Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes! And welcome for the FIRST time to 2019! I’m your chrononautic chronicler, and cook who’s too shook, Jon O’Guin. Today’s post is something that I wanted to talk about because I thought it was a cool idea, then I discovered I wasn’t the first to have it, and THEN I discovered I hadn’t even really ever laid the GROUNDWORK for what I wanted. So what was this complicated topic I was bumbling over like a fat cartoon character with his foot in a bucket? Flavors! Seriously, the basic concept of flavors. And how there’s more of them than you may think. Let me explain.
Jon’s Starting a New Band named “Five for Biting”
That’s ridiculous Title Jon, you know that I can’t stand to fry. I’m not that naïve. I’m just out to find the better part of meat.
More than a bird, more than some greens
More than some pretty taste of rice and beans
90’s alt…rock(?) allusions aside, the title is in reference to the currently widely held belief that there are five fundamental flavors: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty, and Umami. These five elements make up the building blocks of all flavors, yada yada, and I wanted to talk about how this classification system was arguably flawed, and how we could expand that idea with some other ‘fundamental flavors’.
But as I was “yada yada”ing over the entirety of basic flavor theory, that I realized that…no, not “yada yada”, this is something we should probably talk about. Because I’ve never taken the time on this site to actually discuss how FLAVOR works. One of the fundamental GOALS of the actual ACT OF COOKING, and we’ve never talked about it. And since I wanted to ADD to the discussion, it kind of helps to, you know, actually have said discussion going. So let’s talk about what flavor is, what it means, and other elements that, if you’re like me, may sound like intro-level stuff, but as the late, great Stan Lee used to say “every comic is someone’s first”. Meaning there’s no shame in making sure everyone knows the basics, because without them, how can anyone get to the advanced levels? Let’s dive in our yada-yada’d points, and find out what’s there.
Used ‘Yada’ enough times, Have you?
It’s All a Matter of Taste
Taste is often considered the least ‘useful’ of our five senses. This is dumb for two reasons: firstly, because we don’t have five senses. Despite what M Night Shamylan films and Ancient Greek texts taught us, humans aren’t limited to only five senses. Because THAT’S where that idea comes from: medieval POEMS based on a refinement of an argument proposed by the Father of Modern Science, M. Night- ARISTOTLE. Not the AVATAR guy. No, Aristotle argued that there were FOUR senses, each bound t one of the elements of…air, fire, water, and earth…in his treatise “Sense and Sensibilia”. And, SOMEHOW, that IS a Jane Austen reference in an ANCIENT GREEK TEXT.
Are you a witch, Ms Austen? Did you fucking TIME-TRAVEL to Ancient Greece?
Anyway, many years later, a monk argued that there were FIVE senses, tied to the FIVE elements (there was a fad for a couple…centuries that “aether”, representing either the void of space, the soul, or like, laughing gas, was a fifth element, higher/more important than the other four, and HOW ARE WE MAKING ANOTHER GODDAMN REFERENCE ?
This explanation has gone off the rails. THE POINT is that while those five senses DO exist, you also have more. Like, depending on how you define a “sense”, maybe as many as 13 or 14 senses.
They range from:
The Simple - technically Pain and Temperature are processed by different nerves than physical contact, making them at least neurologically distinct from touch. Like, if your stomach hurts, that’s not ‘touch’ telling you that
The more Esoteric - Proprioception, which is your body’s quiet little ability to just…know where its parts are. If this sounds like a lame sense, you’ve clearly never LOST it due to an injury or chemical impairment: there are few things as unsettling as knowing your feet are cold, but not knowing where they ARE.
To the downright Metaphysical - like, a sense of ‘agency’: People with brain injuries sometimes find that they no longer perceive themselves as ‘controlling’ their actions, instead finding that they feel like a passenger in their own body, making decisions, but not getting to carry them out. That’s clearly tied to SOME physiological system
Piloting your own body as a meat mecha SOUNDS cool, but it’s actually kind of off-putting.
None of which is about taste, but I got REAL lost in there for a minute, so at least we were confused together.
The other thing that makes the idea that “taste is the least important of the five senses” wrong (because, yes, THAT was what triggered me rambling about Jane Austen, Chris Tucker’s second-best movie, and Avatar the Last Airbender) is that, well…how do you think your body figures out what it needs to not die?
Like, sure, in a modern world with literacy and food notations, it’s not that hard for someone to get by without a sense of taste, but before we labeled our foods? Taste is the guy who finds what we need, or stops us from the guy we don’t. Let’s break down how and why.
