Category Archives: taste

Childhood Vices & Flaming Hot Spices: Why Nothing Compares to H O T Cheetos

Pardon the long absence! Book manuscript comes before blogging. But before this video slips out of cultural relevance entirely…

This August, the music video for “Hot Cheetos and Takis” by the Y.N.RichKids, a group formed under the auspices of a YMCA after-school program in Minneapolis, became a minor internet sensation. It was posted August 05, and already had 39K views by the next day when it got its first twitter referral. By the time it got its first referral later the same day, it had been viewed over 202K times. As of this morning, it’s been seen over 3.2 million times, and I can’t possibly be responsible for more than 1,000 of those. In case you missed it:


In an effusive review on Grantland, Rembert Browne broke the song down by performer to deliver individual props and applaud them for “how effectively they share the rock.” He also echoed Rolling Stone’s declaration of HC&T as the “summer’s final truly great jam.” Ken Wheaton of Ad Age called the video “epic” and subtitled his post about it “There Is Hope for Humanity Yet.” Andy Hutchins at the Village Voice rhapsodized about the 20 best things about the song, most of which seem to be the myriad ways these kids are cooler than him.

For Youth By Youth?

Many of its admirers suggested that at least part of HC&T’s appeal is how perfectly it captured something about childhood. Hutchins says "‘Hands red like Elmo’ is the sort of thing that only a kid would think to rap,” which is also the line David Greenwald of cites as an example of the song’s “age-appropriate lyrics” (although he acknowledges that I go H.A.M. in the grocery store bears a “trace of profanity.”) According to Browne, “it’s apparent that the words of this song were written For Youth, By Youth (FYBY).” He loves the line Bout to cop me some hot cheetos and a lemonade Brisk because:

I haven’t had that combination of food and drink in years, so it would never occur to me to write such a lyric. When I was 12, however, and the ice cream truck would roll up to my tennis camp, that was my exact purchase (along with a whole pickle). So yes, this is simply Dame telling a story of what he did earlier that day.

I agree that the song and the video are both impressive as hell, but I’m not sure its appeal is due to a faithful representation of exclusively childish experiences and pleasures. What struck me the first time I watched the video was how well the spicy snack foods stand in for another standard trope of popular music: alcohol and drugs. Instead of describing gettin’ slizzard on Moet & Crystal, or drinking 40s of Olde English 800 whilst driving around Compton, Dame Jones and his crew are celebrating the addictive pleasures of corn chips dusted with chili powder & MSG. It seems like either a kind of imitation or maybe a brilliant parody of adult paeans to whiskey and cocaine.

Why Carrots Cannot Be Cheetos

Unlike the many songs about drugs & alcohol—especially by country-western and blues artists—that focus on the dangers of overindulgence and addiction*, HC&T is all about the joy of snack foods. But I’m not sure the pleasures of anything people are inclined to consume in excess can ever really be divorced from the idea of vice, which made the last line of the Grantland piece seem rather strange to me:

I can’t wait until Michelle Obama convinces them to start rapping about fruits and vegetables.

Maybe Browne meant that to be tongue-in-cheek? However, he certainly wouldn’t be the first to argue that the main reason kids like junk food is because of the advertising and the best way to counter the childhood obesity boogeyman is to market apples and carrots to kids as aggressively as Froot Loops and Doritos.

Anyone else initially mistake the rabbit on the RAWK font package for some kind of lobster/alien hybrid? Or was that just me?

I have nothing against well-meaning attempts to make fruits & vegetables seem more enticing. And I’m pretty sure it would be possible to rap about “healthy” foods. The Y.N.RichKids might even do it very well, but I’m not sure it would have quite the same appeal. Just like I’m sure it would be possible to write a country-western song about meditating and going to group therapy instead of drinking your blues away. But I suspect that’s either going to come out sarcastic or kind of terrible.

All of which is to say that Hot Cheetos & Takis themselves are not incidental to the song’s success. Their junkiness and possibly also their spiciness is essential to their cultural significance and song’s meaning and appeal.

*In that vein, I’m especially enamored with Lydia Loveless.

Junk Food and Autonomy

“Junk” foods are often portrayed as childish. They appeal to the most basic human taste preferences: sweet, salty, and fatty. Of course adults like those things too, and many adults eat junk food. But I’m sure Rembert Browne isn’t the only one for whom the idea of Hot Cheetos & a lemonade Brisk induced a kind of nostalgia. Or perhaps reminded you of whatever occupied a comparable place in your childhood. For Jesse Taylor on The Raw Story, it was shortbread cookies:

My favorite childhood snacks were those little daisy-shaped shortbread cookies with holes in the middle, because I could only get them at my babysitter’s house. They fit on your fingers like rings, and the game was to always see how much you could eat before the cookie fell apart and off your fingers. Objectively, they were crappy, and when I found them years later and bought them for myself for the first time, I ate an entire package of them, slipped over my pinkie, because my other fingers were too big. They were sweet, and excessive, but they were mine.

oddly, I don't remember having any sort of color/flavor preference, or maybe that's not so odd given that I'm not sure you'd be able to distinguish in a blind taste testMy equivalent is probably Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts, which a friend and I discovered in the general store at the evangelical Baptist camp where we spent two weeks during the summer after sixth grade.** Like Taylor’s shortbread cookies, Giant Sweet Tarts were exciting primarily because they were novel. We’d never encountered them before. There was also a sort of art to eating them because they were too big to fit comfortably in your mouth, but were also too hard to bite into. The advertized “chewiness” really referred to a sort of vague pliability in the center that really only became chewy with the application of heat and moisture. The method I came to prefer involved softening them between my palms and then breaking them into quarters by folding them until they snapped, which required a sort of slow, consistent pressure. It didn’t always work perfectly, which was part of the appeal—there was a technique that had to be honed. The challenge of getting the pieces to break into clean, equal portions was as much of a reason to eat them as the intense sour-sweetness.

Sometime after returning from camp, the 7-Eleven in our neighborhood started carrying them and we were so stoked. It wasn’t really because they tasted better than any of the other dozens of varieties of vaguely fruity sour candies—which are basically all the same—but by that point, Giant Chewy Sweet Tarts had become our thing. They were part of our identity, and made us feel distinct from the kids whose preferences ran towards Starbursts or MnMs (yawn!) or that one person in every class who actually liked old person candies like Good ‘n Plenty and Jordan Almonds. And, of course, they also distinguished us from our parents, who seemed wholly indifferent to candy of any kind and snack foods in general. In retrospect, my dad did eat potato chips, trail mix with MnMs, and ice cream, all of which my mom purchased regularly along with all the other groceries. Those may have hit all the same salty, sweet, fatty tastes but because those were normalized as just food, they didn’t seem special or appealing. They could not be distinctly mine.

I think what HC&T evokes isn’t so much any particular tastes people might associate with childhood—peanut butter & jelly sandwiches or Kraft macaroni and cheese might be better suited for that. Instead, as Browne and Taylor both argue, the song is about a kind of autonomy. Both writers claim that’s best expressed by the lines about how they purchased the snacks at the corner store*** with their own money:

riding around with my allowance
o nobody can stop me

hot cheetos & takis, thats my favorite snack
bought ’em with my own money i don’t give ’em back

But I’m not sure that’s as crucial as the way the snacks serve as a symbol of distinction from your parents and affiliation with your peers. Browne says that what makes getting money as a kid so sweet is that “YOU HAD EARNED IT BY RAKING THE LEAVES,” but there’s no reference in the song to earning the money. Instead, just two lines after the lyrics about riding around with his allowance, Nasir says,

my mom hit the ATM, cuz she know i need them

Mom provides the cash and may even drive them to the store, but she also represents the familial center that eating Hot Cheetos is a kind of escape from, or an authority to be rebelled against (politely):

my mama said "have u had enough?"
i looked and i said "no ma’am"

mama said "slow down, boy u bout to blow"
but i’m fi’nna get more, u should drive me to the store

The fact that they can get the snacks with their own money does matter—but probably only because that means Mom couldn’t stop you from eating them. You’re going to find a way to get them. The most she can do is suggest you take it easy. Eating them anyway is a relatively small and innocent act of defiance, a way of identifying with your friends instead of your parents and performing a kind of independence and identity with salience for your social world.

