A matter of taste

Kantos Kan led me to one of these gorgeous eating places where we were served entirely by mechanical apparatus. No hand touched the food from the time it entered the building in its raw state until it emerged hot and delicious upon the tables before the guests, in response to the touching of tiny buttons to indicate their desires.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars, All-Story (1912)

…at the peak of the television boom, every bride dreamed of owning a vocalex kitchen someday that would exactly obey her most casual command to heat a roast for such and such time and baste it at such and such intervals. With the deluxe models, of course, came a set of flavor-fix rheostats which, among other talents, could mix salads according to the recipe of a famous chef slightly better than the chef could himself.

William Tenn, The Jester, Thrilling Wonder Stories (1951)

From the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster to Soylent Green, science fiction authors have always enjoyed conceptualizing the future of food and drink–the circumstances of it’s preparation and consumption, it’s plentitude or lack thereof, it’s nutritional value and, of course, it’s taste. Food and eating are a provocative when it comes to signaling similarity and difference. As Jean Retizinger says in a 2008 review of science fiction films entitled Speculative Visions and Imaginary Meals: Food and the Environment in (Post-apocalyptic) Science Fiction Films, “Familiar foods serve as an anchor in an altered world (evoking both nostalgia and parody), whereas unfamiliar food may become one of the clearest measures of how far we have journeyed from the present”.

Envisionments such as Tenn’s above are not restricted to science fiction writers, however. Marketing firms love to paint pictures regarding future food production, illustrating their prowess when it comes to innovation and thus their forward thinking market differentiation. In 1956, “no need for the bride to be tragic, the rest is push button magic” was message delivered by General Motors’ in their promotional film Design for Dreaming. The short film features a young bride for whom a cake is baked automagically, with no labor on her part. Instead of slaving in the kitchen, she gads gaily about, a fashionably dressed socialite. [For this and more kitchen imagineering check this out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TiACOLuYlJ4].

This fascination is not really surprising. Food and eating are at the bottom of Maslow’s Hierarchy, along with breathing, water, sleep, sex, homeostasis and excretion. Simply put, human beings need to eat to survive. It is thus also not surprising that food and food production have always been (and will continue to be) at the center of much research, design and development. The chemistry of cooking. The ergonomics of optimised workflow kitchens. Cross cultural comparisons on what is prepared how and eaten by whom, when and where. Critical perspectives on everyday cooking practices and eating rituals and experiences. Food also makes for compelling entertainment, whether it is titillation 24/7 on the Food Network or shopping for objects that scaffold aspirational lives. Any reasonably sized shopping mall has an assortment of shops willing to sell you ingenious gadgets that may be, strictly speaking, necessary for food preparation and consumption. While I am irrationally in love with the spork as an object, other examples in the line-up of curiously useless kitchen gadgets that make me roll my eyes are the egg-and-muffin toaster, the Roll ‘n’ Pour, the Pepper Prepper and the Slap Chop. I confess, I take chef Alton Brown’s line, I am of the opinion that the only “unitasker” in a kitchen should be fire extinguisher.

Personally, what has revolutionized my cooking habits is not a cooking implement at all. It is my tablet computer. Recipes are now animated. No longer need I ponder the kinetics of recipe-appropriate forms of egg beating; I can see precisely the difference between beating lightly and vigorously, modeled for me by experts.  I can see exactly how viscous the roux should be, and what boiling rapidly looks like, and emulate as appropriate. I can see what needs to be done, when and how. Computers made their debut into the kitchen with recipes, albeit more as repositories of traditional lists of ingredients and procedural instructions than in the form of the animated, step-by-step visual how-to’s that populate the Internet these days. My favourite arly example was the Honeywell H316 Kitchen Computer from 1965 which sold for $10,600, had 4KB magnetic core memory (expandable to 16KB) and a system clock speed of 2.5MHz, and required the user to learn a language called “BACK”. It was, by all accounts, not exactly easy to use, and it is not clear whether any were ever sold. Recent years have seen more imaginative uses of computational power in the kitchen than recipe storage and presentation. Smart, potentially connected devices and appliances have been flooding into forward thinking kitchen design for at least 15 years especially in University departments interested in robots and/or pervasive/ubiquitous computing. MIT’s Media Lab has long had a program focused on inventing the kitchen of the future with innovations such as the Digital Fabricator, a three-dimensional printer for food, the Robotic Chef, which is equipped with drills, spice injection syringes and heating elements, and the Virtuoso Mixer, a three-layer rotating carousel that supports finely tuned ingredient mixing. Another example that is more focused on practical, everyday kitchen support for the elderly, the “Ambient Kitchen” from the Culture Lab at the University of Newcastle in the UK sits at the other end of the spectrum–going “gadget” (and presumably robot) free. They state: “In sympathy with Mark Weiser’s vision of the “computer of the 21st century”, the projectors, wireless sensor network, RFID readers, cameras, and floor sensors had to disappear into the fabric of the kitchen itself”.

