By Robin Weaver
A good friend recently raved about steak-and-kidney pie, gushing in a manner I typically reserve for salted-caramel ice cream (or new shoes). His enthusiasm convinced me to give the dish a try.
Ye gods of yuck! The stuff tasted like liver.
To my credit, I didn’t gag—well, maybe a little in my head—but I wondered how one dish could evoke such different responses. Was this liver wannabee a “comfort food” for my friend or were our taste buds simply that different? Perhaps taste really is just a matter of—well, taste.
So exactly what is taste? No surprise that it starts in the mouth (well, duh) where each of us has about ten thousand taste buds—yep, that many. And every one of these teeny-tiny flavor producers has 10-50 cells that sense sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory, the five things scientist tell us we can taste (I’m still trying to figure out where fishy fits). Then, genetics come into play. We each experience the five tastes differently. If you’re doing the math (10,000 x 50 x 5 factorial), you’re probably wondering how any of us like any of the same things.
Taste gets even more complicated because “flavor” is a combination of taste and smell. Don’t believe me? Hold your nose and taste your food (this test might not apply to chocolate). Just like taste, our sense of smell is closely linked to emotions. Have a bad experience with tuna (for example, eat it just before your appendix ruptures) and the food will forever make you seasick. On the flip side, a positive experience can actually help you learn to “re-like” foods. So maybe if Ryan Reynolds came to my house with a tuna sandwich and the winning lottery ticket…nah, couldn't stomach the stuff even then. Still you get the picture—or in this case, scent.
Taste is further affected by:
· Texture (Why does that make me think of potato chips?)
· Temperature (if you have brain freeze, can you still taste?)
· Coloring—we’re all familiar with blue food revulsion and are also aware a lot of restaurants use red paint to make us hungrier.
· Noise—Cornell scientists tested the impact of 85-decibel noise (a.k.a economy class) and compared the experience with that of the much quieter ride in first class. Those test subjects tasted less sweetness and saltiness compared to the swankier fliers in the front of the plane. And you thought the advantage of first-class was more leg room.
· Mommy Dearest—to further add to the differing taste equation, scientist now think babies are predisposed to like the foods mom eats while pregnant. Do you suppose the next generation will be addicted to Starbucks?
It’s pretty clear, taste is a very unique thing, but can “taste” be learned. In other words, will I ever like steak-and-kidney pie? According to the Oregon State University's Department of Food Science, most people don't like beer the first time they try it. Using that analogy, the meat pie doesn’t have a prayer. I still don’t like beer.