Liver, blue cheese, candy, chili peppers. Some people like these foods, others loathe them. But why? How is it that some humans love sweets but hate hot stuff? How can some beer drinkers go crazy for hops while others prefer nothing but sweet, malty stouts? The secret goes beyond our tongues to our very DNA.
Tasty by John McQuaid explores the whole history of taste, starting hundreds of millions of years ago with trilobites and progressing through the stages of evolution. McQuaid does this through five meals that show the progress of vertebrates, touching on the use of tools and ultimately fire.
It also seems a lot changed for humans when we moved off the African continent into other areas of the world and discovered a wider variety of things to eat. As we evolved, people in different parts of the world developed different tastes and this happened within our very genes, creating various levels of tasting ability from super-tasters down to those folks whose taste buds offer little in the way of reaction, allowing them to drink bottles of hot sauce without breaking a sweat.
McQuaid then moves into tastes for specific types of food and flavours, visiting the world of fermentation; the manipulation of flavour by way of miraculin, the miracle berry that makes sour or bitter foods taste sweet; our general addiction to sugar and sweet foods; our reactions of delight and disgust at certain foods; and the macho sport of chili-loving. McQuaid also touches on the manufacturing of flavours, from experiments in restaurants like Momofuku to companies that use taste to manipulate our reactions to their products, to the bespoke blending of spice mixtures and teas. He also references a rather terrifying phone app that releases smells.
These sections are interesting and informative but Tasty tends to be very science-oriented and often provides only an overview of the subject. Because the author needs to cover many aspects of how we taste things (and why we like those things), few chapters are comprehensive. For instance, there’s a lot more to be said about fermentation and the flavours it creates than McQuaid can fit into a single chapter. Likewise, the bizarre nuances of synesthesia, the crossing of senses that, in extreme cases, causes the sufferer to taste a song or a colour.
Another example of how Tasty is more science than flavour is the discussion of goings on in the orbitofrontal cortex where neurons respond to specific tastes. Turns out science has a solid explanation for the “room for dessert” theory, as our brains will shut down the pleasure response to certain foods while keeping it alive for others. That’s why you couldn’t possibly eat any more kale but yes, ice cream would be lovely, thank you.
Tasty is a solid overview to the sense of taste and its development; McQuaid offers an excellent primer for the reader to use as a means of further exploration. However, as a jaded food writer who reads a lot of food theory texts, I didn’t find a lot that was new or innovative – I’ve not only read about Chateau Jiahu, the beer from Dogfish Head brewery based on a recipe created from analyzing liquid preserved in 9,000-year-old bottles found in a village in China, I’ve tasted it. But the average reader might be provoked to try something new, or research aspects of taste and flavour they might not have before.
Recommended if you really dig the science aspects of food theory and physiology of taste, and a great launchpad for further reading on a variety of subjects from fermentation, food preferences, the diversity of food cultures, the history of sugar, and the future of the food industry from DNA-laden tomatoes to flavour additives.
This post originally appeared on Vermicious, a totally cool alternative culture blog curated by the awesome John Seven.