Dinner Decodes the Mystery of Taste Scientists Stuart Firestein and Terry Acree host "How and Why Things Taste the Way They Do" — meals where diners learn the latest discoveries in olfactory science as they eat.
NPR logo

Dinner Decodes the Mystery of Taste

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/19357498/19357446" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Dinner Decodes the Mystery of Taste

Dinner Decodes the Mystery of Taste

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/19357498/19357446" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Unidentified Man: Welcome, all, to Picnic and a night of food, science and more food, you'll be happy to hear. Two to one, food to science, we promise you tonight.

ALISON STEWART, host:

I like the sound of that. That's how the "How and Why Things Taste the Way They Do" dinner at Picnic Café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan started off last night. Two scientists who study food and taste, 60 diners who got to eat food, and our producer, Illan Chillag, were all there. He's in the studio to tell us about it. Did I just call you Illan Chillag again?

RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Yeah, that's (unintelligible).

IAN CHILLAG: I'm just going to change my name.

STEWART: Illan Chillag. Ian Chillag is here in studio to tell us…

CHILLAG: I'm a little ill'an today…

STEWART: So this sounded like a pretty fun assignment that you assigned to yourself.

CHILLAG: Yeah, yeah. My job is really hard, you guys.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHILLAG: I had to go up there and eat food. So these two guys, Stuart Firestein, who is a neuroscientist at Columbia; and Terry Acree, who's a food scientist from Cornell, they got together with this chef, Jean-Luc Kieffer, who is the head chef at Picnic Café, and they just basically cooked this really elaborate, nine-course meal as a way to talk about what's going on in our bodies when we taste the different things we taste.

You know, it was kind of a chi-chi event, about $100 a plate.

MARTIN: You didn't pay that, did you? Or if you did, I hope you expensed it.

CHILLAG: No, no - yeah, well, we'll talk about that. Yeah, so you know, it seemed like a lot of - kind of people both attracted to the restaurant world and some science-y folks. It looked like a lot of people had just come a couple blocks down from Columbia.

STEWART: So what did they do first?

CHILLAG: Okay, well you know, there's this place setting. It just looks like a café, you know, a beautiful kind of bistro setting, plate, two forks, all that jazz. And then next to the forks is a nose clip. I brought it in. It's basically just like a glorified clothes pin.

STEWART: Can I see?

CHILLAG: Sure, yeah. You can put that on, if you want, but - so then they bring out these little two kind of gelatinous cubes, and they're kind of rusty color, and we're all wearing these nose…

STEWART: Seriously? Everybody was wearing these?

MARTIN: You had to eat while you had this on your nose?

CHILLAG: Yeah. It's really unpleasant.

STEWART: It is unpleasant. This is not a good sensation.

MARTIN: Imagine Alison Stewart - she's a very beautiful woman - but right now she's got this big yellow clip on her nose.

CHILLAG: I have to say she sounds great.

STEWART: I don't mean to interrupt. Go ahead.

CHILLAG: So they, you know, we had this thing on our nose, and we take one of these gelatinous cubes in our mouth, and you get a kind of sour sensation, but nothing more. And then we eat the other one and take it off, and your whole -your mouth just opens up into this like deep, tomato-y complex flavor. It's really - you know, we've heard about the - you know, of course smell is very important to taste, but actually experiencing it sort of in two steps like that, it's really very interesting.

STEWART: Interesting. So you also - you had this mystery aperitif and then soup?

CHILLAG: Yeah, the soup was amazing. They brought it out, and it looks like, you know, kind of a potato soup, and we take our nose clips off, and we're just supposed to eat it and write down a few things that we taste, and I wrote down butter, potato, cream, black pepper, cauliflower.

And then Acree, this food scientist, brings up a slide, which shows the particle distribution of cream and Guinness beer and applesauce. And you see that cream and Guinness have very uniform particles, while applesauce is, you know, there's big particles, small particles. And then he tells us there's no cream in this very, very creamy soup, or there's very little cream. It's just been prepared in a way that the cauliflower has been very finely and uniformly cut down.

Mr. TERRY ACREE (Food Scientist, Cornell University): It turns out that humans detect creaminess in a very special way. They don't - they're detecting particles, but they're not detecting particle size, they're detecting particle-size distribution. So a whole bunch of balls that are very small but the same size is creamy, and that's the way cream is.

CHILLAG: So you can kind of fool yourself into a creamy sensation by having very uniform, small particles, which is good news if you're, you know, trying to cut back on the fat…

STEWART: Trying not to eat cream.

