Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Subjective Complexity of Food

In my last essay, I drew the conclusion that what made food inherently "good" was not easily or simply defined. Differing personal experiences and preferences play into exactly what each person thinks and feels about a food or a dish. I am also realizing, more and more, that people can even have different ideas of exactly what it is they're tasting; and, sometimes, both can be correct.

You may be familiar with the discovery of how humans actually perceive color:

Our sensations of colour are within us and colours cannot exist unless there is an observer to perceive them. Colour does not exist even in the chain of events between the retinal receptors and the visual cortex, but only when the information is finally interpreted in the consciousness of the observers.*

Essentially, what we perceive as color is primarily a wavelength of light's reflection. The shortest viewable wavelength is what we see as blue, and the longest wavelength is what we see as red; the other wavelengths that fall between them are what we see as other colors. However, color perception is subjective: we do not have a way of proving that two different people perceive the same color.

So when you and I both see and think of "blue," we may be thinking of two different colors to some degree, depending on how our individual brains interpret it; similarly, we may have different labels for what is essentially the same color. Just think: is there any way to answer the question, "Does the blue you're seeing match the blue I'm seeing?"

Did you ash in my wine?
I think that the same thing happens with flavor. Anyone who has been wine tasting with a group of people has probably witnessed evidence that suggests this: a complex red wine can contain notes of a dozen different aromatics, even some that seemingly have nothing to do with food. From barnyard in a Bordeaux, to leather in a Malbec, to a whisper of cigar or a sniff of clove; a talented nose can pick out all sorts of aromas in a glass of wine.

But here, as I see it, is the rub: there is no way to verify or know precisely what each individual tastes; and even if two or more agree on a specific note of flavor, are they actually tasting the same thing? Much like color, flavor is open to interpretation: does your idea of caramel equate exactly to my idea of caramel? Probably not. Everything from different personal experiences to variations in tastebud topography can and do affect how we perceive taste and to what degree. In essence, 'taste' itself ceases to exist until someone puts something in their mouth and consciously observes its taste; our awareness of taste is the very thing that makes it exist.

I seem to be treading into Descartes' territory at this point: I taste, therefore I am? Actually, it's more like, "I am, therefore I taste." And if I am tasting a bottle of wine with a few other people, who is anyone to say whether or not I taste strawberries, or straw, or strudel? Sometimes one person will get notes of this, while another will get a taste of that, and so on. There is, expectedly, plenty of common ground when everyone tastes the same food, but now and then one person will get something the others don't. I would hope that said person isn't just full of shit; I mean, what does he stand to gain from making something up? So... giving him the benefit of the doubt, isn't it strange that he tastes something no one else does?

wine and boxes just make sense together.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie French Kiss starring Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline. The two (whose characters are Kate and Luc, respectively) are drinking wine, and Luc presents a box containing little vials of of herbs, spices, and flowers that came from the surrounding countryside. Smelling the contents of the box, then taking a sip of wine, Kate is able to pull out flavors of currant and lavender almost immediately, as she had experienced them moments before in their vials. But if there had been no magic box, it may have been much harder for Kate to place the scents and tastes she was experiencing.

Similarly, when that group of people from before was trying to explain what they smelled or tasted in their wine, maybe someone couldn't quite put their finger on a flavor, so it went unnoticed. I can recall wine tasting with the Clamages in Napa last Spring, when our group stood for a good five minutes with our noses buried in our glasses of wine, trying to articulate exactly what it was that we all smelled but couldn't name. Nearly at the brink of real frustration, I finally had the epiphany: it was green tomato. There was a distinct aroma of green tomato in this glass of white wine. Weird, right?

That's the part that's even stranger about taste: there were obviously no green tomatoes harmed in the making of that wine. Nor do they put leather in Cabernet Sauvignon or strawberries in Pinot Noir or granite in Pinot Grigio. How is it possible then that you can taste these things when you drink a glass of their respective wines? One obvious (and accurate) explanation is terroir, the idea that the soil, air, and water that nourish a grapevine influence the wine it becomes; from limestone in the earth beneath it, to berries and flowers that grow across the earth around it, terroir is like a hidden flavor code in grapes that can only be unlocked through the wonder of the vinification process.

Terroir, however, only explains some of those flavors. Where do the vanilla or clove notes come from in a glass of Napa Cab? Vanilla and clove both grow on literally the other side of the world, so there is no way they are making their way into the terroir of Northern California. This is where the idea of flavor really starts to get into unexplainable territory.

beans: the musical fruit?
I recently sampled a new line of chocolate bars from Lake Champlain Chocolates called Blue Bandana, made exclusively and intentionally with cocoa beans from Madagascar. The founder of Blue Bandana, Eric Lampman, designed the bars to be all about the chocolate tasting experiences. Simple, but exquisite, tasting these chocolate bars is a mind-blowing exercise in flavor exploration. There are floral undertones, distinct flavors of tart citrus and red berries, bitter coffee balanced with bright fruit. Just like with a glass of wine, the notes and hints of this and that are numerous and open to interpretation.

It makes me ponder about the nature of flavor and tasting in the human mouth... bear with me here:

what do these taste like to you?
Imagine that "flavor" is made of lots of different elements, each relatively insignificant on its own but distinct nonetheless... kind of like legos. There are hundreds of different shapes, sizes, and colors of lego, but on its own, not a one of them is really remarkable. Yet each of these pieces has a number of different ways it can be attached to or combined with other pieces, yielding an exponential possibility of different shapes and constructions. And if you have the right pieces and put them together in the right way, you can get something recognizable: a dog, a boat, a tree, whatever.

Now think of what taste is on a molecular level: it's your mouth's cells interacting with other biological matter and sending a message to your brain. If taste is made up of all these 'legos,' then when we taste something, like chocolate, it may contain traces of the same flavors as, say, berries, in the same way that if I made a boat and a tree out of legos, I might use some of the same pieces to make these two very different things. Follow me?

Moreover, we can only define flavors in terms of what we already know. Once we know the words, we can say earthy, or sweet, or bitter, or salty, or whatever; and we can say, "it tastes like..." But if you have never seen or eaten a pear and you try one, you can't say "It tastes like a pear," until someone tells you that what you're tasting is called a pear. And you certainly wouldn't ever say something else tastes like a pear if you'd never tasted a pear before. So if someone notices blackberry on their tongue as they taste a Montepulciano, they could actually be tasting some of the same 'legos' in the grape that we also find in 'putting together' a blackberry; and due to the aforementioned difficulty of naming flavors beyond the already available terms, we say "notes of blackberry."

Such is the subjective complexity of food and flavor: in a sense, anyone can be right when they call out flavors and discoveries in his glass of wine or her chocolate bar. Until you can taste a mile in someone's tongue, you can't know exactly what flavors are dancing around his mouth or firing off in his brain. All we can hope to do is strive to sharpen our own senses, and learn about where our food comes from. It's definitely a fun exercise, especially with a group, to sit there chewing or swishing, trying to decipher pieces in the hidden code of flavor bouncing around your tastebuds. Even if it's challenging at first, you'll find that you get better the more you do it.

smell your food!
Whether you're a novice nose or professional flavor translator, you have a great excuse to go pick up a bottle of wine or a bar of chocolate (Tcho, which I have mentioned before, is another chocolate brand that really showcases and contrasts the terroir and complexity of cacao from different origins), or even a great cup of coffee. Pay attention to what you eat, and you may just be surprised what you find.

*Wright, W. D. 1963. "The Rays are Not Coloured"