It is the 100th birthday of one of the most discussed kitchen appliances in the era of ubiquitous and pervasive computing: in 1913 Fred W. Wolf invented the Domelre, the DOMestic ELectric REfrigerator, the first electric refrigerator designed for domestic home use.The Domelre failed to gain market traction; all that is left of his design is the ice cube tray which was widely copied by other more successful manufacturers. Augmented fridge scenarios of the last 15 years usually invest this everyday object with sometimes useful and sometimes rather disturbing forms of agency-from the helpful shopping list suggestions to guardian of the diet, the gatekeeper who stands between you and indulgence. Fulfilling this latter role, top of my list of creepy technologies, in 2012 LG released a talking fridge as part of their LG ThinQ smart appliance series. The fridge helps you diet by telling you to put down unhealthy foods you have taken from its scanned inventory of what you placed in there. You tell the fridge your BMI and your dietary goals, and a smart TV coupled with voice recognition software recognizes you when you open the door. Given the excesses of the holiday season that s just over, I actually think may be useful. However, I also think I may end up impersonating others in the household to get past the fridge’s prescriptions regarding my eating allowances. Being harangued by my fridge while reaching for a slab of Brie is simply untenable. I’d prefer to be deluded about the size of the portion than prevented from indulging altogether……and, as it happens, researchers from the University of Tokyo in Japan are playing with augmented reality to make you think your portion is larger than it in fact is [1]. Appliances that are designed to tell us what we should eat can offer interference before we even get to the kitchen. The “Meal Planning Solution,” part of Intel’s “Connected Store,” is a kiosk with where something called the “Anonymous Video Analytics technology” (who named that?), zooms in on your face to determine gender and age group to work out what you may want to eat. I cannot imagine anything more aggravating than being told what I should eat based on some generalized model of food preferences based on my gender and age. Except perhaps being told by a fridge not to eat the Brie. I confess that, to me, all these designs smack of unimaginative engineering gone amuck.

Flavor is next on the technological meddling horizon, and not only in the form of genetic modification of fruits and vegetables, which can apparently can taste more “real” than the real thing. Or, perhaps once might say that correspond more accurately to some nostalgic imagining of a flavor: “Shoppers who miss the taste of farm-grown tomatoes may find solace in a new technology that puts back what generations of breeding for hardiness and shelf life have taken out” announced Scientific American in 2007. Marshall McLuhan’s 1964 vision in Understanding Media is that electronic technology is extending our senses–it seems we have expanded from sight and sound, his focus, to sensation more broadly, and have reached the sensation of taste. There are four basic tastes that your taste buds and brain are responsible for registering (sweet, sour, bitter and salty). These correspond to useful information for human survival. Simplifying wildly: Sweetness implies the food contains nutrients your body needs for energy; saltiness implies minerals your body needs which may have been excreted through sweat or urine, sourness is correlated with something being not ripe and therefore hard to digest; and a bitter taste suggests poison. More recently, nutritionists have acknowledged the existence of umami, a Japanese word coined in 1908 by a scientist at Tokyo Imperial University meaning savoury, tasty or brothy. Umami enhances all the other flavors–like mono-sodium glutamate or MSG. Our tongues have receptors for umami, but it works along different signaling pathways than the other 4 flavors. Umami helps us to identify protein-rich foods. Foods that contain umami include breast milk, soy sauce, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce (yum!) and anchovy. Notably, Thai and Italian chefs have their own versions of umami called “nam pla” and “garum” respectively. Garum dates back to ancient Rome, but is used in many Amalfi coast dishes—it is the “leakage” from the bottom of the barrels in which anchovies have been preserved in salt.