**We were convinced by her church youth group leader that it would be an awesome experience and ignored crucial details in the promotional pamphlet that probably should have made us suspicious, like the fact that girls were not allowed to wear shorts that hit above the knee and there were daily church services (which turned out to be plural) listed along with the 18-hole disc golf course and ropes course and team-building activities (which turned out to include competitive scripture memorization) that promised to keep us occupied.

***For some reason, the Village Voice writer seems to think it might come as a surprise to some readers that Minnesota has corner stores: “18. The universality of all of this. Do you think of Minneapolis as a place where there are lots of corner stores? Do you think of Minnesota as a hotbed for Atlanta-reminiscent rap? These are kids showing you both things are, in one small way, true.” Which, what? Does anyone honestly think corner stores are a purely coastal phenomenon?

A Taste of Adulthood

irritasty!So why do the Y.N.RichKids express their culinary independence through flaming hot snack foods? I suspect it has something to do with the related facts that spiciness is an acquired taste and spicy foods can induce a potentially-addictive endorphin release. Unlike snack foods that are really all about sweetness, saltiness and/or fat, which are tastes that even babies like, Hot Cheetos & Takis are a slightly more mature snack.

Although some cultures (past and present) include spiciness in their set of basic tastes, it’s actually a tactile sensation—we don’t really taste culinary heat, we feel it. The same is true of the cooling sensation of mint. Both are detected by the trigeminal nerve, which also relays information about texture and temperature to the brain and causes migraine headaches, which may be why spicy foods can be a migraine trigger. Food developer Barbara Stuckey refers to spiciness as an irritaste because capsaicin, the active ingredient in chiles, is an irritant, which is to say it causes pain.

Babies universally reject the irritaste of capsaicin, even if they’re born to chili-loving parents in chili-loving cultures. Actually, in some of those cultures, applying chili paste to the nipple is a traditional  part of weaning practice because no babies like it and all of them learn pretty quickly that Mom’s breast has mysteriously become a source of intolerable pain rather than sweet nourishment. With repeated exposure and social pressure, some kids may begin to accept spicy foods as young as four. Others take much longer, and many never do.

This is basically the same process we go through with bitter, astringent, and pungent foods and drinks—including coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol, stinky cheese, and many kinds of pickles. Most people don’t like those things as kids and even adults tend to find them unpleasant the first (or second or third) times they try them. But all of those things offer rewards—both chemical and cultural—and as people come to associate those rewards with the initially-offensive stimuli (both consciously and subconsciously), their experience of them changes. The flavors and sensations become tolerable or, in many cases, pleasurable.

For example, many people just starting to drink coffee add sweetener and milk to cut the bitterness. As they come to associate the aroma and taste of coffee with the desirable effects of caffeine and/or sugar, most come to like the aroma and some come to appreciate the bitter Robert Parker's palate has seemingly shifted over the years to favor more robust & alcoholic red wines, which favors particular wine-producing regions like Californiataste. A few will transition from sweet and milky to black.

Similarly, most people acclimate themselves to alcohol gradually, starting with lighter beers, white wine, and sweet cocktails. With enough exposure, many find that they like stronger beers, more alcoholic red wines, and maybe even hard liquor neat. In general, the most initially-offensive, hardest to acquire tastes get associated with maturity, sophistication, and power—and also addiction, danger, and vice. They’re also gendered. White wine and sweet cocktails are feminine while male homebrewers often seem to be in a perpetual pissing match about just how hoppy, bitter, and alcoholic they can make their beer.

Individual differences in the degree of initial aversion to these stimuli, willingness to endure repeated exposure to them, and the extent of eventual acclimation (or addiction) vary based on genetics, social and cultural influences, and personality factors. Some people have a much stronger reaction to bitter tastes in general (which may or may not be related to aversions to specific flavor molecules like whatever makes cilantro taste like soap to 15% of the population). Some people are more susceptible to the chemical rewards of caffeine, nicotine, and/or alcohol. Some people are more strongly motivated by the social rewards of liking “sophisticated” foods.

But Nothing Can Compare to them H O T Cheetos (except possibly Takis)

However, even among “adult” tastes, the ability to tolerate and enjoy spiciness is peculiar in that it seems to be unique to humans. You can get omnivores like rats addicted to alcohol and other drugs. And rats will tolerate spicy food, but even rats that have been acclimated to capsaicin still prefer the chow sans heat if given a choice. In trying to explain the human affection for capsaicin-induced pain, psychologist Paul Rozin discovered that undergrads who like spicy food are also more likely to enjoy roller coasters. He theorized that some people enjoy “benign masochism,” or biologically-aversive stimuli in a safe setting. So maybe what spicy food represents is the experience of pain and danger that humans can enjoy if we know it won’t really hurt us. But that’s not so exciting to a rat, who gets no social cred for being a daredevil and would probably experience a death-defying simulation like a roller coaster as actual mortal danger, not a super fun experience worth standing in line for many hours.

All of that—the associations with adulthood and danger, the appeal of being a kind of culinary daredevil, the mildly-addictive endorphin hit from capsaicin-induced pain—gets layered on top of the chemical reward pathways that any snacks containing carbohydrates and salt and fat and MSG would trigger. I imagine that’s why they’re Frito Lay’s best-seller, why the Y.N.RichKids like them better than skittles starburst fritos and doritos, and part of the reason the song went viral.

A Slightly Weird Post-Script

Apparently Hot Cheetos (not unlike all spicy foods), may sometimes cause gastrointestinal distress.  An El Paso-area TV news station reported earlier this year on a teenage girl who was hospitalized and treated for an ulcer supposedly related to her consumption of spicy snacks, and there are some anecdotal reports of ER nurses looking for the telltale signs of red-dusted fingers when kids between the ages of 5-15 are admitted with stomach pain (ht: Mike Rubin).

I’m actually surprised this hasn’t gotten more media attention, not because it seems likely to be a real cause for concern, but because any potential health risk associated with “junk food,” particularly one that affects children and is associated with urban, non-white, non-rich people is a prime candidate for moral panic. What little coverage it has gotten definitely makes Hot Cheetos seem even more like an illicit drug:

Dalilah was on medication for several months and now she’s doing fine. She even stopped the hot habit, for a while.

"I stayed away from them for a while but then I thought I could start eating them again but then I think about it, ‘No I have to stop,’" Dalilah said. "I guess I always think about what happened in the hospital so I can keep it at a limit."

. . .

"Children don’t know any better,” said Dr. Gomez. “They love the Hot Cheetos. They’re pretty addicting from what I hear. The more you eat, the more irritation you can cause and eventually it can lead to a problem that can lead to hospitalization."

It’s a message Dalilah now shares with other teens.

"I even told some of my friends what I went through but they don’t know unless it happens to them," Dalilah said. "I don’t think anybody would want to go through what I did."

I think that might make better fodder for a follow-up than fruits & vegetables. Personally, I’d love to hear the Y.N.RichKids’ take on Volcano Butt.

You’re All Good Eggs: New research shows that specialty eggs aren’t any better for the environment or more delicious

Next year, I will decorate Easter eggs and they will have faces. See 39 other pictures of egg face dioramas at The Design Inspiration by clicking on image

Two articles about eggs published last week have rocked my commitment to paying the specialty egg surcharge. I’m still tentatively on the organic, cage-free, local egg bandwagon for animal welfare and health concerns, but I have to admit that even those reasons may be a little flimsy. The four main reasons given for the superiority of specialty eggs are:

1. They’re better for the environment
2. They taste better
3. They’re produced in a more humane way
4. They’re healthier

There may also be an argument for supporting local producers who might employ less exploitative or abusive labor practices, although that’s not guaranteed. In order to help offset the increased labor requirements of non-conventional practices, small and local farms often rely on unpaid interns and family members, including children. Not that I think it’s a major ethical abuse to have your kids gather eggs, but I often feel at least a little pang of sympathy for the kids—often Amish, sometimes very young-looking—manning farmer’s market booths alone. So I’m deliberately tabling the labor issue because 1) I suspect that the issue of labor conditions at small, local farms vs. big, industrial ones is, like so many things related to the food industry, complicated and 2) it’s nowhere near the top of the list of most consumers’ concerns about eggs.

