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Taste memory


Steve Plotnicki
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I think so. It's like the difference between eyewitness testimony from me versus the eyewitness testimony of a Secret Service agent on the protective detail who has undergone rigorous training specifically in the science of identifying people's faces based on distinguishing characteristics. And that Secret Service agent probably had some predisposition towards that sort of talent anyway -- one that I just don't have. Still, with training one's memory can be massively improved. Just go read Harry Loraine's work if you don't believe it.

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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I agree with that. But what about people who have better memories then other people? I assume that there is a gustatory version of that as well?

The gustatory version will be a combination of two things - how good your memory is generally, and also how much attention you're paying to what you're eating. The latter is something that's likely to be present in people who really enjoy food and have practice at paying attention to it. Note-taking as mention above, also helps in the way that revising work for an exam helps you remember (quite apart from the fact that it allows you to look back at your notes once you've eventually forgotten).

Also, having a frame of reference for a meal before eating it will enable you to gauge it properly (as discussed before on this thread of course) and therefore remember it more correctly. Yvonne mentioned fondness of childhood dishes - I'm sure that one of the reasons many people have fond memories of childhood dishes is that they don't really have a frame of reference at the time they had them and also aren't critically assessing their mother's / gran's / whoever's cooking when they're children (or they might be, in which case they're probably Frasier Crane).

Edit: Fat Guy sneaked in while I was typing and said the same thing by way of an example!

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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.

Yvonne, you write beautifully.

"Memory is fallible and highly malleable."

How poetic that sentence is.

I enjoy your posts a great deal. :smile:

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... 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.

I find that many of these flavour memories (taste + smell) are very strongly linked to early experiences, in a way that is sometimes frighteningly visceral. For example: my grandmother's apartment in Chicago had a certain smell, a combination of old wood, furniture polish, and certain dishes she cooked very regularly. Every now and then I will encounter something like one of these smells -- most recently at a boardroom in a company in Italy. When this happened I almost had to wrench myself back, many years, to the present.

But the experience was non-analytic: I didn't think "ah, this is a smell like my grandmother's apartment." I was there, in an instant.

Doesn't this happen because smell and taste are very basic in the brain, closely connected to the limbic system? It's one reason, I think, that cookery is so powerful as an art, in certain ways more so than painting or music.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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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.

In my experience the French are irritatingly inconsistent about this usage. Sometimes soupe aux poissons has chunks of fish in it, like a cotirade or a bourride, in case which it's stewlike. Sometimes it is the strained, smooth product (like the base of a bouillabaisse). Soupe de poissons is similarly bivalent. I am on the road at the moment, not able to check cookbooks, but I'll bet that you'd get different views from equally "authoritative" sources. I've been with French diners who have asked waiters, as a result of this ambiguity, what they would be getting with either a soupe aux poissons or a soupe de poissons.

Steve P is dead right about that soup at Loulou. It is outstanding. I think one reason is that they puree it very close to the time it is served -- you can hear the blender whizzing a few moments before the dish comes to the table. I don't know how thoroughly it is strained, if at all, but the consistency is light and fresh. It is an ideal start to a meal.

Jonathan Day

"La cuisine, c'est quand les choses ont le go�t de ce qu'elles sont."

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  • 8 years later...

As Grant Achatz's memoirs are being published, I am reminded that even during the worst of the radiation and chemotherapy, when he was unable to taste a thing, he could still create unique dishes with harmonious flavours that evoked memories or emotions in those who ate them.

Although there are many chefs out there with as much, and even more, experience in the kitchen, I wonder how many of them could churn out fabulous dishes with just the memory of how things taste?

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James Beard wrote a lot about "taste memory" especially in his memoir "Delights and Prejudices" and when I read what he had to say, I connected with it. Madhur Jaffrey writes about her experiences with "taste memory" as well and once again, I resonate with what she says. I will quote from them;

The ability to recall a taste sensation, which I think of as "taste memory," is a God-given talent, akin to perfect pitch, which makes your life richer if you possess it. If you aren't born with it, you can never seem to acquire it....And naturally good chefs and cooks must depend upon memory when they season or when they are combining subtle flavors to create a new sauce or dish.

-- James Beard, Delights and Prejudices (1964)

Madhur Jaffrey

Years later, in New York, I helped my ailing neighbor James Beard teach some of his last classes. One of them was about taste. The students were instructed to sample nine types of caviar and a variety of olive oils, and do a blind identification of meats that had had their fat removed. Toward the end of the class, this big, frail man, who was confined to a high director’s chair, said to the students, “Do you think there is such a thing as taste memory?”

This set me thinking. A few years earlier, my husband, a violinist, had been studying the score of Bach’s “Chaconne” when a friend asked him, “Can you hear the music as you read it?” It was the same question in a different form. When I left India to study in England, I did not know how to cook, but my palate had recorded hundreds of flavors. From cumin to tamarind, they were all in my head, waiting to be called into service. Rather like my husband, I could hear the honey on my tongue. ♦

I like Madhur Jaffrey's musical analogy. Taste memory for me is like "perfect pitch" for a musician. It is a gift albeit contingent on having a large repertoire of flavours in the memory bank.

