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Taste memory


Steve Plotnicki
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There are two competing concepts floating around this board. One concept derives from a challenge about people's ability to taste wines blind and guess the information correctly. The person who raised the issue implies from his statement, that aside from professionals in the industry, people just don't remember tastes and flavors in an area like wine where the differences are so subtle and nuanced. You can apply the same principal to nuances in food. The other concept comes from someone who has stated that as much as they enjoy a certain restaurant (a famous three star restaurant to be more specific) their last meal there although enjoyable, seemed repetitive. To me that means the meal did nothing more then meet his expectations of it (his memory of prior meals) and so he doesn't intend to go anymore because of the "been there, done that factor." I'm wondering how these two concepts co-exist.

I find that I have a pretty good memory for tastes. But some things are easier to remember then others. Going back to wine, it happens to be a difficult thing to remember for the reasons stated. But one can memorize the tastes nonetheless. But though I might be able to tell a Griotte-Chambertin from a Clos de la Roche when they are in glass, my memory of their tastes is not so indelibly etched in my mind to the extent where I can "smell" the difference when imagining them. But last week when I was in Nice, I ate my favorite fish soup. And although I always vividly imagine how it tastes, I find that fish soup is so nuanced a dish that it never tastes quite like I imagined it. I only get about 80% of the way there in my mind (and this might have to do with a variation in the soup from day to day.) But there are other things that I eat where a bite meets 100% of my expectations. For example I don't eat wheat because of a sensitivity to it. But sometimes when I am dining with someone who has say a brick oven anchovy pizza, or a certain type of pasta etc. I cheat and take a little taste. And I usually find that it meets the expectations set by my memory 100% of the time.

So what is food memory? What allows us to remember tastes and why are certain tastes easier to remember then others? And to get into a more interesting, but possibly stickier area, what impact does food memory have on how people enjoy their food?

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Steve - Do you find that foods and wines can taste markedly different on different occasions? For instance I once bought a bottle of a certain California wine that I was quite fond of. I opened it and gave it an hour. It tasted terrible -- so bad that I determined to take it back. The next day before returning it I tasted it again, and this time it was as I remembered it.

Now you might say that it simply needed a longer time to "breathe", but I gave it the same length of time as I had given previous bottles. I've also found that foods I make myself, or even a simple cup of freshly made coffee, can vary in the same way. Does this ever happen to you? If so, how do you allow for it?

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

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John - Variance in food and wine are caused by many different things. Because it is bottled, wine is a particularly tricky thing to nail down so let's begin with that. Assuming the bottle you bought of California cabernet was of the same vintage as past bottles, you have a number of issues to deal with that might make that bottle different from prior ones. One, the wine could come from a different barrel then the other bottles came from. And the winemaker might have decided to leave the wine that comprises the second bottle in the cask somewhat longer for some reason. Then there is the issue of whether they were shipped to the U.K. in the same manner. The first botttles you had might have been shipped by boat (a week on a truck going across the U.S., time sitting in a warehouse in Elizabeth, N.J. or Baltimore, MD while a freight consolidator ammasses enough wine to ship) and the second bottle might have been shipped by air (anywhere from 2-7 days including clearance of customs.) Then the first batch might have been shipped in plain containers because it was shipped in November and they felt the temperature was cool enough that they didn't need to ship in refrigerated reefers but the later bottle was shipped in June so they shipped in refrigerated containers. Then after you have to take all of these variables into consideration, there's the issue of how each local distributor treates the wine, plus how each retailer treats the wine when it's in their warehouse or stores. And as if this isn't enough to screw up your bottle of wine, bad corks kill even the most carefully handled wines with everything from TLC (corked wines) to improperly milled corks that allow for a variance in the amount of air it allows into the bottle. With all these pitfalls that can happen to a bottle of wine, it's amazing one ever gets a good bottle.

Then there is another issue that is somewhat speculative. In fact it is mostly speculative. I've had two different bottles of top quality wine that are fully mature within the same week. The first bottle is fabulous. Scents. aromas explode from the nose and the taste on the palate is amazing. Open the second bottle which comes from the same case a few days later and there is nothing. It's flat. Nothing wrong with the wine, it just never kicks into the same high gear as the bottle a few days earlier. There is a theory about this phenomenon (not purported by me mind you, I just report the news) that the barometric pressure has an impact on whether the aroma of the wine protrudes from the glass or whether it is trapped in the glass. And not knowing anything about the principal of barometric pressure, I can't tell you if there is any merit to it or if it's a bunch of nonsense. But I can tell you there are many wine drinkers who subscribe to the theory and who chalk up mediocre experiences with what should be great bottles of wine "due to the weather."

