Do men and women experience taste and smell differently? And what happens when you eat a meal completely in the dark? Diane Fresquez, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, spent a year on the trail of obsessive scientists and entrepreneurs who are trying to reveal the secrets of flavor.
In this picaresque jaunt, Fresquez seeks out the people working to uncover the truths about taste, including a brewery owner who's developed a banana-flavored beer meant to appeal to young women, and an entrepreneur who won't rest until he develops the perfect mead, the ancient liquor considered the ancestor of all fermented drinks. We meet a young mother and a PhD student whose research shows that what a mother eats can influence the flavor of her breast milk, and a scientist in the Netherlands who does research on flavor and memory at an Orwellian university lab called The Restaurant of the Future. A Taste of Molecules will delight foodies and scientists alike.
About the Author
Diane Fresquez is a food and arts journalist based in Brussels, Belgium. She was for many years a special correspondent to the Wall Street Journal , contributing to and editing for the newspaper's Weekend section in Europe. She also contributes to other publications, including the Science/Business news service. Prior to that she worked in London as a script reader for a range of UK media companies, including Handmade Films, HTV, and Sky Television. She was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and is a graduate of the University of New Mexico.
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If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, first you must invent the universe.
Although it's often said that every journey begins with a single step, in this case it began with a single salsa. The sauce, not the dance. That is, half a dozen ripe tomatoes, a sprinkle of sugar (to improve the flavor of the tomatoes; omit if homegrown), two scallions, three cloves of garlic, one jalapeño pepper, and a handful of fresh coriander — everything chopped and stirred together in a bowl with a good splash of white vinegar and salt to taste.
It was a Sunday afternoon in October and my husband and I had been invited to our friends' house for a drink. We were late, I was distracted and disoriented, but at the last minute I decided to make salsa to bring along. I had just returned from a difficult trip home to the southwestern United States, where I was born and raised. My husband and I had lived in London for many years, but were now living in Brussels, a delightful place to which we had moved for work, along with our two daughters.
Belgium is about the size of Maryland, and although small compared to its next-door neighbors, France and Germany, it produces more than 172,000 tons of chocolate a year, and is densely populated with excellent restaurants. It's also home to many an opinionated food lover, including a certain Renaissance man named Hughes Belin, a French journalist specializing in energy and climate issues, part-time restaurant critic, gourmand, and amateur singer (jazz and rock). He was our friends' good chum, and my husband and I met him for the first time at their home that afternoon. Having a drink with him really cheered me up. Hughes was even later than we were, and dressed casually with some of his top shirt buttons undone, exposing more chest hair than one usually sees on men nowadays. It was his signature style, apparently, and I don't think he would mind me mentioning it. On the Slow Food Bruxelles website there's a large photo of him wearing nothing but an apron and a cheeky grin.
Hughes sat on the edge of our friend Jacky's sofa as if ready to fly off at any minute to the next exciting rendezvous. He had that mercurial air of a bad-boy television chef, and talked animatedly about the book he was writing, a bilingual (French and English) dining-out guide to the city's restaurant-dense European Quarter, home of the European Commission and the European Parliament. He also talked about the challenge and the fun of cooking up something delicious with friends even though, and especially if, the cupboard is nearly bare. I was relieved we were at Jacky's and not my house, when I heard that he heads straight to the kitchen whenever he arrives at the home of friends, family or acquaintances.
"I open the fridge first," he said, and indeed I had seen him rummaging inside Jacky's when he arrived. Hughes was a man possessed, a foodie force of nature. Discovering nothing more than a fresh baguette and a piece of artisanal cheese in someone's kitchen could fill him with ineffable happiness, but finding a cupboard stuffed with packages of junk food could leave him in despair.
As Hughes talked, he ignored the small bowl of salsa sitting on the coffee table in front of him, and I became increasingly embarrassed that I had made it and brought it over in the first place. I had forgotten to bring a serving bowl, and it didn't look particularly appetizing sitting there in the small, glass mixing bowl I had used to transport it. Jacky prompted him to eat the salsa and he began absentmindedly, with no interest at first, until suddenly I saw his expression change to one of surprise and delight. Apparently it tasted far better than it looked. "My father puts the jalapeño in boiling water for a few mintues before chopping to bring out the flavor," I told Hughes. Thus, this small, piquant offering, my father's recipe, turned out to be a direct and lasting way into this restaurant critic's heart.