1. Green Eggs vs. Ham

On June 1, Slate’s Green Lantern reported that specialty eggs (cage-free, free range, and organic) have a greater environmental impact than conventional based on land use, greenhouse gas emissions, and feed efficiency (measured by kg eggs laid/kg feed). The article also noted that according to life-cycle analysis, a recent review article by two Dutch researchers found no consistent or conclusive difference between the environmental impact of pork, chicken, milk, and eggs. Beef requires more land, water, and feed, but pound for pound (or kilogram for kilogram—most life-cycle analyses are European), the review, “did not show consistent differences in environmental impact per kg protein in milk, pork, chicken and eggs.”

The Lantern didn’t evaluate the transportation costs “since the majority of the impacts associated with chicken-rearing comes from producing their feed.” For local eggs, the reduced transportation costs might help balance out the increased feed requirement, but that’s just speculation. For cage-free, free-range, organic, or vegetarian eggs, transportation costs probably further increase the relative impact because not only do they travel just as far or farther than conventional eggs to get to the market, there are probably costs associated with transporting the additional feed they require.

I don't remember where I first heard the story about the egg yolk-inspired label, but it's documented in multiple places, including Red, White, and Drunk All Over and the biography of The Widow Cliquot by Tilar MazzeoMy initial response was basically:

Well, that’s too bad, but efficiency be damned, if it takes more feed and produces higher ammonia emissions to treat chickens humanely and produce healthy eggs with yolks the vibrant orange-yellow of a Veuve Cliquot label, so be it. I know specialty eggs are better, I can see and taste the difference.

2. Golden Eggs

Not so much, apparently. The very next day, The Washington Post published the results of a blind taste test of “ordinary supermarket-brand eggs, organic supermarket eggs, high-end organic Country Hen brand eggs and [eggs from the author’s own backyard chickens].” Blindfolded and spoon-fed, the tasters—two food professionals and six “avocationally culinary” folks with “highly critical palates”—struggled to find differences between the eggs, which were soft cooked to ensure firm whites and runny yolks.

And apparently, this isn’t a new finding. It replicates the results of years of research by food scientists:

Had Pat Curtis, a poultry scientist at Auburn University, been at the tasting, she wouldn’t have been at all surprised. "People’s perception of egg flavor is mostly psychological," she told me in a phone interview. "If you ask them what tastes best, they’ll choose whatever they grew up with, whatever they buy at the market. When you have them actually taste, there’s not enough difference to tell."

The egg industry has been conducting blind tastings for years. The only difference is that they don’t use dish-towel blindfolds; they have special lights that mask the color of the yolks. "If people can see the difference in the eggs, they also find flavor differences," Curtis says. "But if they have no visual cues, they don’t."

Freshness can affect the moisture content, and thus the performance of eggs for some applications, especially recipes that rely heavily on beaten egg whites like meringues or angel food cake. But probably not enough for most people to notice. The author also tested a simple spice cake with super-fresh eggs from her backyard versus regular supermarket eggs. The batters looked different, but once the cakes were baked and cooled, they were indistinguishable.

3. Do They Suffer?

Given how self-evidently cruel battery cage poultry production seems, I’m not entirely sure that “free-range” is as meaningless as people like Jonathan Safran Foer have argued. Sure, “cage free” chickens might never see daylight, and the range available to “free range” chickens might be a dubious privilege at best—a crowded concrete lot exposed to some minimal sunlight would fulfill the USDA requirements. But I don’t think it’s entirely marketing gimmickry, either. For one thing, if there were really no difference, the specialty eggs wouldn’t have a larger carbon footprint.

The animal welfare argument relies on the assumption that either chickens have a right not to experience pain or discomfort or that humans have a moral obligation not to cause them pain, or at least wanton, unnecessary or excessive pain. The debate about animal rights/humans’ moral obligations to animals is too big and complicated for me to cover in any real depth here, but I tend to believe that we ought to try to minimize the pain and discomfort of anything that seems capable of suffering. I used to draw the line at the limbic system—i.e. fish and invertebrates might respond to pain but don’t process it in a way that rises to the level of suffering, whereas birds and mammals can suffer and it’s often pretty apparent when they do. However, as it turns out, the boundaries of the limbic system are “grounded more in tradition than in facts,” and there are unsettled questions in my mind about what constitutes suffering and how to evaluate it. 

Even renowned animal rights theorist Peter Singer has gone back and forth about oysters over the years. I suspect that David Foster Wallace was right when he concluded that what guides our behavior in these matters has more to do with historically and culturally-variable forms of moral intuition than any objective criterion for “suffering”:

The scientific and philosophical arguments on either side of the animal-suffering issue are involved, abstruse, technical, often informed by self-interest or ideology, and in the end so totally inconclusive that as a practical matter, in the kitchen or restaurant, it all still seems to come down to individual conscience, going with (no pun) your gut” ("Consider the Lobster” footnote 19).

I hate relying on “I know it when I see it” standards, because I suspect we’re all inclined to see what we want to, but I don’t have a better answer. My gut says that chickens can suffer and that being able to flap around a concrete lot is better than never getting to move at all. However, my gut also says that chickens are pretty stupid creatures, and it might be an entirely reasonable thing to care more about the environmental impact of egg production than the happiness and well-being of the chickens.

4. Eggs Good For You This Week

Health is the issue that matters most to most consumers (see: The Jungle), and unfortunately, the available research on conventional vs. specialty eggs is frustratingly inconclusive. The most common assertion re: the health of specialty eggs concerns omega-3 fatty acids. I’ve mentioned this in passing and will try to devote some more time to it soon, but for now, I’m tentatively convinced that omega-3s are healthful and low ratios of omega-6:omega-3 are optimal.

Some studies have suggested that chickens raised on pasture—i.e. who get at least some of their nutrients from plants, especially clover or alfalfa—produce eggs with more omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins A and E (and less cholesterol and saturated fat, not that that probably matters). However, specialty labels like “cage free,” “free range,” and “organic” don’t mean pastured and the results of the nutritional analysis of eggs bearing those labels don’t provide very clear guidelines about what to purchase.

A 2002 comparison between five different kinds of specialty eggs and conventional eggs found differences between them, but none that lead to a simple characterization of specialty eggs as healthier:

From Cherian et al in Poultry Science 81: 30-33 (2002)

The "animal fat free and high in omega-3” eggs (SP1) had the highest percentage of omega-3 fatty acids and lowest ratio of omega 6: omega 3, and the cage-free, unmedicated brown eggs were also significantly better by that measure. However, the Organic-certified free-range (SP2) and cage-free all-vegetarian-feed eggs (SP4) had similar omega-3 content to the regular eggs. While some of the differences might be due to the feed, the authors note that the age, size, and breed of the hen can also affect the composition of fats and nutrients.

The study also showed that the shells of some of the specialty eggs were weaker, which supports other research showing more breakage and leaking in specialty eggs than conventional and my anecdotal experience of typically having to set aside the first few cartons I pick up because they contain cracked eggs.

