made small difference in perception appear huge.
The wayward chart became the basis for a famous diagram of the tongue, divided into zones for each taste: …. Linda Bartoshuk, a professor of psychology who has studied the map’s origins, believes it came about through a game of “telephone”: First, Boring exaggerated Hänig’s findings. Then researchers and textbook editors misinterpreted Boring’s graph, using the peaks of its curves to label specific areas on the tongue. A final round of confusion produced a diagram with taste boundaries clearer than those on a world map” (2-3).
“The old diagram has lost much of its cachet in recent years. But it still lingers in some areas of the culinary world, including coffee and wine tasting, which value tradition and continuity as much as science” (4).
The chapter goes on to explain the research that has proved the tongue map wrong and also discusses some other topics, such as the development of taste in children. We learn that flavor science made great strides in the 20th century, and is progressing with astonishing speed in 21st.
Beginning early on, I found it quite interesting, but the endnotes are that asinine textual selection thing. Grrr.
2 The Birth of Flavor in Five Meals
“The first inklings of flavor appeared as early life-forms began to sense the world around them and the taste of nutrients floating by in seawater excited primitive nervous systems. … Five ancient meals, each taking place at a turning point in evolutionary history, help explain where the ensue of flavor, and Homo sapiens’ talent for culinary invention, came from” (17).
3 The Bitter Gene
While not exactly a hop head, I do like many bitter foods and drinks and—like most everyone—had to learn to like them. As a serious beer drinker, homebrewer, student of brewing, friend of hop growers, …, I am especially interested in bitterness and its detection.
There is a test to determine if one is a non-taster of bitterness, which includes about a quarter of the US population [PROP test, 6-n-propylthiouracil]. 58
The biology of flavor perception, and particularly bitterness, is crazy intriguing and as we learn more it will only get more so (68-71).
“… the preponderance of them [correlations] indicates that bitter taste biology influences the whole body. Since the DNA of taste receptors was decoded over the last decade, it has been found all over the body: along the digestive tract, in the pancreas and liver, in the brain, and in the testicles. (Smell receptors have also been isolated in the liver, heart, kidneys, sperm, and skin.)” (69).
4 Flavor Cultures [Fermentation]
5 The Seduction [Sweetness]
6 Gusto and Disgust
Brain damage, “wild children,” and other topics to show that “Feeling and observing disgust generate similar patterns of brain activity, and similar feelings” (146) because “Distaste and the “yuck” face are the products of an ancient circuit of firing neurons, blood flow, and neurotransmitter activity in the brain that includes the insula and orbitofrontal cortex. Disgust uses the same circuit.” (145).
“The insula, remember, is also a hub for many of the body’s internal states and feelings. … It also contains a distinct kind of neuron found only in the brains of humans, great apes, elephants, and whales and dolphins” (147).
Which goes to show that, “This means that visceral taste reactions underlie our most sophisticated behavior, animating our thoughts and judgments about everything from politics to money.” 148
7 Quest for Fire [capsaicin]
Quite interesting and includes a good bit on the search for the hottest peppers.
8 The Great Bombardment
Potato chips, fats, flavor’s deep connection to pleasure, and why there’s always room for dessert, among other topics.
9 The DNA of Deliciousness
Gastroscience, new mappings of the flavor space, and umami.
I know I could’ve done a better job with this review but I want to re-read it in the not too distant future anyway. I also need to go back and get the sources I marked and read those. So it is what it is. Take my word, very intriguing.
I really enjoyed this book and highly recommend it for anyone interested in our senses of taste, aroma and flavor, but especially for anyone seriously tasting (and/or judging) beer, wine, coffee, etc.
This is the 15th book in my
This book also is one of my 2016poss books.