Sugar Sugar How’d You Get So Fly
Please stick to one late-90’s/early-2000’s musical genre of references, Title Jon, I’m starting to get a headache.
Anyway, the reason you have tastebuds for sweetness is easy: sweet things keep you going. More specifically, sweetness comes from sugars, and sugars are complex carbohydrates, and are therefore among the most calorically dense foods available.
Look at this dense motherfucker.
The human body consumes a LOT of energy, and thus it’s predisposed to like foods that allow it access to energy. Sugar is particularly useful, because it’s short-term energy, and can be broken into a compound that helps the body STORE energy for future need.
Sweetness, therefore, is one of the fundamental things people look for in food. Interestingly, there’s no scientific explanation for why people can find foods TOO sweet, despite many people having such a threshold, other than ‘because sweetness without other flavors means the food doesn’t have other necessary components’.
This ties into the broader utility of flavors, and also the leading theory on why pregnant women get weird cravings: see, your body doesn’t understand vitamins, minerals, or nutrients in an intellectual way. Instead, it just knows that “after mouth tasted this, I received these things.” Thus, a weird craving for a specific type of food is, as far as science can tell, is your body attempting to give you a status report on its nutrition: “Man, I could really go for something cheesy”, is your body saying “we need sodium, protein, and fat.” And pregnant women, since they’re building a tiny human inside them, can find themselves lacking weird mixes of nutrients, so their body sends up weird mixtures of desires. “I need chocolate Ice cream and pickles”.
I knew the internet would have pickle-based desserts for me to put here.
So, if sugar’s how we pinpoint calories, how do we pinpoint other things?
Oooh Mami, You So Fine
Umami, the mystical ‘fifth flavor’. Translated, it most directly means “deliciousness”, but it more directly relates to the idea of ‘savory’. As in ‘what you call good foods that aren’t sweet.” And that’s because, like sugar and salt, it’s what’s called ‘appetitive’, meaning they entice you to eat more.
This is because umami is tied to the presence of amino acids, which serve as the building blocks of proteins, the compounds used to build/heal muscles and organs. So while sugar whistles you up some energy, umami tells you what foods are going to help you build yourself up. One of the most common attempts to summarize umami in English is “meatiness” for this reason.
Oops, dropped a meme here.
Umami is the most recently widely recognized taste discovered, because direct research into taste is still quite young. Umami was only discovered in 1908, and only internationally recognized in the mid-1980’s. This will be relevant later, but we’ve got to move on because I spent so much time arguing about how many senses people have. Guess there’s no accounting for taste? No, that was dumb. How about “guess I don’t have quite as many as I should”? Damn.
All These Flavors, and You Choose to Be Salty
So if sugar gives us energy, and umami gets us swole, then what does salt add to the equation? Salt, from a medical point of view, is super important, because it’s what makes, among other things, our kidneys work. Salt, as an easy-to-dissolve ionic compound, serves as the core of our body’s internal electrolyte balancing system, without which many of the workings of our organs, blood, and other internal systems would cease to function.
Salt: it’s got what plants crave.
To make an all-too-simple analogy, if protein makes the walls, and sugar is the generator, then salt is the wiring: it moves the power to the different rooms of the house, ensures all the appliances are functioning, and generally keeps the system ticking. Which is why it’s the last of the purely appetitive flavors, meaning that most people LIKE it, as long as it’s not excessive. The next contestant is a little less cut-and-dry.
We Know Neither The Day Nor The Sour
Sour’s a really weird component of taste. Like, everyone KNOWS we can taste sour, but the ‘why’ of it is a little hazy. Again, compared to a lot of science, taste is a very hard one to work with, partly because it’s much harder to convince people to lick things for science than to just touch them.
“Jenkins, come lick this foaming solution for me, will you?”
But the basic idea is that most sour things in nature are probably rotting things. Sourness is typically produced by acids or fermentation. And both of those things can be quite dangerous if consumed incorrectly. As such, the range of ‘tolerable’ sourness is a little tighter than most compounds: most people can stand proportionally much more salt or sugar than they can straight lemon juice.
However, acids are another source of ions, and therefore electrolytes, and sour fermentation can produce amino acids and other useful components. Thus, sour is still something that people find themselves desiring, as well as being a warning system for when things go bad.
Which brings us to the last of the classic five: The Tito of the Foundational flavors: Bitter.