Additionally, a 2010 USDA survey of traditional, cage-free, free-range, pasteurized, nutritionally enhanced (omega-3), and fertile eggs also concluded that:

Although significant differences were found between white and brown shell eggs and production methods, average values for quality attributes varied without one egg type consistently maintaining the highest or lowest values. (Abstract here, no free full text available)

In sum, if you can get pastured eggs (either from your own backyard or a farmer whose practices you can interrogate or even observe), they might be a little better for you than conventional. But after reading all this, I still found myself thinking: But what about the color difference? Doesn’t a darker yellow yolk mean the egg itself is healthier? Apparently not:

Yolk colour varies. It is almost completely dependent upon the feed the hen eats. Birds that have access to green plants or have yellow corn or alfalfa in their feed tend to produce dark yolks, due to the higher concentration of yellow pigments (mainly carotenoids) in their diet. Since commercial laying hens are confined, lighter and more uniformly coloured yolks are being produced. Yolk colour does not affect nutritive value or cooking characteristics. Egg yolks are a rich source of vitamin A regardless of colour. (from Wageningen University)

The record on other health concerns like salmonella and dioxin and PCB content is mixed:

4A: Can you eat raw cookie dough if it’s organic?

The salmonella thing is reminiscent of the e coli in grass-fed beef thing: some people actually claim organic chickens have no risk of salmonella. One UK study allegedly found salmonella levels over five times higher in conventional caged hens than in birds raised according to Soil Association organic standards (which are comparable to USDA Organic certification). 23.4% of farms with caged hens tested positive for salmonella compared to 4.4% of farms with organic flocks and 6.5% with free-range flocks. The explanation proffered is that the spread of the disease is inversely related to flock size and density. No link or citation for the study itself.

A 2007 UK study that tested 74 flocks (59 caged and 15 free range) from 8 farms, all of which had been vaccinated against salmonella, found a smaller but still significant difference: 19.4% of cage chicken house samples and 10.2% of free-range chicken house samples taken over a 12-month period tested positive for salmonella. However, they also noted a high degree of variation between flocks, and that the longest continuously-occupied houses were typically the most heavily contaminated. It’s possible that some of the results of other studies can be attributed to the fact that free-range or organic hen operations are likely to be newer and differences between them and conventional may diminish as time goes on.

On this side of the Atlantic, the results seem to show the opposite. A 2005 USDA study that tested free-range, all-natural antibiotic-free, and organic chicken meat (and contamination in chickens themselves has been linked to salmonella in eggs) found salmonella in all three groups at higher rates than in past years’ surveys of commercial chicken meat:

A total of 135 processed free-range chickens from four different commercial free-range chicken producers were sampled in 14 different lots for the presence of Salmonella. Overall, 9 (64%) of 14 lots and 42 (31%) of 135 of the carcasses were positive for Salmonella. No Salmonella were detected in 5 of the 14 lots, and in one lot 100% of the chickens were positive for Salmonella. An additional 53 all-natural (no meat or poultry meal or antibiotics in the feed) processed chickens from eight lots were tested; 25% of the individual chickens from 37% of these lots tested positive for Salmonella. Three lots of chickens from a single organic free-range producer were tested, and all three of the lots and 60% of the individual chickens were positive for Salmonella. The U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service reported that commercial chickens processed from 2000 to 2003 had a Salmonella prevalence rate of 9.1 to 12.8%. Consumers should not assume that free-range or organic conditions will have anything to do with the Salmonella status of the chicken.

Additionally, a 2007 analysis of fresh, whole broiler chickens by Consumer Reports found that 83% tested positive for campylobacter or salmonella, and that chickens labeled organic or raised without antibiotics were more likely to harbor salmonella than conventionally-produced broilers:

We tested 525 fresh, whole broilers bought at supermarkets, mass merchandisers, gourmet shops, and ­natural-food stores in 23 states last spring. Represented in our tests were four leading brands (Foster Farms, Perdue, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson) and 10 organic and 12 nonorganic no-antibiotics brands, including three that are “air chilled” in a newer slaughterhouse process designed to re­duce contamination. Among our findings:

  • Campylobacter was present in 81 percent of the chickens, salmonella in 15 percent; both bacteria in 13 percent. Only 17 percent had neither pathogen. That’s the lowest percentage of clean birds in all four of our tests since 1998, and far less than the 51 percent of clean birds we found for our 2003 report.
  • No major brand fared better than others overall. Foster Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Tyson chickens were lower in salmonella incidence than Perdue, but they were higher in campylobacter.

Ultimately, salmonella is a always a risk when dealing with chicken or eggs and it’s not clear that specialty eggs are any better than conventional. If you’re concerned about salmonella, cook your food to 165F or stick to vegan options. You know, like peanut butter.

4B: What’s in the grass?

One final concern: a 2006 Dutch study found that free-range eggs in Europe have increased levels of dioxins and PCBs (which fall under the category of dioxin-like compounds), apparently because they are present in the soil in both residential and agricultural areas. “Dioxins” refer to a wide variety of compounds and they vary in toxicity; the term is basically just shorthand for environmental pollutants. On the one hand, they’re everywhere and we probably can’t avoid them so who cares? On the other, many are fat soluble so eggs are of greater concern than, say, apples.

There’s not really enough research on this to draw any conclusions. Which just pains me to type for what feels like the umpteenth time, because, seriously, is there ever conclusive research? Can we ever really know anything about anything? I like to think we can, but I’ll be damned if I don’t feel like every time I try to find more information about any kind of nutritional claim, the answer turns out to be “well, that’s complicated” or “well, the research on that isn’t conclusive.” Sometimes I really just want to see a chart that says YES! THIS IS THE RIGHT ANSWER! IT IS RELIABLE AND ACCURATE AND CONTROLLED FOR ALL POSSIBLE VARIABLES.

So just in case you might be wondering if I’m trying to be deliberately indecisive or vague in service of whatever ideological position that would even promote: I’m not. When I find conclusive results, I will share them with you in very excited caps lock. 

So Here’s The Deal

If you care more about climate change and efficient resource allocation than chicken welfare, buy conventional eggs; if you care more about chicken welfare, buy cage-free, free-range, Organic, or perhaps ideally, local. Taste and health-wise, there’s no clear difference, although I know that won’t prevent some of you from believing there is (remember the chocolate yogurt with “good strawberry flavor”?) Perhaps the biggest lesson is that, once again, the foods some people think are objectively superior for all kinds of reasons  may not be, and attempting to eat “better” is way more complicated than simply choosing the “green” alternative.

Who Says Robots Can’t Taste?: On Cooking Robots and Electronic Noses

The color of the stuff in the bowl for some reason made me realize, for the first time, the coincidental similarity of Freud's "unheimlich" and the Heimlich maneuver. Image from: 

Kantos Kan led me to one of these gorgeous eating places where we were served entirely by mechanical apparatus. No hand touched the food from the time it entered the building in its raw state until it emerged hot and delicious upon the tables before the guests, in response to the touching of tiny buttons to indicate their desires.—Edgar Rice Burroughs, “A Princess of Mars” (1912)

Chef Motoman griddling up okonomiyaki from now, robots who can cook are nothing new. Most of them are basically one trick ponies (at least culinarily): a Swiss robot that was taught to make omelets to demonstrate its abilities, Japanese robots that can grill okonomayaki or make octopus balls from scratch.There’s even a restaurant called Famen in Nagoya staffed by two robots who act out a comic routine and spar with knives in between preparing bowls of ramen. However, the cooking robot recently introduced by two Chinese unversities that’s making the rounds online this month comes closer to the fantasy in the Burroughs story of something that can produce a huge variety of foods on demand, almost like replicators on Star Trek. This new cooking robot can make 300 different dishes based on the offerings of four top chefs in Jiangsu Province and may soon be able to produce up to 600.

is this really nightmare-inducingly realistic? from strikes me about the media coverage of cooking robots is the paradox that, on the one hand, the fact that they can do something so essentially human is a substantial part of the delight they inspire. Their food-related activities are often designed to soften peoples’ resistance to robots—for example, researchers at Carnegie Mellon developed the Snackbot that they introduced to a reporter for the New York Times last month to “gather information on how robots interact with people (and how to improve homo-robo relations).” But on the other hand, the essential humanness of cooking can also make the robots especially unnerving. In fact, the more human, the more they seem to bother people. The Engadget article on the sushi-grabbing hand, “Chef Robot makes its video debut, nightmares forthcoming,” seems mostly disturbed by how “realistic” the hand looks:

In case you missed it, the robot itself is actually just a standard issue FANUC M-430iA robot arm with a way too realistic hand attached to it, which apparently not only helps it prepare sushi, but some tasty desserts as well. Head on past the break for the must-see video, you’ve nothing to lose but your ability to unsee it.

