Sunday, March 1, 2015
"Tell me what you eat, and I'll tell you what you are." So said Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, noted French revolutionary and epicure.
But what do you eat? And why? Where did our sense of what is good, what is tolerable and what is truly sublime actually come from? And how did we evolve as a species to have the sensation of taste be quite so front and centre as it actually is, in our consciousness and in our lives?
These are the questions that Tasty attempts to answer. John McQuaid is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. In this book, he has turned his inquisitiveness to the subject of food and how we perceive it. Tasty is a work of impressive scope, exploring the history of eating and food in human development, and how our tastes and preferences have evolved over time, whether out of opportunity, accident or necessity.
I found Tasty to be both fascinating and riveting. I've often wondered about how we came to the complexity of food preferences that we have. Just who, for example, figured out how to distil alcohol? Or make bread? Or sorted out the process of breaking down sugarcane into sugar? All of these are complex and theoretically non-obvious processes that would not, one presumes, develop unprompted in the minds of our ancestors. And yet, on some level, that's by and large what happened. Someone cared enough, focused enough and observed enough to figure out what worked and what didn't in making food the flavourful experience that we enjoy today.
What I particularly enjoyed about Tasty was McQuaid's approach of working flavour by flavour through how we experience food. Whether salty, sweet, sour, savoury, bitter, or umami, he takes us on a comprehensive tour through history and geography. In doing so, the author attempts to understand the evolutionary influences that led to the development of taste, the purpose it was designed to serve, and how our experience of it has evolved. He starts with debunking the idea of the tongue map, that illustration introduced in high school biology that assigned different tastes to specific regions of the tongue. And he keeps on going.
We learn about the role of bitterness in evolution, and the fact that it is amongst our most nuanced of flavours. We discover why some people adore Brussels sprouts while others loathe them. We explore how fermentation was discovered, and the relatively useful on-going role that alcohol has had in our development as a species. We explore the attraction of spice and heat, and how chillies migrated across the undeveloped world faster than the Europeans that introduced them. We learn the original source of the meme, "Tastes like chicken."
If you love food, are intrigued by evolution or just like a good story, Tasty is a book that you will likely enjoy. It combines narrative, investigation and cutting edge science with of-the-moment culinary explanations. In the tradition of works by Mary Roach and Jesse Bering, John McQuaid has comprehensively delved into a topic and brought it vividly and richly to life. Read the book, and you will likely never look at your food—or the process of eating—in exactly the same way again.
Mark Mullaly is an avid reader, sometimes writer, enthusiastic motorcyclist and lover of wine (and endeavours to engage in only one of these pursuits at any given time).