I was born and raised in New Mexico and had recently returned from a trip home to be at my elderly mother's bedside before she died. Now I was using salsa and other dishes, such as her recipe for arroz con pollo, which I was obsessed with cooking at the moment, as a way of mourning. I was lucky enough to have brought back with me a good supply of the ingredient that gave this simple chicken and rice dish its special flavor: little cans of fire-roasted green chilies from Hatch, New Mexico, my mother's favorite. The chilies were hand peeled, and sometimes you had to pick off a few specks of bitter, burned skin before chopping and adding them to your dish, but it was worth it. My mother was gone, but I had remembered some dishes whose aromas and tastes brought me tantalizingly and momentarily close to her. It was a rush of memory that, as I was sadly learning by making arroz con pollo over and over, was beginning to dry up with each attempt to tap into it.
It was Proust who most famously expressed his fascination and frustration with flavor and involuntary memory after drinking a spoonful of tea in which one of those small, scalloped-shaped sponge cakes, petites madeleines, had been dipped. "I drink a second mouthful, in which I find nothing more than in the first, then a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its virtue."
When I was a child, I never much liked traditional New Mexican food. I grew up in the 1960s, and although both of my parents were Hispanic, we were raised mostly on a diet of iconic, processed American fare like Velveeta Cheese, Campbell's Cream of Celery soup, and my personal favorite, Welch's Grape Jelly. My sisters and I used this popular toast topper as flavored adhesive in the bacon sandwiches we made at our house every Sunday after Mass in the days when you had to fast all morning before Communion. These salty, sugary sandwiches (spread toast with grape jelly, lay on as much bacon as you can get your hands on, fold toast in half firmly until you hear the bacon crack) are perhaps best described as distant cousins of sweet and sour pork. They were always accompanied by fried eggs, and were invented by me, not my sisters, although they'll tell you differently. The few New Mexican specialties I did like, however, were of the sweet variety, such as Indian Fry Bread, served with powdered sugar or honey: a festive treat I first discovered at the annual New Mexico State Fair. If I had really wanted to impress Hughes I should have made sopaipillas, a similar New Mexican snack. Sopaipillas are hollow pillows of deep fried dough, the recipe for which is similar to that of flour tortillas, but instead of being flat they puff up as big as your fist when dropped in hot oil. I'm sure Hughes would have enjoyed the pleasant tactile ritual that goes with eating them: while the sopaipilla is still warm, tear off one of its pointy corners and pop it into your mouth — they're usually rectangular in shape, but my mother always made them triangular — and squeeze a bit of honey into the moist cavity from a plastic honey container shaped like a bear.
But I had not made sopaipillas, I had made salsa — and here in Brussels, where it was chilly enough that Jacky had made a fire in the fireplace, this typical Southwestern, undainty amuse-bouche not only looked unappetizing and out of place but, I realized as Jacky handed around glasses of white wine, should have been served with margaritas. Nevertheless, Hughes was eating the salsa with gusto, and wanted to know about me, that is, my food credentials. I told him I was a regular contributor to the weekend section of the Wall Street Journal's Europe edition, and loved writing about food and cooking.
To describe my life in culinary terms, however, would have been to conjure up a resume similar to that of many women of my age and background. I enjoyed baking when I was growing up; made faux tuna casseroles (canned tuna, sliced white bread, grated cheddar cheese) and the like in the toaster oven in my college dorm; learned how to cook economically "for one" by making dishes like lasagna, and eating the same thing, night after night, after getting my first job; became interested in cooking and dinner parties in the early years of my marriage after my husband and I moved to London where, inspired by one of the growing number of celebrity chefs who had begun to appear on British television, I once made Peking Duck by hanging it out to dry for hours in the open window of our mews house in South Kensington.