Though usually slightly less dramatic, most other articles I’ve seen about cooking robots end with some sort of joke or disclaimer, which usually reflect anxieties about the threat that cooking robots pose to the boundary between human and machine.

If this thing ever gets imported to the U.S., it would need to make fortune cookies too. But what would a robot fortune say?—CNet (on the 300-dish Chinese cook)

More than 200 diners have enjoyed the machine’s cuisine thus far, and reportedly taste testers have found the food to be on par with a traditional restaurant kitchen, flavor-wise. (No mention has been made of the robot’s plating abilities.)—CNet (on a prototype developed by a retired professor using an induction burner and robotic arm)

While it lacks the personal touch and the ability to hold some small banter with regular guests, at least you can be sure the fingers have not gone around digging noses or scratching butts.”—Ubergizmo (on the sushi hand)

“No matter how skilled Motoman is, I doubt real chefs like Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali would be caught dead cooking next to him.” Robot Living (referring to Chef Motoman, who was designed to work alongside humans in a restaurant environment)

A seemingly irrepressible impulse to name something robots can’t infringe on, like speculating about the future or making the kind of aesthetic and creative decisions that go into plating, or find some other way to distinguish them from human chefs—the ability to banter or pick their nose or smoke and hate on vegans or compete in elaborate cooking competitions. Even the NYTimes article, which focuses mostly on how food “humanizes” robots, ends by erecting a wall based on the ability to taste:

The real obstacle to a world full of mechanized sous-chefs and simulated rage-filled robo-Gordon Ramsays may be something much harder to fake: none of these robots can taste.

Keizo Shimamoto, who writes a blog on ramen noodles and has eaten at Famen, the two-robot Japanese restaurant, said that the establishment was “kind of dead” when he ate there last year. Though the owner said that people do taste the food, according to Mr. Shimamoto, “It was a little disappointing.” It’s one thing to get people to stop by to see the robots. “But to keep the customers coming back,” he said, “you need better soup.”

And while it’s true that none of the robots mentioned in the article can taste, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other robots that can.

What If Chef Motoman Had a Nose?

Researchers have developed mass spectrometers that can determine the ripeness of tomatoes and melons and describe the nuances in different samples of espresso—which ones are more or less floral, citrusy, which have hints of buttery toffee or a woody undertone, etc. Some electronic noses, as the e-sensing systems are often called, are so sensitive they can pinpoint not only the grape varietal and region where a wine was produced, but what barrel it was fermented in. As I’ve discussed before, tastes are largely produced by how substances react with our ~40 taste receptors and ~400 olfactory receptors. Every unique flavor/odor combination is like a “fingerprint,” and e-sensing systems are far, far better at identifying and classifying those fingerprints than humans.

In Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink mentions a 2004 study performed at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab where 32 participants were invited to taste what they were told was strawberry yogurt in the dark. They were actually given chocolate yogurt, but nineteen of them still rated it as having “good strawberry flavor.” The yogurt-tasters weren’t food critics or trained chefs, but even “experts” are dramatically influenced by contextual cues. Frederic Brochet has run multiple experiments with wine experts in the Bordeaux region of France, where many of the world’s most expensive wines are produced. In one experiment, he had 54 experts taste white wines that had been dyed red with a flavorless additive and in another he served 57 experts the same red wine in two different bottles alternately identifying it as a high-prestige wine and lowly table wine. In the first experiment, none of the experts detected the white wine flavor, and many of them praised it for qualities typically associated with red wines like “jamminess” or “red fruit.” In the second, 40 of the experts rated the wine good when they thought it was an expensive Grand Cru and only 12 did when they thought it was a cheap blend (read more: “The Subjectivity of Wine” by Jonah Lehrer).

It’s true that robots can’t make independent subjective judgments about tastes and odors. The ramen robots might be able to customize your ramen based on variables like the proportion of noodles to broth and different kinds of toppings, but they can’t simply make a “better” soup. However, if outfitted with an electronic nose and programmed to recognize and replicate the fingerprint of a really fantastic tonkotsu broth, there’s no reason to believe they wouldn’t be able to make the best ramen you’ve ever tasted—and likely with greater consistency than a human chef (assuming they had access to the necessary ingredients). There are other factors, too, like rolling and cooking the noodles just so to give them a toothsome bite, but again, noodle recipes and some way of evaluating their texture could be programmed into a robot chef’s computer brain. In other words, the only reason robots can’t taste is because we haven’t designed them to yet.

they just need a better spectrometer!

Even though robots can’t innovate criteria, they can be trained to make subjective judgments—Science just reported yesterday that researchers in Israel have trained an electronic nose to predict whether novel smells are good or bad. They exposed it to 76 odors that were rated by human volunteers (both Israeli and Ethiopian to account for cultural differences, which unsurprisingly turn out to be pretty minor) on a scale from “the best odor you have ever smelled” to “the worst odor you have ever smelled.” Then, they exposed the nose to 22 new odors and compared them to the ratings of a new group of volunteers. The electronic nose agreed with the humans on the relative pleasantness of the odor 80% of the time. In another trial using only extreme odors—ones that had been rated most pleasant or unpleasant—it agreed with the humans 90% of the time. (Here’s the original study)

So, theoretically, it might be possible not only to program a robot to make foods that match a “fingerprint” that’s widely rated “delicious” but also to predict what kinds of foods are likely to taste good or bad. And perhaps the next step would be to ask it to innovate combinations that are likely to taste especially delicious.

However, given that the way we taste often has more to do with expectations and presentation than the chemical properties of the food, the discomfort inspired by cooking robots may be more of a barrier than the technology itself. If sushi merely been transferred from tray to plate by a robot hand is nightmare-inducing, we’re probably a long way—culturally, if not technologically—from Robot Cuisine.

The Sweet Science of Artichokes

i wanted a picture of artichokes boxing, but this'll have to do. image from 

At least you’ll never be a vegetable—even artichokes have hearts. –Amelie

I suspect that one of the reasons artichokes show up in appetizers so often, especially in the sugar-loving U.S., is that they make everything you eat or drink for a little while afterwards, including water, taste slightly sweet. It’s not quite the simple straightforward sweetness of sucrose, which I’m not sure would be an especially desirable effect no matter how much you like sweet things. Instead, it’s more of a sweet-savory enhancement, perhaps even a little bit umami.I cropped the chart description for length, but will happily send it to anyone who's really interested

According to a 1972 article in Science, the first written account of artichokes’ capacity for taste perversion followed a dinner for biologists at the 1934 AAAS conference. The salad course consisted of globe artichokes, and someone must have taken a survey—of the the nearly 250 biologists in attendance, 60% reported that after eating the artichoke, water tasted different, a difference most of them described as “sweet” but a small number said was “bitter.”

The Science article reports on the results of an experiment that showed that artichoke extract modifies the taste of water by temporarily affecting the tongue rather than the food or drink (which makes it different than saccharine, which can make water taste sort of sweet and/or bitter as residue on the tongue is re-diluted). They also isolated two molecules found in artichokes—cholorgenic acid and cynarin, and found that both, independently, had a similar effects on the perceived sweetness of water as adding 2 tsp. sugar to 6 oz. water.

However, a less formal acknowledgment of the strange effects of the artichoke exists in the ancient folk wisdom that artichokes are “impossible” to pair with wine. An article in Wine News Magazine claims to “dispel” the “antiquated myth” of impossible pairings, but many of the suggestions purport to work by minimizing the presence or effect of the cynarin, either by boiling the artichoke in "ample water” or serving it with acids like lemon and/or mayonnaise. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether either technique actually does anything to the cynarin and/or chlorogenic acid, I’m not sure that eliminating the chemical basis for the unique taste of the artichoke passes muster as a successful “pairing.” Essentially what they’ve done there is pair the wine with a less-artichokey version of the artichoke.

