Copyright © Barb Stuckey 2017

    TASTE DU JOUR

    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?

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