But I spared Hughes the details of my life in cooking, and found myself telling him instead about one of the most enjoyable articles I had ever written for the Journal. It was for a special weekend section devoted to sex and romance, and it was based on a potluck dinner I hosted to explore aphrodisiac food in Europe. The night of the dinner, friends arrived at our house, two-by-two, with dishes they had made with traditional aphrodisiacs from their home countries: everything from the phallic (eels cooked with tomatoes and mushrooms, from Jacky, who was Dutch/English), to the nipplelike (strawberries and raspberries with chocolate dipping sauce, from our Welsh friend, Melanie). In the questionnaire I asked the guests to fill out the next morning, most agreed that the "sexiest dish with the most arousing qualities" was Pasta Aglio, Olio e Peperoncino, cooked up on the spot by our Italian friends, a married couple who slipped away from the party into our kitchen to make the dish together. It was a simple spaghetti recipe made with olive oil, browned garlic and some tiny, powerful red chili peppers, capsicum baccatum, from Calabria — a nostalgic late-night snack from the couple's youth that young Italians might prepare after returning home from an evening out. (Aside from chili peppers, other foods considered aphrodisiacs in Italy, according to my friends, include balsamic vinegar, horseradish, and candied rose petals.) "My lips are tingling," someone murmured as we ate the spaghetti.
With the aid of some aphrodisiac cookbooks — the most eccentric and delightful of which was Venus in the Kitchen, published in 1952 — I, too, contributed a few interesting dishes to the dinner, although I failed to source the main ingredient for one rather surprising antique recipe that had caught my eye called Testicles of Lamb.
I explained to Hughes that I hadn't been able to find lamb testicles anywhere in Brussels, even though it was not out of the question as I had once seen an enormous wild boar carcass lying on the sidewalk, freshly delivered, in front of a butcher shop, and because my local chain grocery store regularly sells beef tongues, and pigs' feet, ears, and tails. Eventually I telephoned the butcher at one of the largest, most exclusive gourmet shops in Brussels and he told me that it's illegal to sell lambs' testicles in Belgium, even though they're a delicacy in other countries.
"I have a whole book on testicles!" Hughes exclaimed.
Here was a man who knew everything and, as it would turn out, everybody.
Hughes was particularly delighted with the fresh coriander and the jalapeño in my salsa, but although we were eating from the same vessel, we were not experiencing the salsa in the same way. When he tasted it, he was reminded of and started talking about Thai cooking and other "exotic" cuisines that were growing in popularity in Belgium. The salsa I was eating, however, was laced with memories of the turquoise blue skies over Belen (Spanish for Bethlehem), the small town in New Mexico where my mother had grown up in an adobe house with eight siblings, and where my father, sisters, and I had eaten a traditional New Mexican lunch after visiting her grave a few days after her funeral.
Food, both the preparation and the eating of, takes up a lot of time in our lives. It's the backbone of each ordinary day, as well as a prominent feature of our celebrations, our religions, and our traditions. Food played a role in my mother's funeral, too — not just the offerings brought to the house, but in the form of family stories about cooking and eating. I told Hughes an anecdote shared with me by my cousin Elizabeth after the burial service as we looked in the direction of the church in which my parents had been married, and the elementary school next door my mother had attended. Elizabeth told me that our grandfather, during his lunch hour from work, used to run over to the school with sweet potatoes, hot from the oven, grown in his garden and baked by my grandmother for my mother and her siblings to eat. Perhaps the school didn't have a cafeteria or, more likely, my grandparents could not afford to pay for all of those school lunches.
Sometimes my mother prepared baked sweet potatoes for breakfast when I was growing up, just the way she had also eaten them for breakfast as a child: split in half lengthwise, gently mashed a bit, dotted with butter, sprinkled with brown sugar, and drenched in milk. On cold mornings, this steaming bowl of orange and red earth tones was milky sweet comfort by the spoonful. I told Hughes about this "recipe" of my mother's that I had forgotten about, and as I did I felt a rising sense of panic. I realized that as the taste of the arroz con pollo was gradually losing its power to grace me with a sense of her presence, so too would the sweet potatoes. Flavor-induced involuntary memory is a puzzling but universal experience, as intoxicating as it is fleeting, and I was terrified of losing it.