The Science article notes that the effects of cynarin and cholorogenic acid last longer than the sweet taste of sugar or saccharine, but are weaker and shorter-lived than that of miraculin, the protein in “miracle fruit.” Miraculin works by adhering to sweet-receptors on the tongue and acids in food, which makes the acids activate the sweet-receptors. I tried that with a bunch of friends shortly after The New York Times reported on it, and it really is trippy—lemons taste like candy, goat cheese tastes like cheesecake, and we all got stomachaches from eating so much acidic food in such a short period of time.

However, the protein miraculin seems to affect a much larger percentage of the population than the acids in artichoke. Just like at the AAAS dinner, a large number of the 1972 experiment’s participants didn’t experience a sweet taste after consuming artichoke extract. And again, a very small number actually said that the artichokes made water taste bitter. So it seems like cynarin/cholorgenic acid must have a different kind of mechanism, one that works for a majority of the population but exempts a substantial minority. Sadly, I can’t for the life of me figure out what it is. Does it inhibit bitter receptors? Attach temporarily to a certain kind of sweet receptor not everyone has? It seems to make white wines taste more sour, so perhaps it inhibits the tongue from registering the sugars in the wine? I don’t know, and I have searched. If you know, please share.

Anyhow, back to the question of what might alter or inhibit the cynarin and/or cholorogenic acid. In a post on "Transcription and Translation" also largely based on that 1972 Science article, biochemist Alex Palazzo claims that “pickled artichoke hearts don’t have this property.” I’m not entirely convinced, although this might be an issue of semantics. I won’t dispute that the sweetish aftertaste of canned or jarred artichokes seems muted in comparison with fresh artichokes, but I swear that even in that ubiquitous creamy, spinach-filled dip, or as a pizza topping, or in salads, or when added to paella, artichokes preserved in brine do contribute a subtly-sweet taste that affects the entire dish and any accompanying beverages. However, again based on my own subjective tastes and personal experience, marinated artichokes have little or no sweet aftertaste.

The difference seems to be that marinades, by definition, contain acid whereas brines typically do not—brines are just salty solutions. Now, pickling can imply either. Traditional pickling methods involve fermenting foods in brine, with no added acid. Their sourness is a product of the acids produced during fermentation. The more common form of pickling today begins with a solution that has added acids, usually vinegar. If Palazzo was referring only to the latter method—which would be artichokes labeled “marinated,” I agree with him. That also makes sense with the chefs’ suggestions to add acids in order to make artichokes play nice with wine; added acids must interfere with the cynarin and/or cholorogenic acid in the artichoke. But salt doesn’t seem to. Artichokes sold canned or jarred in brine (also technically “pickled”) still make food taste sweet.

Tomorrow, as this is apparently becoming artichoke week, I’ll post a super-easy recipe you can try to test the effects of artichokes in brine for yourself.

[Edit: Comments closed due to spam, but I welcome feedback. Feel free to e-mail me (see “contact” tab).

How to Eat an Artichoke, and other things trivia texting services can’t tell you

buying two fat globe artichokes in February in Michigan feels positively *decadent*

Every time I eat a whole, fresh artichoke I wonder two things:

photo by Matthew Wallenstein1) Who was the first person to take the time to figure out that if you cook this giant thistle bud and then remove all the stuff that’s still completely inedible, at the very center, there are a few ounces—not more than a few bites worth—of flesh that’s not just edible, but really tasty? (which frequently leads to questions 1a: how hungry would you have to be? and 1b: what else might that person have attempted to cook and eat?) and

2) How often do artichokes inspire that question? Like, in what percentage of instances where globe artichokes are prepared and consumed with at least some of their inedible parts intact do they cause people to wonder about their origins? Is it over 50%? Could it be as high as 70%? How many times, over how many different artichokes, has some version of the same conversation about the wonder and mystery of the artichoke’s discovery taken place?

Neither of which are answerable. The most we can know about the first person (or persons) who ate artichokes is that they probably lived in North Africa, where the giant thistles are still found in their wild form and where they acquired the Arabic name “al kharshuf,” which all the European names were derived from. But despite years and years of artichoke eating, I had never bothered to even find out that much because it’s not really a need to know kind of wonder that artichokes inspire. It’s more that they activate a sense of awe. Wonderment, I guess.

I mean, how weird and wonderful is it that this thorny armadillo of a vegetable exists? That there’s just a tiny piece of edible flesh clinging to each of the tough, pointy leaves and once you remove all of them and the bristly “choke,” you uncover this amazing savory-sweet heart that tastes completely unlike anything else in the world (except, apparently, the related cardoon I’ve never encountered)? If you read about it in a poem, you’d probably think it was a totally clumsy, ham-handed metaphor, too obvious by half. How literally incredible that some plant just happened to evolve that way.

Nonetheless, I decided to put question #1 to one of those crazy new services that charge you a fee to google shit for you, you lazy git text you answers to random questions. I asked kgb “Who was the first person to eat an artichoke?” at 5:57 pm. Here’s the exchange that followed:

From 542542

Thanks and sit tight. kgb is researching your answer & will send it shortly ($.99/answer). Msg&Data rates may apply. Reply HELP for help or STOP to cancel.

Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:58 pm

From 542542

Thanks for using kgb_Do you have any questions for us? We would love to answer it. Ask us! 24/7. No charge. kgb_team

Received: Mon Feb 15, 5:59 pm

To 542542

Never received answer to question: who was the first person to eat an artichoke?

Sent: Mon Feb 15, 6:02 pm

From 542542

Sorry for the delay. Pliny the Elder observed in 77 A.D. that Romans consumed artichokes. The name of the person to try it is unknown. No charge for this one.

Received: Mon Feb 15, 6:10 pm

So at least they don’t charge you if they can’t answer, and apologize if they get a non-answer to you in less time than it would take a sumo wrestler to stomp your ass. (I suppose that’s non-endorsing with faint praise?) ChaCha, “ur mobile BFF,” also basically threw in the towel:

The origin of artichokes is unknown, they are said to have come from the Maghreb (North Africa), so who knows who ate one first! Link

That “so” weirdly implies a causal connection between the fact that they’re from North Africa and the fact that no one knows who ate one first which seems a bit “Maghreb, land of mystery about which no historical facts can be ascertained!” If they were said to come from Sweden, would that also explain why we don’t know who ate one first? Another of our BFFs at ChaCha borrows a line from Greek mythology:

Cynara was a woman whom Zeus fell in love with and she betrayed him and he turned her into an artichoke because she ate them. Link

The myth of Cynara actually has a neat legacy in the names of one of the molecules that give artichokes their unique capacity for taste perversion—cynarin, which I’ll be writing more about in the next artichoke entry—and the liqueur made from artichokes—Cynar. But it doesn’t get us any closer to an answer to the questions.

I think a lot of what makes artichokes so intriguing is the fact that you have to be taught how to eat them, or initiated into what seems like a secret order of artichoke eaters. They’re complicated and fussy, the vegetal antithesis of the apple, whose starring role in so many sacred and secular stories seems fundamentally tied to how easy and natural the act of biting into a raw apple is. Surely Eve could have withstood the temptations of an artichoke. Surely Snow White would have figured out her disguised stepmother was up to no good by the time she was done with all that cleaning and trimming and cooking. You simply could not stumble on an artichoke in the wild and intuit how to consume it. And that’s not just because it has to be cooked: how much easier is it to figure out what to do with a potato or a winter squash?

off with its headMy mom was the one who taught me how to prepare and eat artichokes. On the rare occasions when they happened to be on sale at the grocery store, she would buy just one. We never ate them with or in a meal, always by themselves, often on the same day that we had gone shopping. I never saw other people eating them—not at restaurants or on television or at friends’ houses. I don’t even remember ever seeing my dad eat one. So artichokes always seemed like this special secret vegetable that only my mom knew what to do with.