Maybe this partly answers your question in regards to coffee as well. Aside from the voodoo I just mentioned, there is the ripeness of the beans they picked, how long the beans have been in storage, how they were roasted, any varience in the water from your tap that day etc. It's certainly an imprecise science isn't it?

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I should have said that the bottle in question had come from the same shop around the corner as my previous bottle, which I had drunk only a week before. It was from the same small shipment.

Your various explanations are entirely logical, but I'm convinced -- I feel it in my bones, as it were -- that the difference lay in myself rather than in the wine.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Your various explanations are entirely logical, but I'm convinced -- I feel it in my bones, as it were -- that the difference lay in myself rather than in the wine

John - Just because it came from the same shop a week apart, doesn't mean they were from the same shipment from the U.S. It could be a popular wine and they could have sold it well and reordered it. The first shipment might have arrived 6 months earlier for all you know.

But your point about our palates not being in top form every day is a good one. Just like musicians give more inspired performances on some days and lackluster ones on other days. But how do you think the off days impact on taste memory. To me, I think that we take a mental snapshot of the highs, and we chalk up the lows as an atypical example.

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Steve says: ……..“about people's ability to taste wines” , and ….”people just don't remember tastes and flavors”, and ……” You can apply the same principal to nuances in food.”

And John Whiting is asking: …” Steve - Do you find that foods and wines can taste markedly different on different occasions?” And John continues with:….”I've also found that foods I make myself, or even a simple cup of freshly made coffee, can vary in the same way. Does this ever happen to you? If so, how do you allow for it? “

Steve’s next post starts with:….” John - Variance in food and wine are caused by many different things.” And on and on, to end with other criteria: “the barometric pressure”, and:…” the voodoo I just mentioned”

Now, I totally agree with both the Gentlemen of higher learning and “educated taste”, but don’t you both miss a relation to the human mind, it’s condition, it’s mood? And not to forget the time of day, after a possible long sleeping period, or to the extreme, overly tired?. What about previously consumed foods. Remember the body chemistry of “acceptance” to include flavors and smells. Also the environment one as in other odors, natural or human or humidity or ‘barometric pressure’. Wafting clouds of smoke or overly extended use of Chanel#5 affects taste in public environs. Let others tell you what your own breath smells like, you can’t! It affects taste. So, with all the above, I venture to claim not food and drink only tricks your memory but under the condition it is perceived in.

As always, I hereby sign out, and stand corrected.

:rolleyes:

Peter
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Again, I should have made it clear that all the bottles I'd had were from a small single shipment and within a couple of weeks of each other. I told the manager (whom I knew) about my one-off bad experience and the change the following day, and he told me he'd only had one lot of a couple of cases, not knowing how it might sell.

Peter: I also should have said that the several bottles of this wine that I'd drunk were all at lunch time in my own small studio and accompanying similar foods. I was more or less in the same mood for each; i.e. pleasant anticipation.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Peter - I think my original question assumes that things that cause variances in taste are the exceptions and not the rules. If I have enough experience at tasting say that fish soup I like so much, my memory will be calibrated for a range of results. Atypical results don't have much signifigance in the scheme of things because I have no use for them on a continuing basis other then to warn myself that an experience can be hit or miss. But the milemarkers I place in my memory depend on an acute awareness of how something tastes or smells. For example, it is much easier for me to recall the taste and smell of a strip steak cut from prime beef then it is for me to recall the way a veal chop tastes and smells. Veal chops while delicious, have a much more subtle taste to them. Whether that can be overcome by extensive tasting experience, or whether it's just bland compared to a strip steak is something to ponder.

Stepehn T now raises the point that repetitiveness can dampen the results. It's a good point, and probably true. But Stephen, are you saying that in the first instance, if we really like a bottle of wine, that our memory tricks us into thinking that it was better then it really was? I will buy that. Quite often I eat or drink something and pronouce it delicious and then after additional examples I reevaluate its worthiness. But doesn't that point go to calibrating your memory? What does it have to do with being able to properly store away the information?

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I would find fish soup a tricky food on which to base expectations. I've eaten -- and made -- a lot of fish soup in a lot of different ways, and I find it one of the least predictable of dishes. Ruling out *bad* fish soup, of which I've had rather a few at restaurants where I would have expected better, I still find surprises from one to another. And if it's *good* fish soup, the surprise is always pleasant.

Just to be clear, I'm talking about soupe aux poissons as Waverley Root describes it, not soupe de poissons; i,e, soup in which the fish is entirely integrated, not in separate pieces.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

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John - And just to set the record straight, I was referring to soupe *de* poisson, the type that is pureed and strained after it is cooked. I never think of chunky fish soup as actually being a soup. It's more stewlike then souplike to me. Abd I always find the strained version more nuanced since all you are dealing with is liquid with intense (hopefully if its good) flavor.

