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In the climactic scene of “Ratatouille” – an animated film about a rat who can cook – a snobby food critic named Anton Ego is served the movie’s namesake dish – a comfort food favored by the working class in France.
Rather than be offended, Ego is transported, back to his own childhood when, after a fall, his mother comforts him with a bowl of her homemade ratatouille.
The scene is a testament to the transformative power of flavor – and how it shapes all of our lives.
“Flavor is extremely complex and definitely experienced differently by different people,” Sarah Lohman, author of “Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine,” says on my new podcast “Downside Up.”
According to Lohman, we tend to use flavor and taste interchangeably – but we shouldn’t.
Taste is a scientific term for what the tongue is physically capable of, well, tasting. That’s five things: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (or umami). Everything we consume falls into one of those five taste categories.
But, flavor is something far richer. As Lohman explains:
“The best way … to experience this is to take a flaming hot Cheeto, a barbecue potato chip, something like that, plug your nose and then take a bite. When you take a bite, you might experience crunchy, you might experience some chemical irritation if it’s like a spicy capsicum, you might experience salty, you might experience savory. But then when you sort of unplug your nose, then you actually get the flavor of something, the flavor of the flaming hot Cheeto, the pepper, the spices, all the other components to it.”
If taste is basic, flavor is infinitely complex.
Which led me to wonder: What would our lives be like if we had never developed the desire for flavor? What if we were limited to just the five components of taste – and that was it? After all, cows eat mostly grass and seem perfectly happy. Cats can’t taste sweet things – and they often seem to be living their best (nine) lives. So what would our world look like without any flavor at all?
Viewed narrowly, our lives would be, well, much more bland.
“If we didn’t have a sense of taste, or if we regarded food as simply fuel … or to follow some science fiction, when I was growing up, the expectation was that in the future we just live by pills and we wouldn’t have to fuss with food. If you had that kind of world, then you wouldn’t have socializing over food,” Yale professor Paul Freedman tells me. “You wouldn’t have dates and life would be so impoverished.” (Freedman wrote the book on taste and flavor. Literally. It’s called “Food: The History of Taste.”)
But, widen the aperture on what flavor means and you begin to see just how influential it has been to world history.
As Freedman notes, cuisine in medieval Europe was “very highly spiced, at least the high-end cuisine.” Which created an active market for spices – and drove exploration. Again, here’s Freedman:
“The spices came from far away, so far away indeed that they didn’t really know where India was. And the whole point of expeditions like that, of [Christopher] Columbus, or [Vasco] da Gama, these what used to be called explorations, but let’s just call them colonizing missions. These changed the course of history. They’re the most cataclysmic event in world history at least of the last 2,000 years. And they were motivated by gold and silver, but even more by the desire to find a direct route to the spices of India and thereby to get spices cheaper.”
Without flavor – and our desire for more of it and to experience different ones – we may have never been driven to explore our world as early and in the ways that we did. And if we didn’t do that, who’s to say what our world would look like now?
For much more on this, make sure to check out the very first episode of my new podcast “Downside Up.”