HOME > Chowhound > General Topics >

Perceiving Food

j
Jim Leff Jul 4, 1999 05:02 PM

This is a continuation of a thread that's WAY down at the bottom of the Manhattan board index, "Village Eats Help". To read the message in that thread that spurred the discussion this responds to, go to the following address: http://www.chowhound.com/boards/manha...

and work your way down through the links on that page to read the replies by Dave Feldman and myself (I'll repeat that URL as a link below this message). This is my reply to Dave's message:

What scientists don't seem to know yet, though, is whether there is a difference in PREFERENCE for seasoning or just a difference in
SENSATION. If it's the latter, then the person who is pleased with one shake of the hot sauce bottle might like his or her food as much as the one who pours a tablespoon full"

Dave, there's another factor (which could really foul scientific inquiry into this): hot food is addictive. Those accustomed to eating lots of spicy food require more and more spice, and are usually turned off by non-hot food, even non-hot food that most of us would find tasty. I have hot sauce enthralled friends for whom a plate of buttery mashed potatoes is sheer oppression.

I minored in sensation and perception in college, and learned that most human perceptions operate on a logarhythmically sliding scale. That is, we differentiate extremely fine gradations within a fairly narrow range (it'd be asking too much to expect to perceive fine gradations at a wide range!), but we can, over time, shift that scope. If you've been eating shaking pepper flakes and Tabasco on everything you eat, french toast, artichokes (...and white bread or understated salad!) will be off your range, and thus taste completely uninteresting. If they'd cut out the over-spicing, their range of differentiation would settle down to "normal"...and they'd find themselves "out of practice" and overwhelmed if they later ingested even half their previous dose of chili.

In my experience (pretty wide, actually...I eat with a LOT of people), the vast majority of people who unaccountably find a given dish bland, when questioned, turn out to be hot sauce/pepper addicts who disparage most less-hot food (with a few exceptions for things that are texturally appealling or long-standing favorites).

I'm curious to see what Chimera has to say about this...

Link: http://www.chowhound.com/topics/show/...

  1. Click to Upload a photo (10 MB limit)
Delete
  1. d
    Dave Feldman RE: Jim Leff Jul 5, 1999 12:21 AM

    Jim and all,

    First of all, thanks for setting up the new topic. I
    wanted to change the header, but couldn't.

    A few questions: do perception specialists have any
    way of figuring out whether two people are tasting the
    same thing? I could imagine, for example, you could
    give someone five foods and have them rate them on
    degrees of saltiness, but that still doesn't establish
    whether or not the two tasters are perceiving the same
    degree of saltiness just because they agree on the
    ranking order.

    Are you saying that people who use hot spices all the
    time:

    1. Perceive food as less hot as they are
    experienced in eating hot spices? And/or
    2. They do the taste equivalent of developing
    calluses for a golfer, allowing them to tolerate
    better what they still perceive as "just as hot"
    food? And/or
    3. They lost taste sensations? That is, they are
    physically unable to make distinctions about less
    developed.

    Do you agree with the premise of the article? And
    if so, do you think most food fanatics (whether
    professionals or amateurs) tend to be super-tasters or
    more in the midrange? I could see how it *could* be
    an advantage to be a supertaster. On the other hand,
    this would mean that someone with such sensitive taste
    buds might not be able to enjoy/appreciate certain
    foods that would be perceived as too intense, and such
    a critic would not be in physical sync with most of
    his audience.
    If the differences in taste perception are as wide
    as the article maintained, it would seem that for some
    food critics, it creates quite a different problem
    from, say, an art critic, who might perceive more
    because he or she has studied art history and or had
    an intimate knowledge of a given artist's
    contemporaries and influences. It would be more like
    an art critic who was colorblind trying to evaluate
    paintings.

    8 Replies
    1. re: Dave Feldman
      j
      Jim Leff RE: Dave Feldman Jul 5, 1999 02:19 PM

      "First of all, thanks for setting up the new topic. I
      wanted to change the header, but couldn't"

      I didn't do anything you guys can't do, Dave! Just
      started a new thread on the appropriate board, and left
      a short message in the old thread telling people where
      to go!

