Copyright © Barb Stuckey 2014

    TASTE DU JOUR

    A Modest Proposal

    Image for Modest Proposal

    A columnist in USA Today was shocked at how high school differs today from the teen years we spent there.  The reporter was shocked (shocked!) to find kids eating in the classroom with apparently no repercussions from the lecturing teacher.  I was shocked, too.  We used to get detention for chewing gum!

     

    We eat EVERYWHERE.  This is one of the reasons we have a public health obesity crisis.  We eat whenever food is available.  We eat while we’re walking to get from Here to There.  We eat when we get There.  We’ve blurred the lines between mealtimes.  We’ve lost our societal ability to discern hunger.

     

    Once upon a time there was a public health crisis caused by cigarette smoking.  How did we address smoking (in part)?  We’ve curtailed locations were smoking is legal. My idea, very simply, is to similarly legislate WHERE people can eat.

     

    THE CLASSROOM

    Our public schools are in crisis.  The declining quality of education has long been an issue at the highest—presidential, even—levels. Let’s sanctify the classroom with a national law against eating while teachers are lecturing.  It’s sure to result in more kids paying closer attention to their instructors.  There’s a time when eating is encouraged.  It’s called lunch.

     

    THE CAR

    Here’s a statistic that will make you think differently about eating behind the wheel:  94% of those surveyed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Association think eating while driving is a threat to their and their passenger’s safety. This is almost exactly the same number (97%) as those who think cell phone use is a threat.  Many states have already legislated against talking on the cell phone while driving.  By creating a DWE (Driving While Eating) law, we can make our highways safer at the same time we eliminate another opportunity for calorie ingestion.

     

    THE OFFICE

    Our MIS guy tells me I should stop eating at my desk.  Apparently, my keyboard is gunked up with the remnants of 16 years of lunch at my desk.  I could simultaneously appease him while following the advice of Mireille Guiliano, author of French Women Don’t Get Fat.  Her best-seller advocates seriously concentrating on lunch—instead of the computer screen—to magically lose weight and, I hope, gain the ability to smartly wear a scarf, like French women.

     

    THE AIRPLANE

    According to a study done by the Center for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the airline industry spent $275 million on 350 million extra gallons of fuel in 2000 to carry additional American paunch.  I ask you:  do we really need a beverage and a 200 calorie snack on a 35 minute flight from O’Hare to Green Bay? Even if you are starving and dying of thirst, the minute you step off a flight, you’re within a Snickers’ distance of calories and a water fountain of hydration.  Let’s help the airline industry stay aloft by eliminating thousands of dollars of needless calories from their balance sheet.

     

    Do I really believe this is how we should attack the obesity crisis?  Let’s just say you can call me Jonathan Swift.  And this is my modest proposal.

     

    http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/reader/0486287599/ref=sib_dp_pt/102-6889199-9443352#reader-page

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    Dear Mr. Restaurateur: The Details Count!

    Acme bread beauty

    I live and dine in the San Francisco Bay Area, the birthplace of artisan bread in America.

    When Alice Waters started her revolution in the seventies, she grabbed a local baker and dragged him with her. The resulting company, Acme Bakery, still makes some of the best bread in Northern Cal, if not the country. These days, you can even buy their chewy baguettes and pain au levain at Costco. Perhaps I’m a bread snob, having been spoiled by the riches of living within a square mile of Tartine, Arizmendi, and Noe Valley Bakery, but my point is that this is a bread-loving place. As a result, you don’t have to stumble too far to find a world-class loaf.

    So how, then, do I forgive fine restaurants in the area that serve shitty bread? There is simply no excuse! Just last night I ate at a self-proclaimed “interpretive Italian and seasonally-inspired” Roman restaurant. The hospitality was warm from the minute I walked in the door and was greeted by the silver-haired owner.

