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Scrumptious // luscious // savory // delectable // and last but not least, C5H9NO4.

What the Tongue Tastes

By Jonah Lehrer // Photographs by Hans Gissinger // Winter 2008
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Umami explosion

The mind has long been a source of fascination for scientists and artists alike. Though artists may have wielded a brush or pen to probe its mysteries, those tools are no less important, it turns out, than those at a scientist’s lab bench. In fact, as Jonah Lehrer demonstrates in his new book, Proust Was a Neuroscientist, artists have sometimes uncannily foretold scientists’ findings about memory, consciousness and—as he relates below—the senses.

Auguste Escoffier invented veal stock (others had boiled bones before, but no one had codified the recipe), and he put it in everything. He reduced stock to gelatinous jelly, made it the base of pureed soups and enriched it with butter and brandy for sauces. What every other chef was throwing away—scraps of tendon and oxtail, the tops of celery, the ends of onion and the irregular corners of carrot—Escoffier simmered into sublimity.

Although Escoffier introduced his Guide Culinaire in 1903 with the lofty claim that the 5,000 recipes in it were “based upon the modern science of gastronomy” (he wanted to do for fancy food what Antoine Lavoisier had done for chemistry), in reality he ignored modern science. At the time, scientists were trying to create a prissy nouvelle cuisine based on their odd, and totally incorrect, notions of what was healthy. Pig blood was good for you. So was tripe. Broccoli, on the other hand, caused indigestion. The same with peaches and garlic. Escoffier ignored this bad science (he invented peach melba) and sautéed away to his heart’s malcontent, trusting the pleasures of his tongue over the abstractions of theory. He believed that the greatest threat to public health was the modern transformation of dining from a “pleasurable occasion” into an “unnecessary chore.”

Escoffier’s emphasis on the tongue was the source of his culinary revolution. In his kitchen, a proper cook was a man of exquisite sensitivity, “carefully studying the trifling details of each separate flavor before he sends his masterpiece of culinary art before his patrons.” Escoffier’s cookbook warns again and again that the experience of the dish—what it actually tastes like—is the only thing that matters: “Experience alone can guide the cook.” A chef must be that artist on whom no taste is lost.

Oddly, though, in Escoffier’s labor-intensive recipe for stock, there seems to be little to interest the tongue. After all, everybody knew (at least since Aristotle) that the tongue can taste only four flavors: sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Escoffier’s recipe seems deliberately to avoid adding any of these tastes. It contains very little sugar, salt or acid, and unless one burns the bones (not recommended), there is no bitterness. So, what do we sense when we eat a profound beef daube, its deglazed bits simmered in stock until the sinewy meat is fit for a spoon? For the ambitious Escoffier, answering that question was a practical problem, because understanding how the tongue worked was a necessary part of creating delicious dishes.

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