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A confusion of terms. What you describe is what Root calls soupe *aux* poissons. At any rate, we're talking about the same soup -- I think. The soup I'm referring to is *coarsely* strained; i.e. it's thick rather than clear or even thin; it may have cubes of potato in it and it's customarily served with croutons (or a single piece of hard toast), gruyere cheese and a thick spicy rouille.

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

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So what is food memory? What allows us to remember tastes and why are certain tastes easier to remember then others? And to get into a more interesting, but possibly stickier area, what impact does food memory have on how people enjoy their food?

Our memories of taste can also be mingled with the emotional experiences that we had at the time we experienced those tastes. And that can also be a factor in how we enjoy these tastes at a later time.

Reading about your memory of fish soup in France made me think of Tony Bourdain's chapter about going back to France to taste the fish soup & other items that he enjoyed & remembered so well as a child on summer vacations in France. The anticipation of how delicious it would again be, and how 30 years later when he and his brother were back tasting that same fish soup again, although it was still delicious and just as he had remembered, he was left feeling disappointed. And in the end he eventually realized it wasn't the memory of the deliciousness of the soup he was trying to recapture, but of the time when his father was alive and they were together as a family, and that he was missing his father. I can identify with that, although in my case it would be my mother.

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Steve wrote:

The soupe I'm describing at Loulou in Cagnes sur Mer is very thin. Nothing chunky in it at all.
When I say thick I don't mean chunky. There are no chunks in it. In fact there's a considerable latitude as to how thick soupe *aux* poissons can be. By soupe *de* poissons, Root means a soup which has discrete pieces of fish in it.

Blue Heron writes:

And in the end he eventually realized it wasn't the memory of the deliciousness of the soup he was trying to recapture, but of the time when his father was alive and they were together as a family, and that he was missing his father
We're in an area of infinite complexity. Look what Proust was able to do with a madelene!

John Whiting, London

Whitings Writings

Top Google/MSN hit for Paris Bistros

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Whiting - No my fish soup (the one at Loulou) is really very thin in body. It's sort of like a weightier consome. You must try it sometime if you are ever down there. It isn't loaded with additives either. And it is strained extremely well so there is nothing but broth. It is surprisingly subtle as well. It is sort of plain when you first take a spoonful and very mild. As you are eating through the first bowl the flavor deepens with each spoon. By the time they serve you the second bowl (there are three portions in the tureen they serve) the flavor is really intense. It's really a soulful soupe. Sort of like the Provencal fishrman's chicken soup.

Heron - I think there are food memories we associate with events in our life where the experience enhances your memory of the taste. Besides Bourdain's experience with fish soup, there is Calvin Trillin's famous story of the macaroni and cheese at his parent's Kansas City home. But some memories last because the taste is so darn good. There used to be a famous kosher delicatessen in Queens called the Pastrami King. The first time I went there and had a pastrami sandwich, it tasted familiar to me. Then I found out that the original store was in Williamsburg, Brooklyn and I realized that my parents would buy takeout deli from that shop when they visited my grandmother who lived nearby. Here it was more then 20 years later and I could remember the taste of it from when I was an adolescent. Aren't there things you can remember from your youth?

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The Weizmann Institute has done a ton of research on taste memory, and has actually gone a long way towards explaining how it works from a neurological perspective -- right down to the exact chemicals in the brain that trigger this sort of memory, relearning, etc. As a reminder, what we call taste is mostly smell. However, both taste and smell are necessary to experience what the food-science people call flavor. So maybe the better term is flavor memory. In any event, there is little doubt that there is such a thing. In addition to being a tool of gourmets, it is a basic survival mechanism present in any animal with the relevant sensory organs and the capacity for memory.

Steven A. Shaw aka "Fat Guy"
Co-founder, Society for Culinary Arts & Letters, sshaw@egstaff.org
Proud signatory to the eG Ethics code
Director, New Media Studies, International Culinary Center (take my food-blogging course)

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Here it was more then 20 years later and I could remember the taste of it from when I was an adolescent. Aren't there things you can remember from your youth?

Absolutely... and the emotional connection can go either way, to either enhancing a meal (which is most often) or leaving one feeling disappointed, depending on one's mood, and/or the connection. I didn't mean to imply by that example that food/taste memory only can cause disappointment, but that it can sometimes be related/mingled with emotional factors that one might not even be aware of at that moment, which to my recollection hadn't been mentioned in the thread yet.