CHILLAG: Yeah. I talked to Dr. Acree after, and he told me that one possible explanation for this really - it's a very fine sense that we have, to be able to figure out particle distribution in our taste - it might - the selective advantage might be that babies can then detect when breast milk has gone bad because as milk goes bad, you get a larger variation in the particles. So a kid detects that, he might reject what would be unhealthy milk.

STEWART: So I mean, I would hope you had some wine to drink with all of this, but might that confuse the whole tasting situation with the food?

CHILLAG: Well yeah, I mean, actually I noticed that people did get sort of happier about the science as the evening went on.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHILLAG: But you know, they used the wine to talk about discordant flavors actually share similar tastes. You know, there's very few substances out there, relatively. You know, there's less than a thousand substances, which influence the infinite number of tastes we experience. So we're drinking the sauvignon blanc, and they bring up a bar graph, which shows the different tastes you experience, and the biggest one is passion fruit, which is really easy to detect, actually, if you think about it when you drink that.

The second-biggest is urine, and I have to say if you're looking at a bar graph while you're drinking the wine, and it tells you the second-biggest taste is urine, you will detect it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: The power of suggestion, wow.

CHILLAG: Acree told this related story, again while we were eating, about how a visit to his lab by another food scientist led to a discovery.

Mr. ACREE: He knew that I worked on Concord grapes. He was very much interested in the aroma of Labrusca grapes, and he was walking through the biology lab one day to get some liquid nitrogen, and he smelled this intense smell of Concord grapes. When he went in, there was this female biologist cutting up this piece of flesh, which is the anal sac of the Japanese weasel.

And so we analyzed it, and it turned out to be ortho-aminoacetophenone, and we found exactly the same chemical in Labrusca grapes.

STEWART: Delicious.

CHILLAG: Yes.

MARTIN: I did not wake up this morning thinking I'd hear anal sac of the weasel.

CHILLAG: In the food segment, no less.

STEWART: Okay, so…

MARTIN: Maybe from Pashman at some point during the day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Okay, so you're talking about these like single moments, or these notes that occur in these different foods, and things that are decidedly non-foods, as the aforementioned. What about the interaction of these single notes together? What do they do?

CHILLAG: Right. Well you know, we talked a lot about how these different foods will cancel each other out, you know, and you'll lose your sensitivity to a certain thing during the meal. And then Firestein actually talked about, you know, if we think of these things as chemicals rather than tastes, we can actually see how they literally suppress our perception of other chemicals. He put it like this.

Mr. STUART FIRESTEIN (Neuroscientist, Columbia University): So about 100-million mole, we call it, a fairly concentrated salt solution, will suppress the sense of sour, very, very sour, like pH 2, which is quite high acid. We in the business call it the margarita effect.

STEWART: The margarita effect.

CHILLAG: Yes. Yeah, there were no margaritas. There was this amazing dessert course, which - sorry - they had this tart, which they kind of left the science out of, but then they also brought out what they called a taste of pain, which was a habanero sauce next to a peppermint sauce, and he explained that, you know, our hot and cold receptors in our mouth actually respond to chemicals, as well, which we all know because we've all experienced a hot sensation while eating a hot sauce.

And then we ate these things together, and it was interesting to feel actual heat and cold simultaneously, because that's something you really never experience. And so we're all eating this thing, and you know, it's burning everybody up, this habanero sauce, and somebody asks, how are we supposed to get rid of this? Which got Firestein on something else, he explained what was going on in our mouths when these molecules were actually coming in, and we weren't able to get rid of this hot sensation.

Mr. FIRESTEIN: The thing about hot sauce is it uses this capsaicin molecule which tends to be a very oily greasy molecule. And so it sits in the receptor quite a long time. It gets kind of in the lipids of your tongue, the tissue of your tongue. And so it will sit there a long time. That's why it's so long-lasting.

ANDREW: So basically what he's saying there is that the reason water doesn't work to cool you off when you have a hot sensation in your mouth is that the chemical causing that sensation actually sort of gets stuck in the receptor that's getting that heat feeling to your brain. And then he explained something which I thought needed no explanation, which is why tacos go so great with beer. 'Cause beer is actually going to be much better for removing a hot sensation. Many of us have sort of realized this on our own experimentation. But the alcohol in the beer is actually a solvent, so it takes care of that chemical rather than just washing over it the way water would.

MARTIN: I have learned so much.

ANDREW: I know.

MARTIN: Thank you, Andrew. Let's drink Coronas, and tacos - eat them.

Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.