Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Schnoz and the Madeleine

Two things about me, if you care to know:

1. My New Year's resolution is to read Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. If I manage to make it through the colossus, then it's time for A la recherche du temps perdu (the original French; given this title, In Search of Lost Time is a better English title in light of the literal translation).


2. My current status is as follows: sick.

That is, stuffy nose, sneezing, excess Kleenex consumption, sore throat that borders on a lost voice, etc.: stuff that should have been solved by a few Sudafeds, but wasn't.

So how do these two things relate?

Well, I decided to start on the Proust because two of my Christmas presents this year were books with Proust in the title - Proust was a Neuroscientist and Proust and the Squid. The latter discusses the process of reading and the development of language while in the former, author Jonah Lehrer details eight scenarios in which artists seemingly anticipated what neuroscientists would later observe in the brain - sense of self, innate grammar...and most relevant to this blog, taste.

(My sister accused me of wanting Proust was a Neuroscientist because it had a picture of a madeleine in the center of the cover. I can't deny that, but I should point out that the madeleine in the book - as in so many other literary commentaries - is only referred to in the context of memory, not buttery goodness.)

In any case, the case study is Auguste Escoffier, a 19th century French chef well-known not only for serving meals in hot, fresh courses (a not-so-luxurious practice at the time) but for his flavorful sauces - specifically veal stock. What made Escoffier's sauces - the creations which he considered "scientifically constructed" - so delicious to any and all eaters?

The answer: L-glutamate, which Japanese scientist Kikunae Ineda discovers, and whose taste he calls "unami." And later on, studies find that our tongues have buds for this flavor, along with the four other tastes (sweet, sour, bitter and salty). Unami (occasionally called the savory flavor) now has its own receptor; Lehrer adds that it's the reason why adding parmesan cheese to tomato sauce makes it even better. In Emeril-lingo, it kicks the unami up a notch. (Notably, Ineda eventually developed this into the form of MSG. That's right, guys - the "Mmm, So Good!" ingredient in my rice cracker addiction.)

The similarities that Lehrer plays up in comparing the frames of "then/humanities" and "now/neuroscience" are pretty clear in this scenario, though I do think Lehrer stretches the selected artists' perspectives and the metaphors of their work to "prove" recent developments in neuroscience. (For those of you who end up reading it, I thought Stavinsky's projected attitude of "if we build it, they will come" modern music was a bit out of context with the idea of brain plasticity with regard to sound; that is, our perspective of how music is supposed to be can change as we listen to different kinds of music). That said, it's a good effort in straddling disciplines.

Especially this week, it also reinforced the idea that 90% of your eating experience - not accounting for the dining environment - centers around the scent. With my stuffy nose, I can barely taste anything. I can "feel" if something tastes sweet (like hot cocoa) or hot (curry chicken - if I tried hard enough, I could hear my taste buds sizzle), or sense the texture of my meal, but I don't actually get to taste the milky goodness or the spicy complex. Sigh.

I did, however, consume a ridiculous amount of wasabi today (at least for me; it was probably a little more than a portion for an average sushi eater. Wasabi, after all, is an acquired taste). I only felt a tiny burn in the back of my throat, though. How disappointing: I thought it would clear my sinuses.

1 comment:

Hank R. said...

L-glutamate is so awesome, because it helps relieve muscle soreness, which is awesome when I'm training.

Also, whenever I drink alcohol, I hold my breath, so I don't have to taste it.