      "perception specialists"

      psychologists. it's a branch of psychology, and one of
      the more purely scientific ones at that--ironic, given
      that it brushes so closely against some of the most
      spiritual/intuitive realms of the psyche.

      "any way of figuring out whether two people are tasting
      the same thing?"

      One of the fundamental philosophical questions...and
      utterly unsolvable in any sort of scientific way. The
      quality of watermelon that we both agree to call
      "sweet" might seem bitter...or loud...or green to you
      if you could somehow inhabit my head. But in the end,
      it doesn't matter, since we both agree on the language,
      calibrating via accepted terms--which, being abstracted
      from reality, can provide a common meeting ground
      whether or not our experiences are intrinsically
      common.

      That said, if I watch your eyes carefully while you
      taste one of the Arepa Lady's corn cakes, I'll see that
      we share a deeper commonality of reaction, even if our
      rawer perceptions may differ. There's a non-linguistic,
      non-abstracted commonality truer than the compromise of
      language can convey (except, perhaps, by poetry). But
      of course, this is intuitive rather than scientific
      (and this explains why many critics--I'm talking about
      food, but this stuff applies to any art--choose to
      describe and judge flavors without ever delving into
      the deeper impact of what they're eating; they ignore
      these deeper intuitions, falsely concluding that
      perception is universal and intuition phantasmagoric.
      Quite the contrary!).

      But there is a clue: geneticists are finding that all
      humans are unexpectedly similar in their genetic
      programming. In fact, DNA-wise, we're virtually
      indistinguishable from many other primates. This hints
      that we may not be so wildly different "under the hood"
      when it comes to our perceptions. We may experience a
      given flavor more or less acutely, but we're probably
      having more or less the same general tasting
      experience. But it'll never be proved.

      "I could imagine, for example, you could give someone
      five foods and have them rate them on degrees of
      saltiness, but that still doesn't establish whether or
      not the two tasters are perceiving the same
      degree of saltiness just because they agree on the
      ranking order"

      There are easy ways to validate not just the ranking
      order but also the relative perception of salinity. But
      there IS no "absolute degree of saltiness" in the
      context you seem to suggest...you can, of course,
      measure absolute degree of actual salinity, you can
      measure people's ability to distinguish between
      relative degrees, but, again, you'd need to inhabit
      someone's head in order to grok his/her actual
      perception. Your idea of a pleasant bag of potato
      chips--the same bag I myself share with you, with my
      separate set of perceptions--might taste a billion
      times more salty if my brain were fed the perceptual
      information your brain gets (though my brain would
      quickly ratchet to your sensitivity...see
      below for a better explanation of how the brain scales
      perceptions). You can measure salinity, you can measure
      relative description of salinity between people, but
      you don't know what interior experience a given person
      assigns to a given description of that experience. At
      least we're all consistent enough in our perceptions
      that we can agree on given descriptors to pin on a
      given experience. But don't look beyond the
      descriptors, because it's all smoke and mystery.

      "Are you saying that people who use hot spices all the
      time:
      1. Perceive food as less hot as they are experienced
      in eating hot spices?"

      I haven't seen any scientific studies, but it's clear
      to me that if you eat hotter and hotter stuff, in time
      your threshold increases. Remember, spicy heat is
      simply a product of light irritation of nerve endings
      by various oils in pepper. Lightly irritate something
      regularly, and it'll acquire resistance. Plus I dimly
      remember reading that there are brain reactions to
      spicy foods that resemble the reactions of addicts--
      buildup of physical and psychological tolerance, etc
      etc.

      "They lost taste sensations? That is, they are
      physically unable to make distinctions..?"

      Kind of. I mean that perceptions scaled to a given
      level do a poor job of distinguishing between
      gradations outside their current level. It's temporary.

      Let me try to explain more clearly how this works.
      It'll be a long digression, not totally relevant, but
      it's kinda interesting how we're wired (obviously, I'm
      no scientist...if you really want to delve into this
      stuff, there are tons of books).