    The menu read like food porn (click here to see my blog post on sex + food), the atmosphere was authentically rustic, the air appropriately stinky from the aging wheels of Italian cheese downstairs. I didn’t love my entrée, but I blame myself for ordering wrong. I should have known a pasta dish with tuna, pancetta, and mushrooms would be a mess. But the single most disappointing thing was the room temperature, ordinary bread. No sourness. No warm interior. No seeds. No flavor. I wanted to grab the owner by the mane and scream: heat the bread! Spend another dollar a loaf! Put some love into it.

    If I’m going to spend $27 dollars on an entrée I want special bread to make the price seem worthwhile. And if you don’t value bread enough to make your bread service special, don’t serve it. Or charge me for it. I’d rather pay for an amazing bread basked than be disappointed in a lame giveaway.

    Sex & Food: Two Sensual, Similar Multisensory Experiences

    Cover image french fry ketchup

     

    I lost my virginity in the dark.

     

    Probably not unlike other teenagers in the eighties, my prior exposure to sex had been a combination of Judy Blume novels and John Hughes movies. I was equally tantalized and terrified at the prospect. Never in a million years would I have thought that people had sex with the lights on.

     

    At that phase of my life, I knew just as little about getting pleasure from food. I ate from vending machines and drive-thrus, and sped through family meals. I’d then rush off to more important things than family togetherness and the communal savoring of food.

     

    I’m sure at some point in school I learned that the way we experience the world is through our senses. But the connection was never made to eating or sexual relations, although both activities are base, primal urges that we have trouble repressing, even when we want to. But today our species is assured continuation in the short term, and we have control of our reproduction (at least under the current administration) so much of our copulation is strictly for entertainment. The same can be said for eating. We don’t have to scrounge for nourishment like our cavemen ancestors did. In fact, we eat more calories in one meal than many humans eat over the course of a day. Much of the time, we’re eating for entertainment. So why don’t we recognize that each one of our senses is stimulated in the course of each activity? If we did, we’d get a lot more pleasure out of both.

     

    Sex is, of course, a tactile experience. Yet our enjoyment of it comes from the combination of visual, sound, smell and taste inputs. If you have trouble imagining how our eyes impact our sensuality, all you have to do is consider that porn accounts for 30% of all internet traffic. We use visual images to stimulate ourselves. Having sex in the dark employs only 80% of our sensory apparatus. Maybe that’s why my earliest experiences were so unsatisfying.

     

    We similarly stimulate ourselves with food. After watching a gorgeous, natural light-kissed cookbook video eight times in one day, I realized my behavior was veering dangerously close to a food porn addiction. You cookbook readers out there hanging your heads in shame know exactly what I’m talking about. Yet we also cheat ourselves with food. We eat while watching TV, which is somewhat worse than eating in the dark (which I’ve done and write about in my book) because it occupies the brain as well as the eyes. True food appreciation requires undistracted use of the brain in addition to all five of the senses.

     

    Just last week Charles Spence’s lab at Oxford University published results of their latest research on how sound affects our experience of food. He proved that the same food tastes vastly different when vastly different music plays in the background. I’m waiting for restaurateurs to learn this and more appropriately pair the food and music they serve to their customers. As Spence’s research has proven, the wrong music can literally leave a bitter taste in your mouth. If you think this doesn’t happen with sex, it’s only because you never made out with Jimbo Redwine in the 8th grade with Run-DMC playing in the background.

     

    When I’m giving book talks, I often get asked questions about taste oddities. There’s the predicable question about why urine smells weird after eating asparagus. And the inevitable debate over cilantro: love it or hate it? But my favorite question is when someone dances delicately around the topic before getting to the point, which is the smell or taste of her partner. This shouldn’t be so embarrassing to us. Our sense of smell is one of the ways we choose partners, according to much research on the subject. So, my first response is that if your partner smells wrong, he probably is (for you). And my second response is that if your partner tastes wrong, you could always employee the artichoke trick. Unfortunately, not all of us experience the effect wherein everything that follows the choke tastes as sweet as sugar.

