Barb Stuckey loves a glass of good Sauvignon Blanc, often at the end of a day in which she might be tasting everything but wine. She might be called upon to weigh in on the latest efforts at tortilla chips, cereals, processed garlic purees and inventive pizzas or, as required recently, analyze a few upscale chain restaurants, all in her job leading the marketing and consumer research functions at Mattson, a Bay-Area company that develops new foods.
When she started at Mattson, the business school graduate had no clue what the food experts were talking about as they dissected the food they tasted. But she learned, and soon what she knew about tasting made dining in her nonprofessional life a more satisfying experience.
That was the impetus for her book, published this year: Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good (Free Press, 407 pages, $26). When she got interested in wine, she recalled, she could choose from dozens of books that explained how to taste our favorite beverage. But nothing comparable was available on how to taste and appreciate food, at least not in plain language.
As a professional taster, I am impressed with the book’s explication of what and how we taste. It goes into greater depth than most wine books. Stuckey writes like the nonscientist she is, using personal anecdotes, homespun tasting exercises and interviews with leading experts. The result is a trove of great information about how our tasting apparatus works and how the brain processes it all. For example, she explores how some of us are more sensitive to certain flavors than others, and how some tastes can override or affect other tastes, ideas that apply to wine as well.
I met Stuckey over lunch at Wo Hing General Store in San Francisco, a relatively new Chinese restaurant from Charles Phan of Slanted Door fame. It turns out she lives about a mile and a half from me, and we both had been meaning to get there. I figured that dissecting the food might illustrate what the book was about. And it did.
We both decided that a first course of chopped tofu skin with mushrooms was delicious because all its elements were in balance, a hint of tartness playing against the umami of the hon-shimeji mushrooms, a vague sweetness lurking in the background. But a stir-fry of Alaskan cod with snow peas, oyster mushrooms, sprouts and oyster sauce left us shrugging. “Just bland,” I said. “Yeah,” she agreed. “It needs something sour or spicy to pick it up.”
Not everyone would have the same responses to the food, because we all live in our own sensory worlds. Most of us see color the same way, but some people are color blind, or they have other vision differences. Most of us hear sound the same way, but some of us hear highs better than others, so what sounds shrieky to one person seems balanced to another. Taste, which is infinitely more complicated than other senses, is even more individual.
“My fiancé, Roger, hates Brussels sprouts. I love them,” she said. Although his lack of interest in tasting techniques disappointed her, “he’s heard me talk about it enough that now he understands why he doesn't like some foods that I adore. He is more sensitive to bitterness than I am.”
We have heard a lot about super-tasters and non-tasters in recent years. Science has found that some of us have many more taste buds in our tongues and mouths than others do. This makes super-tasters more sensitive to the five basic tastes (bitter, sweet, sour, salt and umami) but it doesn’t mean they are better at tasting. (Stuckey prefers the term “hyper-tasters” because it does not imply superiority. I agree.)
The flavors we “taste” are made up of thousands of aromas, not just the five basic tastes. What defines a hyper-taster, aside from a taste-bud count, is sensitivity to bitterness, because we have data on that. She believes we all have varying sensitivities to different smells, in much the same way, but the data has not been developed.
“The same thing exists for smell, and for all of our senses,” she insisted. “Add it all up, and that would be the real sensory world we each live in.”
To be a good critic, she said, whether it’s wine, restaurants, movies or music, we must be able to separate our own preferences from the sensory characteristics of whatever we’re evaluating. “When I am looking for a wine, I read critics who can describe what the wines are like in words I can understand,” she added, noting that she’s a longtime Wine Spectator subscriber. “Personally, that means more to me than the rating.”
To the point of the book, what she’s saying is that you’re missing something if you only know whether or not you like something. You can appreciate it all the more if you know why.
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