By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; E01
An old habit is not what you want to eat.
In a classic New Yorker cartoon, a man is driving an 18-wheeler labeled "Croutons." The caption reads: "I just have this feeling that if I drove off a cliff, nobody would really miss me."
Funny, yes. But is it true?
Croutons are not beloved. They can be as bland and boring as dried bread, which is what they are. Even when butter, garlic and maybe some herbs are involved, croutons still seem like one of life's lesser things.
But croutons serve a purpose. What's more, learning why we eat them -- why they have not been driven off a cliff once and for all -- tells us a lot about how we eat, and perhaps even how we perceive the world (even though the latter is not the subject of this article).
When most of us eat, we do not simply stuff food in our faces in order to survive. It is also an act of communication; between our mouths -- which, together with our nose, eyes and ears, take in the impressions the food gives us -- and our brains, which interpret those signals.
Regardless of what we eat, the first bite is almost always interesting. Our brains receive signals about the various flavor aspects of the dish, plus its temperature and visual qualities. If those signals were measured and visualized, you would get a graph with high peaks for the first few bites.
Let us say we are eating pumpkin soup. Our brains register a whole range of data about it: the fine balance between sweet and salty, the slight spicy note from the pumpkin (and the hint of cinnamon; see recipe), the creamy texture. But once the initial registration has been done, our brains gradually lose interest. The soup can be as good as culinarily possible, but if every spoonful brings the same elements into our mouths to be registered, the signals will lose their strength. The peaks on the graph would not be so high -- and at the same time, our enjoyment of the soup would decrease.
It happens all the time, not just with food. Think of the noise outside your office that bothers you for a few minutes and then seems to fade away. Or the smells of air freshener and other people that hit you when you enter a taxi but that you no longer notice after a couple of blocks.
We become accustomed to things, then we stop paying attention to them. This does not happen just in our brains. As discussed in a February 2009 Gastronomer article about chili peppers, our taste receptors, too, can get fed up and saturated when exposed to one specific flavor or stimulus for too long. Those two similar phenomena are called habituation and adaptation.
Such coping mechanisms help us live in a world that constantly bombards us with impressions. We need to become unaware of a whole lot of things that are just there.
But that is not how we want to eat. If the food is good, we want to be able to notice and enjoy every bite.
Which brings me back to boring yet crucial croutons. If we returned to the graph showing signals registered by our brains, it would be clear that monotony can be a serious impediment to an interesting eating experience.
That's why the appeal of a wonderful, creamy soup is heightened when it contains something neither perfect nor smooth. Add a few croutons, and the unexpected crunchy cubes of toasted, herby bread fill our head with noise. Our tongue registers something hard and rough, and our taste buds notice the presence of new flavors. Suddenly we are acutely aware of not only this, but also all the other aspects of the soup. Every mouthful offers the promise of a new experience.
Understanding the function of soup croutons makes them a whole lot more interesting, doesn't it?
They are, of course, only one example from the edible world. (Even though, as shown in these recipes, they can be many different things.) Whenever an ambitious and skillful cook is in the kitchen, his or her challenge is to weigh the quest for perfection against the danger of succeeding to the point of becoming boring. We want the meat to be "perfectly cooked," i.e., not overcooked or undercooked. But at the same we don't want the meat to be cooked or presented so uniformly that every mouthful tastes, feels and looks the same. That is why high-end restaurant food is often elaborate, with lots of extras and garnishes. It has sufficient variation to keep us intrigued.
I like to apply what I have learned about habituation in many ways. When I prepare meatballs, I make sure they all taste a little different, adjusting the seasoning as I go along. When I chop onions for a soup or stew, I make a point out of leaving them a little unevenly sized so that some of the smaller pieces will caramelize and melt while some of the larger onion pieces will still have a bite to them. This is one of the areas in which home cooks have an advantage over professionals. Because we may lack the routine, precision training or equipment, we seldom achieve uniformity without great effort.
To me, the greatest pleasure of homemade chocolates is in producing them as demonstratively different as possible. That way, they can revive my table mates after a long (and hopefully varied) meal. I may flavor one chocolate with orange water, one with coconut and curry, and yet another with a little flaked sea salt. When I serve them, the same thing happens: My guests start to discuss which one is best, which bold gambit was the most successful and which one was a bit too much. A surprising number of people like my wasabi chocolates and the ones with chipotle pepper; they tend to end up in a gentle argument with the traditionalists who prefer coffee or lavender flavoring.
I have my own answer to what works best. The most important ingredient is variation.Recipes
Viestad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.