However, wikipedia claims that what she always did with them: cut off the stem and the top, trim the leaves, steam until tender, and eat with butter is the way they are “most frequently prepared” in the U.S. I kind of doubt that in terms of the total volume of artichoke consumed; most artichokes eaten in America are probably consumed in the form of a creamy dip with a 90% chance of including spinach. But that kind of dip is almost always made with artichokes that have been frozen or preserved in brine, even by home cooks and Alton Brown. If you’ve ever had fresh artichoke, you already know why: they are one of the great exceptions to the general rule that everything savory is better with cheese and/or garlic. Fresh artichokes are so good by themselves, all you really need to do is steam them and eat them. So this won’t seem like much of a recipe, but in case your mom never showed you how, instructions and pictures after the jump:

Recipe: Whole Artichokes with butter (from my mom) the stem, which many people discard, actually tastes just like the heart

  • artichoke(s)—one per person unless you want to share, one artichoke actually makes a sort of romantic appetizer for two
  • water
  • salt
  • 1-2 t. butter per artichoke (or sub a vegan fat, if you like)

1. Set some salted water to boil in a large stock pot (or a smaller pot if you’re only cooking 1 artichoke). You can submerge the artichokes entirely, or just set them into 1-2” of water, or put them atop a steaming apparatus. I usually do the latter, treating them basically like broccoli so I don’t have to drain them afterwards. 

2. Cut off the top 1-1 1/2”  of the artichoke (see above) and the stem. Using kitchen sheers, snip any remaining leaf tips off. Peel the stem.

3. Place the artichokes and stems in the pot and boil/steam until you can pierce the bottom of the artichoke with a fork easily, about 25-30 minutes. If you care about color, don’t cover the pot. As the cell walls break down in the cooking process, the acids that are normally separated from the chlorophyll combine with them to create theophylline, so they lose their bright green color. If you leave the pot uncovered, much of the acid will evaporate with the steam. You may need to add more water midway through the cooking process.

February part 1 132

Or you can just microwave them. This is actually what my mom usually did—she’d put one in a bowl with a few tablespoons of water, cover it with plastic wrap with a few holes poked in it to let the steam escape, and microwave it for about 7 minutes, checking every couple of minutes to see if it was done. As with all vegetable steaming, the exact time may require some tweaking for your particular microwave, but it should give results that February part 1 133are virtually indistinguishable from stovetop cooking.

4. Melt butter (you could add some lemon juice or minced raw or roasted garlic if you really wanted to, but I prefer just the butter)

5. To eat: pull the leaves away one by one, starting at the bottom and working your way towards the middle. Dip each leaf in the butter and bite off the bit of flesh at the end.

As you work your way inside the bulb, the leaves will get smaller and thinner, and a greater portion of each one will be edible. They will come to resemble flower petals more than  leaves. And eventually, you’ll get to the “choke,” which would have been the purple bloom.

like petals the "choke," which is also just derived from the Arabic and not a reference to what will happen to you if you try to eat it

6. Scrape away the choke and drizzle the little disk of meaty flesh with any butter you have left. This is the heart; it demands to be savored.

mgofingers! in action!

And then everything will be sort of sweet for a while, even water. Which is a cool effect of the cynarin I’ll explain on Wednesday.

Feeling “umami”: On taste, subjectivity, and metaphor

The Modern Four Taste Orthodoxy

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely taken to be gospel truth until 2002, when the taste receptors for glutamate were identified. Glutamate, and the "umami" flavor it imparts to foods like seaweed, bacon, parmesan cheese, and Doritos, was first identified and isolated by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. But the four-taste model was so dominant that umami’s status as a distinct taste was considered "controversial" until its molecular basis was confirmed almost a century later. Here’s the description of umami in a book titled Sensory Processes published in 2002 (before the taste receptors were identified):

Umami originated from a glutamate derived from seaweed. The chemical substance is commonly known as MSG, monosodium glutamate, and, by itself, has no odor and an unusual taste that is approximated, so they say, by appropriate combinations of the four primary taste qualities. Whether umami is a result of the unique combination of the four tastes or an independent classification of is own is open to debate (176).

Oh, they and the things they say.

Umami’s been gaining traction—Kikkkoman’s current advertising campaign is "discover umami"(.com)—but it hasn’t quite arrived. This past Sunday on Iron Chef America, one of the judges said he detected some "umami" in a coconut-based soup, and then he had to define it for the other judges (and perhaps the audience?). His first stab was to call it an "illusory" taste, although he did follow that up by ranking it with "sweet, salty and sour," so perhaps he actually meant something more like "ineffable." Either way it shows how dominant the classical four tastes still are.

Except "classical" isn’t quite right word, because it turns out the idea that we only experience four distinct tastes is actually a pretty recent invention—more recent than Ikeda’s "discovery" of umami, actually. Traditional Chinese medicine named five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty, each one corresponding with one of the five elements or movements that are omnipresent in early Chinese thought. Aristotle claimed there were only two, which doesn’t come as that much of a surprise given his characteristic love of dualities. Just as he divided visual perception into the "fundamental colors" black and white, which contain all the elements of all the other colors we perceive, Aristotle thought the whole range of gustatory sensations derived from the "fundamental tastes" of sweetness and bitterness. He also proposed a second-order classification of seven "primary flavors" that corresponded with his rainbow of seven "primary colors": sweet (which included fatty or oily), bitter, salty, harsh, pungent, astringent, and acidic or sour. Hard to say now what exactly the difference was between harsh, pungent, and astringent—I suppose the latter might be something like the tannins in tea and red wine while "pungent" instantly evokes blue cheese although it often just acts as a modifier rather than a descriptor—a pungent smell is strong, not necessarily strongly any particular thing. It’s hard to even think of those things as taste categories on the same level as "sweet" or "sour."

But one question that raises is whether or not it’s hard to think of them that way because there’s some objective difference between sweetness and astringency or because it’s just unfamiliar to think of "astringent" as a primary taste category. Certainly tannins cause a particular reaction on people’s tongues—is that less of a distinct taste experience than the reaction caused by sugars?

Colors are a useful parallel, again. A linguistics professor I had at NYU told us about this experiment that my casual googling is not coming up with, but here’s the gist: if you give children a set of colored tiles and tell them sort them into as many piles as they want, by color, there are predictable, reliable differences between the number of piles they make that correspond to the number of primary colors in their primary language. So, for example, English-speaking kids generally put all hues of blue in one pile while Russian-speaking kids usually separate lighter blues from darker blues because they have two "primary color" words for those shades. It’s one of the classic examples of how language can shape how we perceive the world rather than just reflecting it. Also a reason why translation is always imperfect. 

Henning taste tetrahedronGetting back to the four taste orthodoxy, that was something a German psychologist named Hans Henning  came up with in 1916. He devised a ""taste tetrahedron" with each of the four tastes he thought were primary at the four vertexes. The idea was that flavors could be conceptually mapped onto geometric plane based on which of the primary flavors they were comprised of—a flavor relying on two of the primary tastes would be located on the edge between those two vertexes. Flavors that used three would be on the surface between the relevant three points. And the tetrahedron was hollow, according to Henning, because no substance could produce all four taste sensations. So while taste itself was three-dimensional, tastes were two-dimensional at best.

Minor digression: I suspect Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth century French gourmand who’s responsible for the cliche "you are what you eat" (well, ish, the problem of translation rears its head again; what he wrote was Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es, which is closer to, "Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are") would disagree, and name as exhibit A something involving veal stock (a sweet-sour-salty-bitter cabbage soup maybe?). Speaking of veal stock, Brillat-Savarin also sought to identify the special savory quality of "the purely sapid portion of flesh soluble in cold water," or functionally, umami. His word was osmazome. And surely Brillat-Savarin wasn’t the first to muse on the particular deliciousness of dashi, truffles, and tomatoes—especially after they’ve been cooked down into a rich sauce. So the 1908 "discovery" of umami turns out to be, like so many "discoveries" (*cough* America *cough*), basically a trumped-up (re)-christening.