Recent work from researchers at the National University of Singapore demonstrates the stimulation of taste buds is possible. They have built a control system that enables digital stimulations of the sense of taste (gustation) by actuating taste sensations digitally through electrical and thermal stimulations on the tongue. So…..imagine the creation of flavor where there is none. Or the alteration of flavor. Back on the dieting theme, you could be eating celery, a vegetable long hailed as taking more calories to digest than it has in it, but trick your taste buds into thinking you are eating chocolate covered Hobnobs. Indeed, the researchers have not quite conquered all flavors reliably. So far sourness and saltiness are reliably evoked but the researchers have high hopes for sweet and bitter sensations [2]. So far, umami remains elusive.

Douglas Adams in 1979 was excited about the potential of taste bud stimulation but also sanguine to the things that could go wrong:

He had found a Nutri-Matic machine… The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject’s taste buds, a spectroscopic examination of the subject’s metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject’s brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

Douglas Adams,The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Books (1979)


Indeed. It could be that making tea is particularly difficult–at least one might think so when living the US (I say this as a British tea drinker who is often confronted with tepid brown water purporting to be tea even in the best of restaurants). But I think it is also because taste perception is rather hard to pin down.

One reason is that taste is not dependent on simple physiological mechanisms. Many things affect taste perception. Smell is crucial, as anyone who has had a bad cold or is for some other reason anosmic knows–in researching this column I read somewhere that if you hold your nose and bite into an onion while thinking about strawberries, you will taste strawberries. I am not sure I believe that and I am not about to try it. But it seems plausible. Texture and appearance also play a part, and so, surprisingly, does pain. Located in the tongue’s papillae, there are pain fibers wrapped around the taste buds. Capsaicin in chili peppers, gingerols in ginger, piperin in black pepper and isothiocyanates in onions, mustard, radishes and horseradish trigger these fibers. They also trigger sensors that monitor temperature. The alcohol in beer stimulates three sensory systems: taste (it’s a little bitter), olfaction (many beers have a slightly sweet smell, while others smell to me like wet dog fur), and the trigeminal system (which is why beers can have a little bite). It’s hard for alcohol-free beer to taste the same because it is the confluence of these elements that give beer its fully rounded flavor.. Hence you’ll get a burning sensation even if you bite into frozen chilli peppers. “Transient desensitization”–exposure to a trigger–also reduces its effect. Try it out, eat several jalapenos, wait a few minutes and then have another one. The final one will seem less hot than the first [3]. Taste is also hard to crack because chemosensory researchers have shown that people vary widely, genetics being one cause of the variance. “Supertasters” sit at one end of the extreme. Identified by experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk in the early 1990’s supertasters have elevated taste responses owing to more papillae.

Even more interestingly, research into sensory crossmodality has revealed that people’s responses to food and beverages are affected by multiple factors including: the color of the plates and bowls; the weight of cups, plates and cutlery; the size of plateware; the music that is being played; lighting; menu naming; and item pricing. Extensive research indicates that “non consumable elements of the table setting can exert a significant effect on our perception of, and behavior toward, food and drink” [4].

Another thing to reckon with is taste in food as well as taste of food. As my mother would have said, some foods are an “acquired taste”. Retzinger says: “Food connects us to others– both directly, through shared meals, and culturally, through shared ‘tastes.’” The experience of a flavor is a affected by the setting as noted above, but also by cultural factors. I wonder if the grocery shopping aids, the whisk wielding robots and the taste triggering actuators can read us well enough to gauge our current and nostalgic cultural identities? Will they know that custard is a comfort food, and while not nutritionally the top of the chart, just the very best thing for my mental health right now?



[1] Takuji Narumi, Yuki Ban, Takashi Kajinami, Tomohiro Tanikawa, Michitaka Hirose: Augmented perception of satiety: controlling food consumption by changing apparent size of food with augmented reality. CHI 2012. 109-118

[2] Nimesha Ranasinghe, Adrian David Cheok, Owen Noel Newton Fernando, Hideaki Nii and Ponnampalam Gopalakrishnakone, Digital Taste: Electronic Stimulation of Taste Sensations Ambient Intelligence. Lecture Notes in Computer Science, 2011, Volume 7040/2011, 345-349, DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-25167-2_48

[3] A nice summary article from 1994 by Michael Berry: http://www.sff.net/people/mberry/taste.htm

[4] Assessing the impact of the tableware and other contextual variables on multisensory flavour perception, Charles Spence,  Vanessa Harrar, and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, Flavour 2012, 1:7 http://www.flavourjournal.com/content/1/1/7

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