As I talked to Hughes, and we ate the salsa, an idea came to me. I became fixated on understanding that ephemeral, mysterious thing called flavor. What if I put feelings aside for the moment and explored flavor thoroughly and logically? What does science tell us about flavor?
Flavor is an enormously complex subject influenced not only by our ability to taste and smell, but by sight, texture, temperature, sound, mood, ambiance, age, nationality, and gender, among other factors. It also involves a great many chemical, genetic, and other processes that occur in food as it's grown, preserved, or cooked. Focusing on the basics — how new flavors are developed and how flavor gets into food in the first place — I also wanted to explore my new obsession, flavor and memory. I needed to find the right scientists to talk to, and wondered how many women were involved in food science careers given that throughout history women all over the world have traditionally taken up the hugely important but often undervalued role of preparing millions upon millions of family meals. Indeed, I hoped my research would be as convivial as a shared meal, something like a particularly marvelous dinner my husband and I had had at the home of the Italian friends who had made the chili and garlic spaghetti for my aphrodisiacal evening. On the night of their dinner, they had invited us to come early and we all sat around the kitchen table stuffing homemade ravioli, assembly-line fashion, with savory pumpkin puree. If I was going to dissect and better understand the secrets of flavor, I wanted to learn by doing, tasting, and being surrounded by good company.
A week or so after meeting Hughes, we went out for lunch. It turned out to be a truly moveable feast involving several restaurants. The one he wanted to take me to was mysteriously closed, so we went to another across the street that he had wanted to review anyway. Here I watched him shift into restaurant critic mode, becoming increasingly overwrought — it was oddly chivalrous — as he pointed out to the waiter, the cook, and the manager that the tomatoes in our salads were bland. Hughes was as shocked and offended as if he had found the proverbial fly in the soup. He quickly ushered me out of that restaurant into another one he liked, but soon left in a huff, me trailing behind, because they wouldn't allow us to order just dessert. Finally we ended up in a fourth restaurant, talking about many things — his childhood in France, his memories of his grandmother's cooking and the evocative smell of her kitchen cupboards — as we enjoyed a tangy, aromatic dessert soup made with fresh oranges and whole cloves. We ate slowly. It was a slightly prickly but pleasant moment each time I found a clove in my mouth and sucked on it before placing it on the lip of the shallow soup bowl. And before we finished, Hughes promised to introduce me to some people who might be interesting for my research.CHAPTER 2
Let the progress of the meal be slow, for dinner is the last business of the day; and let the guests conduct themselves like travelers due to reach their destination together.
JEAN ANTHELME BRILLAT-SAVARIN THE PHYSIOLOGY OF TASTE, 1825
Soon after, Hughes invited me on the spur-of-the-moment to what I thought was an ordinary wine tasting hosted by the Slow Food group in Brussels. Slow Food is a global, grassroots movement founded in Rome in 1989 that links the pleasure of good food with a commitment to local communities and the environment. It was a Sunday evening and I wasn't keen on going out, but in the name of research, I said yes. Before I left, I ate some yogurt and a piece of baguette — stomach liners, in case it was all wine and no food.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Taste of Molecules"
Copyright © 2013 Diane Fresquez.
Excerpted by permission of Feminist Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
I. Taste Uncorked
2. Bright Sweetness
3. The Singing Baguettes
4. Library of Yeast
5. Beach Party in a Bottle
6. Learning while Intoxicated
7. Liquid Courage
II. Hiding and Seeking Flavor
8. Licorice on the Inside
9. Taster’s Choice
10. Smelly Pig
11. Apples of Your Eye
12. Banana-Flavored Pop Quiz
III. The Taste Buds in Your Brain
13. Recipes for Remembering
14. Pavlov’s Restaurant
15. Transport Delayed
IV. Scents and Sensibility
16. This Is Not a Soup Kitchen
17. Darkness Edible
18. Nectar & Co.
Lamb Cutlets Marinated in Hydromel
“Flower Power” Elderflower Cocktail
Hop Shoots with Poached Eggs and Smoked Salmon
Peppermint and Chip Ice Cream
Sabayon with Musa Lova banana liqueur
Dutch Ham and Endives Gratinées