      Cool and fun experiment to give you an empirical
      understanding: sit in a dark room for 20 minutes. Then
      shut one eye tight and place your hand over it. Turn on
      the light. Wait five minutes until it's totally
      adjusted to the light. Then kill the light and open
      both eyes. The difference between the dark-adapted
      eye's ability to perceive (that is, distinguish
      gradations) in the dim light is HUGELY greater than the
      non-dark adapted eye (the difference is extremely
      startling). It's not that the other eye is
      "blinded"...that's a misnomer. Turn on the light again
      and you'll see that this eye is quite sensitive in the
      brighter realm, while the dark-adapted eye is nearly
      useless. Each eye is very sensitive in very different
      light levels.

      Our perceptions scale. We can't distinguish between
      fine gradations throughout the spectrum from dim to
      bright at any one time. That is, if our eyes were wired
      to instantly perceive with equal aplomb in all light
      levels, we'd have to sacrifice the ability to
      distinguish subtle gradations (consider the
      impossibility of building a meter that can measure fine
      gradations from .001 microvolts to 10000
      megavolts...the spectrum of brightness in which we live
      is of a similar magnitude). The choices are: coarse
      distinction over an enormous range, or fine distinction
      within a narrower range. Yet our environment requires
      fine distinctions over a wide range of light levels, so
      we've evolved a compromise: the ability to scale; that
      is, to see very subtle gradations in fixed ranges, and
      those fixed ranges can slide impressively far up or
      down the spectrum, given enough time to acclimate.

      Most of our perceptions work this way, not just vision.
      Your ears can distinguish subtlety at fortissimo and at
      pianissimo, but it takes a moment of acclimatization to
      shift between extremes and differentiate finely at each
      (eyes take longer to acclimatize, but visual perception
      is also much more subtle), and you can't bridge the
      entire range at once. You can't discern a whisper
      during a rock concert, you can't stand in the sun and
      spot your shoes in a dark cave, even if the cave's two
      feet away.

      So, aside from tolerance and resistance, this is
      another reason someone who eats lots of hot pepper
      doesn't get a kick out of mashed potatoes. It's out of
      their acclimatized realm; the relatively bland spuds
      are too dark, too quiet; they seem fuzzy and indistinct
      and non-immediate (again, textural factors and long-
      standing preferences will ensure that SOME pepper-heads
      do crave and enjoy certain blander foods).

      "Do you agree with the premise of the article?"

      sure, but I don't think it's very deep or interesting.
      There's a bell curve for most any human function. FWIW,
      I know one devoted chowhound with (measurably) no sense
      of smell whatsoever who still "gets" a lot of the
      essence of the food and enjoys it immensely, and I know
      people with sensitive taste buds who'll eat anything. I
      don't have perfect pitch, but it doesn't affect one
      whit my ability in or enjoyment of music.

      "On the other hand, this would mean that someone with
      such sensitive taste buds might not be able to enjoy/
      appreciate certain
      foods that would be perceived as too intense, and such
      a critic would not be in physical sync with most of
      his audience"

      Appreciation is in the interpretation, not in the
      perception itself. We all face these issues: some
      French cheeses would be too intense for ANYBODY who
      wasn't really open and flexible (I bet Mallarme ate
      'em, by the way). Macrobiotic cuisine won't excite
      anyone's palate, unless you're prepared to appreciate
      the plain, elemental pleasures of healthful ingestion.
      The important thing in aesthetics isn't the wiring or
      the flow of information over that wiring, it's how the
      brain finally interprets the information. And the brain
      can be tremendously flexible. That's one of the
      pleasures of being a chowhound; the aesthetic
      calisthenics are pretty stimulating. And they loosen
      you up so you can get the deeper message that a great
      chef like the Arepa Lady is transmitting. You learn to
      receive on lots of different frequencies...

      "It would be more like an art critic who was colorblind
      trying to evaluate paintings"

      yeah, but, again, that's materialistic. I mean, we
      don't want a critic with a palate as dead as balsa wood
      (though I know a few). We can agree on that. But other
      than cases of serious deficiency, the quantity (or even
      quality) of raw perceptual data available to a person
      has little to do with his/her analysis or enjoyment. In
      terms of delivering evocative descriptions of food,
      it's more a matter of careful calibration.

