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Gustatory Taste

An Overlooked Facet of Meals

By Polly Young '09

Polly Young '09American society is food-centric; we have celebrity chefs, thousands of cookbooks, and infomercials advertising the latest cooking gadgets. While a person could spend their entire career analyzing food, my interest lies in a dimension of this subject rarely discussed with any level of seriousness outside of a scientific lab or dining room. Gustatory taste -- the sense activated when food meets the tongue- -- is an intimate aspect of meals that allows us to enjoy food. It is a sense the majority of people experience every day, but few ever consciously consider for an extended duration.

Sometimes we have tasting experiences that are simply sublime. These can be powerful and memorable moments. Whether these sensations come from food, wine, or a combination of the two in a delicious meal, an explanation of the seductive abilities of taste is not always apparent. When a meal is over, we are often left wondering why specific tastes were so satisfying.

These moments have not escaped me. While studying abroad in Buenos Aires, I sampled the famed Argentine beef, the country's source of pride. As I tasted the beautifully lean yet tender steak, my whole mouth was filled with the echo of the rich beef. Its texture, which was stringy and slightly rough, contrasted sharply with its intense flavor. Each bite revealed a wealth of new sensations. No bite was similar in taste or the emotions it provoked in me. It was just beef tenderloin, but I had never tasted anything like it before.

After reflecting on this moment for nearly a year, I decided to investigate what had happened through an Honors Project. With my supportive committee of Dean Lawrence Breitborde and Professors Jonathan Powers and Chad Simpson, I turned to philosophy, the natural sciences, and literature for answers. Although these academic disciplines offered insight on the functions of taste, I found little information of relevance in understanding my experience. Frustrated, I shifted my focus to another avenue of investigation: interviews with "taste professionals," people who have dedicated their lives to deciphering taste in a culinary setting. Due to their food backgrounds, these individuals offer different perspectives on taste than those provided in academic works.

I learned that many of life's significant moments center around food. Certain tastes enable us to identify events in our lives. -- Polly Young '09Knox's Richter Fund enabled me to travel to Chicago to speak with culinary legends and innovators. My interviewees included Jean Joho of Everest and Brian Enyart of Topolobampo. I even spent a day in Charlie Trotter's kitchen juicing oranges for a sorbet and butchering legs of lamb for use in that night's dinner menu. My experiences pursuing this project were among my life's most memorable, and they will stay with me forever.

This research challenged me to reconsider my conceptions of gustatory taste and to discover new ways in which this sense can be understood. I learned that many of life's significant moments center around food and, that through the formation of memories, certain tastes enable us to identify events in our lives. Sometimes a taste is so sublime because taste-based experiences form the scrapbook of our lives, documenting our growth as individuals.