Wednesday, December 06, 2017

"Tasty" by John McQuaid: A very satisfactory book!

A few things I learned from Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid (published 2015) --
  • The history of humans cultivating sugarcane -- "the world's primary source of refined sugar for thousands of years" -- began around 6000 BC in Australia, Tasmania, and New Guinea. Extracting sugar from sugarcane required much cooperation from groups of humans. By 2500 years ago, sugar refining in India was becoming "an industrial art," and several forms of candy and sweetener were popular. I was especially fascinated by a myth about the Buddha being given sugar by a group of passing merchants, "a few weeks after his enlightenment." Enlightenment led to rejection of human cravings, and "thanks to his enlightened state, Siddhartha apparently ate the sweet treat with no trace of these cravings [for food, sex, money, and success], just simple enjoyment." (p. 110-111)
  • Perception of hot tastes, especially capsicum chiles, involves a mysterious combination of pain and relief from pain leading to pleasure. The neuroscience of how people react to chilis, especially incredibly hot ones, is described along with the efforts of chili growers to develop the world's hottest chili pepper. The history given here of the century-long scientific effort to understand how tasting chilis work is really amazing, and although I've read about it before, like many chapters in the book it put information together in a most enlightening way. And, we learn: eating chilis might make one live a longer, healthier life. 
  • The famous "map" of tastes on the tongue is entirely false. All taste buds have receptors for the five basic tastes -- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. And maybe for fat and starch as well. The often-invoked theory that different regions of the tongue had receptors for different flavors was an error that unfortunately became widely accepted and repeated. The exact way that taste receptors work and their genetic basis is still being discovered.
  • Archaeologists at work at Gesher ben Ya'aquov --
    image from Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
    The earliest known kitchen dates from roughly 780,000 years ago. At Gesher ben Ya'aqov in the North of Israel archaeologists found that cave dwellers -- either homo sapiens or a pre-human species -- were cooking grains, acorns, other seeds, olives, fish, deer, elephants, and other foods. "Fire was only the most potent of a whole suite of tools used in food preparation: these early humans had a kitchen. One area was devoted to gutting fish. A space used for processing nuts had hammer-stones and pitted anvils that had been used as bases for smashing the shells of acorns before roasting them." (p. 33)
  • Coffee combines a variety of bitter flavors, brought out by the exact method of selecting beans, roasting them, and extracting the flavors with high-pressure almost-boiling water from an espresso machine. You can separate a shot of espresso into three parts, which separately taste bad but together taste good, at least to coffee lovers! The chapter about bitter tastes, including coffee, explains how people's reaction to bitter flavors -- in coffee or anything else -- is complicated, involving genes, early experiences with food, cultural norms, and more. 
  • Darwin described facial expressions for human reactions (name them) in a way that still has validity. Study of these, especially the "disgust" reaction offers insight into many food-related studies, reinforcing the idea that many human expressions are fairly consistent across ethnic groups and cultural backgrounds.
In reading about the senses of smell and taste, I've become very interested in topics covered by this book, such as neuro-gastronomy and related ways of describing human anatomy, perception, etc. But each book I have read recently has been more or less like the ones before. McQuaid's Tasty is different! I felt that I was learning something new on every page.

Rather than a more usual review, I thought I would just summarize the above interesting things I learned while reading. The book is full of fascinating topics; among them: fermentation and its role in food preparation; global warming and how it will change wine production; ways that the brain perceives tastes, and many more. The organization of the book is in fact very clear and coherent, and this isn't meant to be a summary!


Lavender and Lime ( said...

What interesting facts, especially about the sugar cane and the earliest kitchen in Israel :)

Beth F said...

I love all things bitter ....

Judee Algazi said...

Such fascinating information. I really thought our taste buds were specialized by region of the tongue- sounds like an interesting book

Tina said...

Interesting, that’s a non fiction I will certainly pick up for my 208 reading pile.

Claudia said...

Looks like an interesting book, though like most of that type, a combination of scientific facts, current ideas, and theories based on assumptions.

Deb in Hawaii said...

It sounds like a book with some very interesting facts and information--thanks for sharing! ;-)

Nan said...

Very, very interesting!

Mae Travels said...

I'm not sure what's wrong with " scientific facts, current ideas, and theories based on assumptions" but the book actually has quite a bit more than that, specifically a lot of history. And most of the theories discussed are based on observations and facts, not vague "assumptions." It's quite an informative book!