      For example: as a result of my suburban Long Island
      upbringing, I like overcooked pasta, thick dumpling
      skin, and burnt brisket. I've learned to keep these
      preferences to myself (and to appreciate the most
      delicate dumplings, moistest brisket, and al dente
      pasta...though my old predilections live on in
      parallel, as if in a separate part of my brain). At a
      more immediately perceptual level, I've learned that
      food that's slightly too spicy for me is tolerable for
      real spice lovers. And that I like sweets more than
      most people. But my perceptual data--and my personal
      interpretation of that data--can be translated into
      prose that's useful for those who might not share my
      personal taste (after all, who the heck cares about my
      personal taste? *I'M* not gonna be eating people's food
      for them!).

      By eating and communicating with a wide range of
      people, we can become calibrated and exchange
      descriptions of flavors that will be evocative for
      others. Through intuition we can evoke in others an
      empathic grasp of the deeper effects of a given food
      (and perhaps the deeper intentions of the chef).
      Neither pursuit hinges on perceptual acuity, in my
      opinion. The ability to hear two rather than twenty
      gradations of a semi-tone does not affect one's
      appreciation of a Chopin nocturne or ability to relate
      one's experience of it to others.

      Sorry...hope this wasn't too dry for you all. Blame it
      on July 4 firework deprivation; I'm sealed inside my
      Mom's air conditioned house till this heat wave passes,
      and getting a bit stir-crazy...shorter replies next
      time, promise!

      1. re: Jim Leff
        j
        jg RE: Jim Leff Jul 5, 1999 03:55 PM

        oh my god, that was painful.It felt like a class on splitting the atom given by Ben Stein, no offense but you must immediatly go outside fr some fresh air, maybe even a walk around the block to clear your head.whew

        1. re: Jim Leff
          d
          Dave Feldman RE: Jim Leff Jul 5, 1999 09:17 PM

          Maybe I'm suffering from heat stroke, but I understood
          and enjoyed what you had to say. Thanks. I think you
          might be underestimating the differences in perception
          of food tastes. For example, you once tried to sell
          me on the high quality of Krispy Kremes. We tasted
          the same thing and I (who think that I often *do* like
          very sweet things) found the KK's unbearably sweet.
          Yet I love Coca-Cola and cinnamon rolls and, come to
          think of it, doughnuts. It would be awfully hard for
          either of us to "calibrate" so that we could reconcile
          our positions on this one item.

          You mentioned one other thing that interested me:
          your penchant for "overcooked" pasta; thick dumpling
          skin; and "burnt" brisket. These seem akin to "guilty
          pleasures." But why should they be guilty? I can see
          why you'd want and need to learn to appreciate al
          dente pasta, but why suppress your preferences (in
          print or otherwise)?

          1. re: Dave Feldman
            j
            Jim Leff RE: Dave Feldman Jul 6, 1999 02:17 AM

            Dave--
            I agree that Krispy Kremes are too sweet (and too
            greasy). They're a guilty pleasure, pure and simple.

            "your penchant for "overcooked" pasta; thick dumpling
            skin; and "burnt" brisket.....why suppress your
            preferences (in print or otherwise)?"

            Because they're preferences few share. And I retain
            them not out of some heartfelt aesthetic preference,
            but rather as simple holdovers from my childhood.

            Unless my preferences have a chance of being shared by
            readers...or seem causes worth evangelizing (or at
            least are interesting), they deserve stifling.
            Especially since each of these three particular
            preferences is clearly a blunder avoided at all costs
            by good chefs of the respective cuisines!

            I mean, can you imagine my writing "The $18 plate of
            midtown fettucinni alfredo was quite mushy and
            overcooked...but I LIKE it that way"? Shall I highly
            rate a kitchen that burns its brisket, or a dim sum
            place serving har-gow with pierogi-like skins?

            On the other hand, I have some non-mainstream
            predilections that are shared among a reasonably large
            crowd, e.g. my fondness for lardy pie crust and over-
            the-top adoration for potatoes....and disdain for sun-
            dried tomatoes and big puffy bagels. I feel comfortable
            indulging these preferences in print because they fit
            the zeitgeist. Even if readers disagree with me on such
            things, they see where I'm coming from and for what
            kind of audience I'm writing.