Bitter? I ‘ardly Knew ‘er!
I’m practicing my British accent at the moment. Got to be ready in case they need Dick Van Dyke’s grandson for a third Mary Poppins movie.
Anyway, bitterness. Bitterness is…somehow even more complicated than sour. And that’s because, on its base, bitterness is an aversive flavor: people are more sensitive to bitter compounds in their food than ANY other kind of flavor compound, and that’s because of a very simple reason: most things that are poison taste bitter.
Eating this package, for instance, would be a bad idea for many reasons, and would likely be quite bitter.
Bitterness was, for millennia, our way of going “oh, no, this is going to fuck me up.” And letting us spit out the food before we had too much.
However, recently, things have gotten complicated, because of a well-known truism of the medical world: most medicines are just poisons in better doses. This is partly why (hot-take here) anti-vaxxers really mess up with some of their arguments. Digitalis is a compound found in Foxglove flowers that was used as a poison for centuries before it was discovered to help with heart problems. Just because something’s poison if consumed the wrong way, doesn’t mean it’s not helpful consumed the RIGHT way. You can overdose on sodium by consuming too much salt, but we JUST established you also need it to live. (By the way, as an example, “too much” salt is like, “a quart of soy sauce”. As long as you are not personally eating literal cups of salt, you’re not in much risk) Further complicating matter are the Big Bitter Boys, or B3 as no one calls them: three chemical compounds that are intrinsically bitter and poisonous to people that are nevertheless multi-billion-dollar industries: Alcohol, Nicotine, and Caffeine.
I didn’t know what this picture was going to be, but luckily I got to continue my low-key Emmy Rossum fandom thanks to a popular shirt she wore.
Yeah, those three things are all bitter, but they’re also the most common addictions in human history. Why? Well, see, again, bitterness really just tells the body “hey, this thing is going to fuck me up.” And it turns out that, properly controlled, a lot of people like to get a little fucked up.
New Challenger(s) Approach!
Now, this is where I intended to launch into a whole thing about how these 5 flavors have shaped cooking for decades, but the truth is, as I noted, we didn’t even all agree that Umami was a thing until 33 years ago. Sure, people have been accidentally using it, (why else is Italy knee-deep in tomato sauces and hard cheeses if not for a national need for umami?) but it only became widely known outside of Japan since after the Carter Aministration.
Whose peanuts were famously bitter for voters to swallow.
Further, there’s murmurs that it may be set to change AGAIN. See, there’s actually two other flavor measures that people argue should be counted as foundational. And if you think about it, I bet you’ll get at least one of them. Go on, give it a shot.
Seriously. Just try and think about a flavor that you can’t call any of those five options.
Got your guesses? Awesome.
The answers are, to use the technical terms, “pungency” and “oleogustus”.
Or, in the layman’s terms: “Spicy” and “Fatty”.
This proposal’s only a couple years old, but honestly, I kind of dig it. From a purely technical standpoint, those points are detected by different kinds of sensory stuff on the tongue than actual ‘tastebuds’, but we also all know that technically tomatoes are fruits, but we still eat them as vegetables, so I’m fine with roping them in. (There’s actually a BUNCH of botanical fruits that are culinary vegetables).
Including this edible dick emoji.
The two even have their own scientific reasons for being detectable! Oleogustus, as the fat-detecting option, serves a similar role as sweetness, in acquiring pure caloric load, and spiciness is useful because it has various minor health benefits…and because, like bitter alcohol, the physiological ‘high’ produced by enduring it is enjoyable.
And the changing nature of taste, and what ‘counts’ as a taste, is the real message I wanted to get at. This is the first post of 2019, and I wanted to remind you that the ‘rules’ of cooking are almost never as firmly set as they appear. People make Funnel-Cake Burgers, and Wasabi Whipped Cream. And while I can’t promise that I will personally be pushing culinary boundaries with every post, I want you to always feel like you can try something new or crazy. Because that’s why we’re here: to fail loudly, and smartly, so we can do better, and teach others. So here’s to another year, everybody!
MONDAY: JON COOKS BABIES. DUTCH BABIES. AND HIS LIL DUTCH CHILDREN ARE SOMETHING TO BEHOLD.
THURSDAY: JON MIGHT TALK ABOUT A FESTIVAL, IF HE GOES TO IT THIS WEEKEND. FAILING THAT, WE’LL FIGURE SOMETHING OUT.