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Why We Talk About Food When We Eat, and Other Mysteries Explained


t’s a great experience to have a single taste of a favorite food bring us back to another time and place. For writer and historian Nadia Berenstein, such phenomena are a life’s work. She has a PhD from the University of Pennsylvania in history and sociology of science with a concentration on flavor. The James Beard award-winning writer writes and speaks on flavor—natural and synthetic—and what it means to lives, economies, cultures, and societies for outlets including Vice, Food & Wine, and NPR. Her blog, Flavor Added, has examinations of food lore and science from “space food” to celery. We talked about flavor, memory, and how to create memorable moments in dining.

Q. Are there real differences in the flavors of the past from those of today, or is that a trick of memory?

A. How often have you heard someone say, the apples they sell these days don’t taste like the ones I grew up with, or the corn or tomatoes tasted so much sweeter? One of the things that I was surprised to discover, when I was doing my research into the history American flavors and flavor science and technology, is how long this feeling has been happening. This kind of wistful look back to the flavors of the past has been happening from as early as the late 19th century. People were already lamenting that food didn’t taste as good as it used to. So sometimes this might be more akin to a common human condition instead of a change in how things taste.

Q. But there are different foods—it seems like there are different flavors of chips or sauces every time I go to the store.

A. We are entering this moment of really rapid expansion in food and beverage products and tremendous and radical change in the food system. You’re likely to see flavors featured in beverages, yogurt, chips or crackers, that you may never have seen before. Spice blends from North Africa or East Asia, turmeric as a common ingredient, plus plant-based meat and nondairy cheeses. It’s a really exciting time to try new things, but it can be disconcerting.

At the same time, there’s kind of a kind of turn back toward the familiar, the homemade flavor. Ferminich (a global flavor and fragrance company) picks a flavor of the year, and for 2020, it’s “classic blueberry.”  They explained that people are hungry for something familiar…they’re craving authenticity.

Q. Are there any great lost flavors, ones people just can’t get anymore?

A. One example that I can think of that is root beer. Some people say may remember root beer tasting differently in the 1940s and ‘50s. It used to be made with sassafras, whose taste comes from a particular molecule called safrole. There were studies that it might cause liver damage in rats, so it was removed from the food system. They tried to get that flavor by other means, but one man I talked to said it just never tasted the same to him again.

Q. I was interested in what you wrote about mindful eating and flavor’s role in that.

A. A lot of foodies have a whole ritual around tasting but being mindful isn’t just for luxury dishes. I like to think of all the foods that we eat as having interesting sensory qualities that derive from deliberate choices and skilled labor.

When you start paying attention to the flavors of, maybe, sour cream and onion potato chips—really paying attention—you start seeing this kind of orchestration of taste, when the saltiness comes in, when the tang of the sour cream flavor makes itself known…it’s almost an unfolding process. One of the results is you’ll probably end up eating fewer potato chips and enjoying them more.

Another thing I’ve learned from studying the science is the importance of eating as a social interaction. A lot of how we develop our appreciation for flavor and our ability to recognize different tastes is by talking about what we taste with other people.

Even though the experience of eating is very personal and subjective, eating together and discussing the food can make a difference in what it tastes like. More important, talking helps you taste what it reminds you of, how you can sense a larger life history that has formed the pattern and the backdrop for your sense of taste—for the things that you love and the things that you appreciate, and the things that you won’t eat at all.