            The brisket/pasta/dumpling thing is just weird and
            loopy.

            1. re: Jim Leff
              a
              AHR RE: Jim Leff Jul 6, 1999 11:00 AM

              If I understand correctly, a critic must suppress his
              preference for, say, cakey bagels in order to retain
              respectability and credibility with his audience. Is
              this not a bit of a deception?

              Should someone who is knowledgeable about Baroque
              music but really prefers the Romantic be encouraged to
              review recordings of Bach?

              1. re: AHR
                j
                Jim Leff RE: AHR Jul 6, 1999 01:58 PM

                "If I understand correctly, a critic must suppress his
                preference for, say, cakey bagels in order to retain
                respectability and credibility with his audience"

                not for those reasons...he must suppress these opinions
                just to do a fair job and not be a silly hack!

                geez, AHR and Dave, didn't you read my overlong screed
                that launched this discussion (back on the manhattan
                board...see http://www.chowhound.com/boards/manhat/
                messages/2694.html and my reply at http://
                www.chowhound.com/boards/manhat/messa...)? I
                thought I made a pretty good case for why a critic
                should drop his petty personal preferences. I'll try
                once more, but it's getting a bit tired...

                I don't get hired to do what I do because my personal
                preferences are so good or right or interesting. Who
                cares about my preferences? I write for the readers,
                who want to know what a given place is like to eat in.
                Again, *I* don't eat people's meals for them, so who
                wants to read about MY petty predilections?

                My job is to judge a restaurant according to what it's
                trying to do (e.g. if it's making simple/elemental
                food, I don't complain that it's not spicy enough, if
                it's Szechuan I don't complain about oiliness, etc etc)
                and to paint an evocative enough picture that readers
                can gauge whether it's the kind of place that meets
                THEIR preferences.

                "Should someone who is knowledgeable about Baroque
                music but really prefers the Romantic be encouraged to
                review recordings of Bach?"

                If they're professional and doing what they're doing
                for the right reasons, yes!

                AHR, as I explained on the Manhattan board, I try to be
                a universal receiver with food. If you want to talk
                about my TRUE preference--my love, my passion--it's to
                be able to enjoy all sorts of kitchens with the point
                of view of an eater most suited to the restaurant at
                hand (a very chowhoundish goal). The joys of eating
                like a chameleon, like a universal paesano. I don't ask
                myself if I feel like spice tonight if I'm in a Thai
                restaurant, I don't think about my feelings toward
                oysters when I'm in a raw bar. Such general attitudes
                are a civilian indulgence, and I do this for a living
                (though at this point I'd eat the same way even if I
                went back to trombone full time).

                I have a friend who has a precise picture of what he's
                looking for (physically and mentally) in a girlfriend.
                I keep nagging at him to drop these preconceptions,
                that they'll cause him to miss out on treasure in
                unexpected packages. I follow that advice in food; I
                have preferences and whims, yes, but they're pretty
                deeply buried when I'm actually doing the eating. I'm
                trying to find treasure on many different frequencies.
                Maybe others will disagree, but being in the unusual
                position of having one career as a critic and another
                where I'm reviewed by critics, I think this is the only
                fair approach (and the only fully rewarding one for
                hard-core non-critic chowhounds, as well, but that's
                another story).

                Another analogy: like many freelance horn players in
                NYC, I can fit like a glove on stage with bands of
                almost any style, without rehearsal or written music.
                And look like I'm having fun...and really AM having
                fun, if the band's good...and never ever ask myself "is
                this music I LIKE?" until I'm on my way home--if even
                then. The question never gets asked. It's a matter of
                professionalism. Of course, if it's a lousy band, I'll
                still look content, but secretly be praying for the
                end. But if the band's good, in tune, and grooving,
                I'll play Macarena, Hava Nagila, polka, hip
                hop...whatever, happily (remember, I'm a hip jazz
                player, so this is pretty extreme tolerance) and with
                great energy--though I wouldn't allow these styles on
                my home stereo for even a millisecond!