So getting back to the other aspects of taste memory... how much is a good memory just luck (or natural) and how much is it that we have to work on it? With finely nuanced tastes I have to work on it. I have to think it comes naturally to some people, as do other types of memory recall. My brother is one of those lucky people who has a talent of remembering lots of experiences even when he was age 3.. I will have to ask him about how his food/wine memory is to see if his memory extends to that capacity as well. I have an ability to remember other types of things, but wish it would be more food & wine taste related. I have to work on that (especially wine). Steve and others... do you have to work hard (taking notes and such) for wine (especially) memory, or does it come more natural?

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it is a basic survival mechanism present in any animal with the relevant sensory organs and the capacity for memory.

Hey, that's me!

Good to hear.

"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Stepehn T now raises the point that repetitiveness can dampen the results. It's a good point, and probably true. But Stephen, are you saying that in the first instance, if we really like a bottle of wine, that our memory tricks us into thinking that it was better then it really was? I will buy that. Quite often I eat or drink something and pronouce it delicious and then after additional examples I reevaluate its worthiness. But doesn't that point go to calibrating your memory? What does it have to do with being able to properly store away the information?

That is what I was implying, but as John points out it wasn't exactly what he was describing in his post. I still think it could be true though.

Sometimes the first time I have a wine I've not had before I'll think it's brilliant and soon afterwards I'll buy another bottle and probably tell my friends they have to have some because it's brilliant. But while I'm drinking it I'm secretly thinking to myself that it's not all I remember it to be. The first time there is a "wow" factor in addition to the actual taste and everything falls into place, whereas the second time I find myself concentrating, trying to detect the notes that appealed to me the first time (were I more experienced in "tasting" as opposed to just "drinking" wine, I'm sure this would be easier).

The first time I ate Thai food I thought "This is brilliant, why haven't I ever eaten lemongrass before?". Now if I look at the menu of the Thai restaurant near where I live, I know exactly what everything tastes like so I don't particularly feel like ordering anything. If it was a different Thai restaurant, I might still have something that I've had before because they might prepare it differently (and hopefully better or more interestingly) than I've had before. My wife on the other hand is happy to continue ordering Phad Thai with prawns time after time regardless of where she has it.

After all that, I'm not entirely sure what my point is. I think it's that when calibrating memory, you have to try to have an objective experience when relying on something for calibration - hence the first experience of something can skew this due to factors other than taste. I'm the sort of person who gets bored of things easily so this sort of situation probably affects me more than other people. When I find something that I do really enjoy eating (or drinking!) several times without getting bored of it, that's when I believe that it really is good.

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new years eve, 1981, my father opened a cheval blanc -66 for the cheese. we knew it was supposed to be excellent, and it was fantastic. we sat there, four of us, enjoying it for several hours, barely being able to finish it, which seems silly but is the result of its being so rich and complex and filling(?). my second ch. blanc was a -70 in -92 with all the four proud grandparents of our first child. this time, we knew what to expect, but were sorely disappointed. not that it was bad, but it was sooo much inferior to the first one.

now, the strange point is that the first time we were all a little sad that my sister was absent because she had to take care of a sulking boyfriend, and the second time was a joyful night. how to explain it? the vintage? the meteorological circumstances? the presence of my mother-in-law? over-expectations (this, at least, i can hardly believe, as i - as well as my parents - could vividly remember the taste range of the first)?

christianh@geol.ku.dk. just in case.

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Stephen T. - I think you are describing the novelty factor that we apply to new foods that we taste for the first time and which we think are delicious. I just think that one has a difficult time setting their memory bar at the right place if they have only one experience. Especially if it's a food with so many alien tastes and unusual cooking techniques like Thai food. Indian food would be the same. Music is the same no? How many CD's did you like on the first listen only to find them less interesting on the second and third listens?

So I think we need to exclude the novelty factor. Especially when the thing in question is so different from what you are used to eating. The first time I had Tom Yum Kung, it was jarring to my tastebuds. How could it not be? So many ingredients that are alien to my palate. But now I have the flavor memorized and when I order it I have a certain level of expectation. And the food either meets, exceeds, or falls short of expectations.

Oraklet - Certain things almost always meet or exceed expectations. Aside from bottle variation, some botles of wine deliver the same punch every time. And like CDs, some wines seem great on the first few sips but grow less interesting the longer they sit in the glass. But there are so many reasons why one bottle of wine is performing well and another is performing poorly that it's hard to use wine as an example. For example, 1966 isn't a particularly distinguished year for CB but 1970 is held with some regard. But your 1966 could have been perfectly mature at the time and the 1970 could have needed another ten years. Wine is a fickle hobby.

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Memory is fallible and highly malleable. The courts place a lot of weight on eye-witness testimony, yet experiments show that it can be highly unreliable. No doubt note-taking soon after eating enhances memory of the dishes, but--even though we have an emotional response when reminded of a childhood dish and there's a romanticization of such experiences--memories of food (like everyhting else) from years ago can be most imprecise.

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