The Gastronomer: The importance of varying the flavors and textures of food

Savory croutons provide the necessary counterpoint to creamy tomato soup.
Savory croutons provide the necessary counterpoint to creamy tomato soup. (Mette Randem For The Washington Post)
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By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 27, 2010

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.

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