Dinner Decodes the Mystery of Taste

What do savignon blanc and urine have in common? That question and others you may or may not want answered were the subject of the "How and Why Things Taste the Way They Do" dinner last night at Manhattan's Picnic Cafe. Professors Stuart Firestein and Terry Acree deconstructed just why diners enjoying chef Jean-Luc Kieffer's nine courses were experiencing the sensations they were.

A lovely Cream of Cauliflower soup served as a backdrop for discussion of how particle distribution influences our experience of creaminess. A mushroom, herb and parmesan polenta served as an example of umami, which joins salty, sweet, sour, and bitter as a taste for which we have a unique receptor.

Dessert, an Almond Cream, Raspberry and Lychee Tart, was served sans science. But just beforehand, diners tried what was called "A Taste of Pain": a splash of habanero sauce next to a teacup full of peppermint syrup. Diners learned the source of something they had certainly already experienced, the way peppermint and spicy foods stimulate hot and cold receptors chemically. As many hands reached for many glasses of water to cool burning mouths, Dr. Firestein explained that diners ought to be reaching for wine instead. The alcohol, of course, works as a solvent, a better fix for the pain-causing capsaicin compounds.

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