Couple Finds Good Will in Taste Tests

A food-loving couple from San Diego has launched a quirky social experiment: They go to restaurants and ask if they can taste other people's food. Surprisingly, most people happily comply — even offering their own forks!

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Say you're at a table in your favorite restaurant eating your favorite dish, and the gentleman seated next to you asks if he can have a taste of your food. What would you do? A San Diego couple has turned this question into social experiment.

NPR's John Burnett sent us this tableside postcard.

JOHN BURNETT: It happened in Muriel's restaurant on Jackson's Square in New Orleans. I was digging into a plate of barbecue shrimp with a goat cheese salad on the side. Suddenly, the man sitting with his wife at the neighboring table said that looks delicious, may I have a bite?

Taken aback, I replied trust me, it's delicious. Then, I fell into conversation with the affable couple and it turned out, I had become part of an unusual experiment they're conducting on how willing people are to share their food with strangers.

(Soundbite of crowd)

BURNETT: I was intrigued. And so a couple of months later, I catch up with Jeff and Jojo Platt in their hometown of San Diego at Sea Level Restaurant.

Mr. JEFF PLATT (Travel Writer, San Diego): It started after September 11th, and Jojo and I went out and that was a time where everybody needed to talk to somebody else and people were more than willing to share anything and talk about anything and we need to do it.

BURNETT: Jeff is a travel writer, Jojo helps run a local non-profit. They tell me they've now done this more than 60 times in restaurants across the country, from San Francisco to New York. And so far, only one person has said no.

Mr. PLATT: I would say of those 60, about 45 have said yes readily, which is amazing. Fifteen, maybe, it's been a little reluctant but gave in. Of the 45 that were happy to do it, I'd say probably tasted about 25 forks, of their own forks.

BURNETT: I fell into the reluctant 15 who ultimately gave in. I wouldn't give them a shrimp but later, I let them stick their spoons in my creme brulee. But what's notable is that according to their unscientific survey, more than half the diners who readily gave them a taste passed the morsel on their own utensils.

Mr. PLATT: You know, when they started giving me their own fork that they've been using and will continue to use into, you know, a mouth that's a foreign mouth, you don't know anything about me - that surprised me more than anything.

BURNETT: As the experiment went on, it became a challenge to see if they could use food as common ground to strike up a conversation and maybe a new friendship. In fact, they're still e-mailing a couple from Australia who gave them a bite of braised short ribs at a French bistro in Las Vegas.

Mr. PLATT: You guys are pretty good?

Unidentified Group: Very good.

BURNETT: What the Platts have learned is the fancier the eatery, the more likely people are to share their food, to show off their food.

Mr. PLATT: You know, I always started off with, what is that? That looks amazing. Again, now you've given people this idea of I ordered something great. It's like a song you hear on the radio or song you want somebody else to hear, and food is the same way.

BURNETT: But there's something else at work here. The prolific food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote, sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly. Yet, here we are, according to the Platts, handing complete strangers a bite of our meal on our own fork. Just consider the germs.

Jojo Platt thinks it's a sign of the times.

Ms. JOJO PLATT: I think people want to interact with each other. They just don't know how anymore. Technology, well, grade is also a big part of the dehumanization of the communications we share. It's refreshing to see somebody's reaction when you ask them for a bite of their food.

BURNETT: So perhaps the Platts have learned something about us, that in this day and age, we hunger not only for a cafe's daily special, but for human interactions as well. And good food is a shared passion. As if on cue, Jeff turns to a table of six convivial diners seated next to him.

Mr. PLATT: Can I have a little bite, is that okay?

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

Mr. PLATT: Thank you very much. I appreciate it. Hmm. We're going to remember that one.

Ms. PLATT: Yeah.

Mr. PLATT: That's the best.

Ms. PLATT: The nut-crusted Brie?

Mr. PLATT: Yeah, nut-crusted Brie. Wow. That was amazing.

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