Like Madhur Jaffrey, I didn't know how to cook when I left home and I had no recipes or cookbooks. I recreated my mother's meals from memory and was usually successful. Later on when I had the money to eat in restaurants and ate a particularly delicious meal in a restaurant, I would analyze the flavours in the dish I was interested in and return home and recreate it as soon as possible. I was often successful.

I became a cookbook collector and lost my dependency on my "taste memory" and mostly hunt down recipes instead.

Recently, friends asked me if I could recreate the Hovis bread that we all ate as children. Hovis sent the dough to various Canadian bakeries (even those in very small towns). I ordered Hovis flour from Great Britain and found a Hovis recipe on the Hovis website and used it. We all agreed that it wasn't as we had remembered it. I have since experimented (Elizabeth David reports in her bread book that the wheat germ was toasted) so I tried that and still my tasters and I agreed that that bread wasn't quite "it" either.

Next I will grind my own wheat (because it is the wheatiness that I am after) to see if that works.

I also wonder if my friends and I are "in synch" vis a vis our taste memories. We grew up in different parts of Canada, me in a remote mountain town in BC, another in Hamilton, Ontario and another, north of Toronto.

Also with regard to childhood taste memories, I find I am frequently disappointed. Chicken even free range doesn't have the same deliciousness of those we used to get from the farm in the Windermere Valley. Carrots do not taste the same at all, even those grown from organic European seeds by me. So a taste memory can be a source of great frustration as well.

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I find this fascinating...that you can taste something in a restaurant and then go home and try to replicate the dish even though time has passed since the original tasting. And then to have to keep experimenting and tweaking so even more time has passed until you finally, hopefully, get it right. And then how do you know that it tastes the same as the original tasting? What if the subsequent attempts at replication have skewed your taste memory? Maybe they don't. Still, it's quite a remarkable talent.

I can see how repetition (repeated tastings of the same dish throughout one's childhood) would help to enforce taste memory.

Also with regard to childhood taste memories, I find I am frequently disappointed. Chicken even free range doesn't have the same deliciousness of those we used to get from the farm in the Windermere Valley. Carrots do not taste the same at all, even those grown from organic European seeds by me. So a taste memory can be a source of great frustration as well.

Perhaps the difference is terroir. You're not using the same water, the same soil, the same feed grain, etc, as what was used originally so, of course, the end result would not be the same (e.g., Vidalia onions).

Edited by Toliver (log)

 

“Peter: Oh my god, Brian, there's a message in my Alphabits. It says, 'Oooooo.'

Brian: Peter, those are Cheerios.”

– From Fox TV’s “Family Guy”

 

Tim Oliver

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I find this fascinating...that you can taste something in a restaurant and then go home and try to replicate the dish even though time has passed since the original tasting. And then to have to keep experimenting and tweaking so even more time has passed until you finally, hopefully, get it right. And then how do you know that it tastes the same as the original tasting? What if the subsequent attempts at replication have skewed your taste memory? Maybe they don't. Still, it's quite a remarkable talent.

I can see how repetition (repeated tastings of the same dish throughout one's childhood) would help to enforce taste memory.

Also with regard to childhood taste memories, I find I am frequently disappointed. Chicken even free range doesn't have the same deliciousness of those we used to get from the farm in the Windermere Valley. Carrots do not taste the same at all, even those grown from organic European seeds by me. So a taste memory can be a source of great frustration as well.

Perhaps the difference is terroir. You're not using the same water, the same soil, the same feed grain, etc, as what was used originally so, of course, the end result would not be the same (e.g., Vidalia onions).

Well Toliver, I write down the recipe the first time I cook it which is very close in time to when I have eaten it in the restaurant. And then I tweak it after the first eating and then I save the recipe with all its tweaks and notes for the next time I want to cook it. Heaven forbid that I should have to remember it years hence and hope and tweak. Now that would be a challenge.

You are absolutely right about the terroir. I should have thought of that. Thank you.

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As Grant Achatz's memoirs are being published, I am reminded that even during the worst of the radiation and chemotherapy, when he was unable to taste a thing, he could still create unique dishes with harmonious flavours that evoked memories or emotions in those who ate them.

Although there are many chefs out there with as much, and even more, experience in the kitchen, I wonder how many of them could churn out fabulous dishes with just the memory of how things taste?

This has parallels in music as well: Beethoven went deaf but this did not significantly affect his ability to compose (it did affect his ability to perform). Presumably Grant left the tasting and finishing of the created dishes to his sous chefs.

I hesitate to put this after a mention of Grant Achatz: it is a change of topic (and level of cooking!!!) but related.

I can say from experience that I can read through a recipe, use my taste memory and knowledge of the impact of cooking on food to simulate the cooking. From the taste picture created, I will then decide such issues as whether the recipe is worth exploring further, how to adapt it based on which flavours will be missing, whether the cooking process will leave sufficient texture, whether it is a seasonal recipe that requires very fresh ingredients, etc.

Naturally this can only be done with food I have cooked and tasted before but even when a new combination is suggested (eg. lobster with vanilla), I can typically construct a good sense of how it will combine, almost like tasting it but not with direct perception.

I'd be mightily surprised if I was alone in the ability to do this, particularly in this august group. To what extent can others combine ingredients and cooking processes in their heads and simulate the taste?

This is better termed taste synthesis but is is definitely dependent on taste memory.

Nick Reynolds, aka "nickrey"

"The Internet is full of false information." Plato
My eG Foodblog

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