     

    Oddities aside, I advocate treating mealtime like you’d treat a much-anticipated intimate encounter. After all, eating is the only multi-sensory experience you can enjoy three times a day, every day, in private or in public without worry. Give eating your full attention. Turn off the TV and radio, put down the book or magazine, and don’t answer the phone if it rings. Life will wait. Hot food deserves respect. And it deserves the attention of all of your senses.

     

    Take your meal in visually, noticing the contours and topography of your food. Listen to what it’s telling you with its signature sound. Smell it ortho-nasally (by sniffing it through your nostrils) before you take a bite. Once you put it in your mouth, chew slowly, breathe, and notice the slightly different smell you experience retro-nasally (from inside your mouth up and back through your nose). Then, try to detect which of the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami are present. Pay attention to texture contrast, and how the food feels as you chew. Listen to the melody while it’s in your mouth. Swallow only when you’ve gotten the full pleasure out of each bite.

     

    And most importantly, with regard to any and all activities, if it doesn’t taste delicious, don’t swallow.

     

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    The Bitter Flow of Ideas

    Scrappys

    For years the creative process at the restaurant bar stayed respectfully separate from that of the kitchen. Chefs did their thing. Bartenders did their thing. And never the two shall meet. Then everything changed.

    Sometime around the beginning of this century, bartenders woke up, walked into the kitchen, looked behind the line, and thought, “Wait a minute. Why do they get to play with all the fresh produce? Why do they get to create their own sauces? Why am I stuck using bottled crap?”

    And on that day, He said unto thee, “Ye shall no longer toil under thy old
    moniker. I heretofore pronounce thee Mixologist.”

    We all know what happened next. Mixologists started turning cocktails into
    fleeting, seasonal slurps of Summer. Warm, wonderful whiskey wisps of Autumn. And sprouting, sour, sips of Spring. The idea of starting with fresh ingredients, transforming them with culinary skill, and serving them to guests had spilled out of the kitchen and into the bar. Well, the pot is about to be stirred, again.

    In Taste What You’re Missing, I devote an entire chapter to the Basic Taste
    bitter. It’s the most maligned of the five. It’s wildly underappreciated thanks to Mother Nature, who endowed us with a deep, unshakable suspicion of bitter tastes. This is, of course, protective, as most poisons taste bitter. What we don’t realize though, is that when we taste bitter, we’re tasting the essence of health. That’s because the compounds in a food that make it bitter are also the ones that make it healthy: isoflavones, phenolic acids, and carotenoids, for example. But beyond adding healthfulness, a tiny dose of bitter also adds a complexifying some’n-some’n to cocktails. And food.

    I like to use unsweetened cocoa when I want to increase the bitter structure of a food. Any time you can add an appropriate Basic Taste counterpoint, the result is generally a stronger base from which to build flavor. But I hadn’t considered using bitters—in their most literal form—in the kitchen. I’m talking about bitters, as in Angostura. Yes, Angostura, that white paper-wrapped bottle that you’ll find in the well of any bar. Angostura has been around so long that its website’s contact page features a non-cordless phone. In other words, one with a rubber-wrapped, Slinky-like thing that required you to stay in one spot while talking.

    Angostura may have been the bitters of choice in the 1990s, but today’s
    mixologist has a pantry of artisan choices: Scrappy’s, The Bitter Truth, Brooklyn Bitters. It’s easy to foresee a future where chefs reach for Scrappy’s Bitter Celery to add a signature taste (bitter) and aroma (celery) to their soups, stews, and sauces.

    It seems the flow of creativity in the restaurant has come full circle. What’s next?

    Maraschino cherry salad?

    Coming Soon…

    Check back later for some fresh-out-of-the-oven news about discoveries in the fields of taste and food development.

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    It’s not dinner time yet…

    Stay tuned for my latest food adventures.

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