Henning pruned away tastes like "astringent" and all the shades of flavor produced by the almost infinite variety of aromas we can detect because those aren’t, strictly speaking, "taste" sensations. The prickling and burning sensations caused by capcaicins (which make peppers "hot"), the puckering induced by tannins, and the palpable richness of unctuous or viscous foods are all tactile sensations. And aromas, obviously, are processed by the separate-but-related chemical sense of smell. As most people know, particularly if they’ve ever been seriously congested, smells are what turn functionally one or two-dimensional taste sensations into much more complicated (and enjoyable) perceptual experiences. Laboratory experiments in the early twentieth century that involved delicately swabbing the tongues of blindfolded, noseplugged subjects confirmed Henning’s taste quartet. In those conditions, the only things most tasters could reliably identify were sour, salty, sweet, and bitter.

More science to the rescue?

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether or not "taste" should actually be seen as a multi-sensory experience, those experiments were also limited by the descriptive vocabularies of the participants and the kinds of compounds applied to their tongues. Did the researchers try compounds that would have tasted alkaline or metallic or umami to most people? Even if they did, maybe people wouldn’t identify something like "umami" (or "osmazone") because they didn’t have a word for it, not because they didn’t taste it. Or maybe if they did, they called it "savory," and that was conflated with "salty."

Umami is, if not illusory, still notoriously difficult to isolate when tasting food and even harder to characterize. Perhaps part of that is because the compound itself has no smell, although neither do sugar or salt, and perhaps another part is that its description always ends up sounding more evaluative than descriptive—I mean, the Japanese term literally means "delicious." On the Iron Chef America episode I mentioned earlier, another judge playing with his new vocabulary joked, "Ooh, mommy!" which was dumb and irritating, but not actually completely off-base in terms of trying to describe the particular sensation imparted by glutamate. Try eating msg plain sometime (it’s available as Accent(tm) in the spice section of most grocery stores and in bags ranging from a few ounces to multiple pounds in Asian markets. And no, it won’t kill you, which is a post I’ll get to some other time)—it tastes like the exact intersection between Doritos, instant ramen, and Heinz ketchup. How do you describe that? It’s like the taste of tastiness.

More recent research, most of it enabled by the sequencing of the human genome, suggests that four tastes is far two few. While scientists haven’t identified them all yet, they now estimate that there are probably about 40 distinct taste receptors (and 300 distinct olfactory receptors), at least half of which are devoted to detecting bitter tastes. They’ve also discovered a number of complications in terms of how chemicals react with those receptors, and how the response triggered by different chemicals is perceived and processed in the brain. Even with other senses muffled, it now seems that people can indeed identify metallic, alkaline, and umami in addition to the big four. If we have trouble differentiating between all the different kinds of "bitter" we can taste, that’s probably because we tend to be averse to those tastes and have little practice trying to distinguish or name them, not a lack of complexity at the level of the tongue.

Additionally, tastes interact, even without the "interference" of smell or feeling. Sour flavors dampen bitter flavors (the role of the lime in a gin and tonic) and if you have a lot of something sour, it may make other foods or even relatively "neutral" substances like water taste sweet. There are also substances in specific foods that can mess with your taste receptors, which is why artichokes give anything else you eat for a while after an additional subtle sweetness (part of why it’s a great appetizer ingredient). The most dramatic example is the "miracle fruit" people got all excited about last year that contains a protein that temporarily binds to "sweet" taste receptors and reacts with acidic compounds, meaning you can eat plain raw lemons and they taste like the sweetest candy. (Note: it is kind of cool to be able to scarf down lime wedges like potato chips, but eating that much acid turned out to be sort of a regrettable decision for a lot of the people at our miracle fruit party. The remainder of the tablets we bought have languished in a drawer for over a year.)

To complicate matters even further, not all people taste the same things the same way. "Supertasters" are highly sensitive to bitter and spicy compounds, and some people really do have a "sweet tooth" that makes them inclined like sweeter foods more than most people, which could reflect a different perception of sugars anywhere between their tongue and their brain. Related: some fifteen percent of the population thinks cilantro tastes like soap.

And, as most people know from personal experience, the way people respond to the same foods may change over time—I drank about a hundred mochas when I was fifteen and had an irrepressible crush on a Starbucks employee, which stopped me from ordering the hot chocolate I actually wanted because I didn’t want to seem like a little girl. Gradually, aided no doubt by the fact that mochas are as close to hot chocolate as a coffee drink can possibly be, I came to like the coffee flavor. Within another year or so, I honestly preferred my coffee black (and personally delivered by a particular waiter at my local Denny’s).

But all that said, I can’t quite get behind the idea that we’re all special snowflakes and taste is an entirely, or even primarily subjective, individual experience. I just don’t buy that in five years or so, I will be able to "tell [a restaurant] my flavor type on the Internet at the time I make my reservation and [have them] design a meal just for my DNA," the way this Gourmet magazine article suggests.

Fill in the blank: My, you’re ____________! A) sour B) salty C) bitter D) sweet E) umami

Surely it’s not a purely arbitrary coincidence that the four tastes Henning settled on were part of basically every attempt to classify the primary tastes from ancient China to ancient Greece to Restoration England. Would anyone, ever, propose a four-taste system that included only harsh, pungent, astringent, and sour? Or metallic, umami, spicy, and oily?

It seems odd, and potentially significant that the four tastes Henning canonized are also the tastes with the most widespread metaphorical use. They’re not just taste sensations, they’re part of our basic descriptive currency for emotional states, facial expressions, personalities, reactions, gestures, and the things that prompt those things. Sourpuss. Salty humor. A bitter pill. A sweet smile. And they’re used similarly in other languages—the French refer to someone being overly polite or affable as "Etre tout sucre tout miel," or "being all sugar all honey," and the phrase "sweet as sugar/honey" in Arabic (ahla-mina s’sukkar/l’asal) means the same thing it does in English. I’m sure there are a million more examples, but foreign languages aren’t my strong suit.

Other flavors can be, and often are, used metaphorically, especially "spicy" (which, remember, was a common candidate for the fifth spot in many pre-20th C. classification schemes), but few of them have permeated to the point of idiom and cliche the way the big four have. You might describe a person as astringent or a prospect as savory, but both involve a taking a little poetic license. Others are even further afield—I guess I can imagine a metallic facial expression or alkaline feeling, but I think you’d need other context to help you out there and I’m really not sure what it would mean to describe something other than food as "umami."

At least one thing the metaphorical use of taste seems to suggest is a minimum amount of shared taste perception. When Shakespeare used the phrase "honey tongue," no one in his audience needed to have heard the phrase before to understand what he was getting at. With all due respect to individual genetic and cultural differences, it seems to make more sense that  people would largely share the same taste experiences than that they would differ, at least in extreme ways. It seems only natural that we should all be repulsed by the bitter poisons that would kill us, and that our understanding of what sorts of feelings are involved in and communicated by a "bitter glance" is part of that common taste experience.

So, by way of explaining the title of the blog, I didn’t leave out tastes like umami and metallic and alkaline (and however many more have yet to be named) because I wanted to reify the outdated idea that we only have four basic tastes. Instead, I wanted to invoke the dimensions of taste that seem most central to our experiences with food and also impart clear metaphorical connotations. The twinned subjects of this blog—the food I make and eat and my experiences and concerns as a cook and an eater—will both be sour sometimes, salty often, bitter occasionally, and hopefully sweet at least from time to time. I would try to be and feel and say umami things too, but I’m not sure I know how.

References not linked above:

Aristotle and William Alexander Hammond. 1902. Aristotle’s psychology: a treatise on the principle of life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Digitized 2006 by Google.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. 1825. The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. Fayette Robinson. Digitized 2004 by ebooks@Adelaide and Project Gutenberg

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.