                When I make judgements, they're based on prevalent
                yardsticks for a given genre (so I don't highly rate
                overcooked pasta, even though I happen to like it...at
                least not in Italian restaurants), and I try to
                telegraph what those yardsticks are (to give those who
                disagree with the yardsticks an evocative picture of
                the restaurant). When I make judgements that are
                outside mainstream opinion, I try to be even more clear
                in what I'm saying. For example: "The pastry was
                incredibly rich and flaky, imbued with lots of blessed
                lard!" gives fellow lard-lovers all they need to know,
                and the same for cholestrophobes and vegetarians...and
                the pastry is described clearly, even if some will
                reach very different judgements about it than I.

                That's the only way personal preference can be
                used...as a clearly stated opinion that also gives
                readers a clear picture of a given food BEFORE it's
                distorted by the lens of your opinion. There are
                critics who don't like sweets, and often conclude
                reviews with "they offer desserts A, B, and C, but not
                being a sweets devotee, I just had a cappuccino". I'm
                not, as a reader, in any way helped or illuminated by
                this petty personal preference. If you can't eat some
                tiramisu and tell if it's well-made, you shouldn't be
                reviewing. If it's too sweet for you, keep it to
                yourself...if it's too sweet for most readers, say
                so...but don't dismiss the dish without further
                description; there are readers out there who LIKE it
                sweet.

                Hope this reads ok. I'm afraid I don't have time to
                polish these long messages to make them super
                clear...have to finish a Loire article for dentists (a
                long story)...

                1. re: Jim Leff
                  a
                  AHR RE: Jim Leff Jul 11, 1999 04:21 AM

                  Sorry to have been away for a bit. I think I'll take
                  up this thread again after finishing Dornenburg and
                  Page's "Dining Out," which I just purchased.

          2. re: Jim Leff
            f
            Frank Language RE: Jim Leff Jul 5, 1999 09:33 PM

            big-dog writes: "I haven't seen any scientific studies,
            but...I dimly remember reading that there are brain
            reactions to spicy foods that resemble the reactions of
            addicts - buildup of physical and psychological
            tolerance, etc."

            One word - endorphins. Hot (spicy) foods make people
            produce endorphins (as does chocolate, caffeine, and
            other enjoyable things), which are the body's natural
            opiates, and the body progressively acquires a
            resistance to higher and higher doses of heat.

        2. j
          j gold RE: Jim Leff Jul 5, 1999 01:13 AM

          Was it Mallarme who drank only water because the differences between wines were just too jarring, too vulgar for his palate? Some symbolist poet, anyway.

          3 Replies
          1. re: j gold
            j
            Jim Leff RE: j gold Jul 5, 1999 12:53 PM

            "drank only water because the differences between wines were just too jarring, too vulgar for his palate?"

            Sounds like showing off to me, plain and simple.

            Actually, I have my own eccentric viewpoint re: wine versus water. In my experience, only the very best wines make an improvement over the water which constitutes something like 99.5% of its mass.

            I mean, ok and cheap wines may be perfectly enjoyable to drink, and some medium and expensive wines may even be delicious...but water, too--at least good water--is enjoyable and delicious.

            But the time I tried Ch. Lafite 1929, I just couldn't get it out of my head how impressively and wholly man had improved heavens' gift of water. It was so beyond water that one couldn't even find its watery underpinnings, as a world-class paella I once ate outdoors in Spain completely transcended rice. Obliterated the raw material utterly.

            1. re: Jim Leff
              a
              AHR RE: Jim Leff Jul 5, 1999 01:06 PM

              "In my experience, only the very best wines make an
              improvement over the water which constitutes something
              like 99.5% of its mass."

              Let us not forget the other reason that 99.5% of the
              population consumes alcoholic beverages.

              1. re: AHR
                r
                Renee RE: AHR Jul 9, 1999 09:30 PM

                My husband has a plain and very simple answer to the
                water debate, "WATER RUSTS YOUR INSIDES." Of Course
                only the best wines will do, or those that delight HIS
                palate.

          Show Hidden Posts