Eating with your eyes
Does sight enhance smell and taste of food?
I am in a restaurant, where I have been seated and I am waiting for the pasta dish I ordered to come through.
I have chosen my food after reading the menu, where it was presented as the “surprise special of the day”, which intrigues me over the many other dishes available.
Indeed, it turns to be quite a surprise. Eventually, the waiter triumphantly brings a plate of spaghetti coloured in blue, sauce included!
Would you eat something like that? I would not.
For the way I think food should be (spaghetti should have the golden yellow colour of ripe wheat, sauce has got to of a deep red to call it a tomato sauce and parmesan cheese must be ivory white), the sight of blue spaghetti definitely excluded any chance of eating it.
Obviously enough, this applies to normal circumstances. Should I be starving after wandering for days lost in a forest and with nothing to eat, I would most likely gulp down anything that resembled food. However, this does not apply to normal-life situations.
The blue pasta story is something I made up, it has never happened.
I invented it based on a memory about a book I had read in my youth, "Bodytalk: The Meaning of Human Gestures" by Desmond Morris, the popular and sometimes controversial English zoologist and author of the best-seller book "The Naked Ape".
According to Morris, complex anthropological mechanisms that date back to prehistoric times drive us to the food we eat not only through smell and taste, but also sight!
Looking at what we believe is tasty food triggers certain processes in us that make our mouth water, while what our vision identifies as disgusting makes us repel that food.
I recall a dinner in a foreign country that had been organised for members of the press where the main dish was boiled chicken feet served on a bed of sea cucumbers. Check out sea cucumbers on the internet if you don't know what they are and you should understand why I chose to eat something else, which by the way turned easy to do, given the many delicious dishes available that day.
I have a friend who used to work in Africa as Head of Operations in an oil drilling company. The excavations in the area had meant new employment for many, thus a certain degree of wealth to the local population. One day, a grateful chieftain in the area where my friend was working organised a big lunch for the company staff.
My friend was the guest of honour because of his position, so he was offered a local food specialty, a raw bull's eye, which there was no way he could turn down – still today, a nausea-triggering experience he gladly refuses to recall even with his closest friends.
Personally, I like to try every food. When abroad, I do not go around on a desperate search for spaghetti (spaghetti, instead, being a back-home ritual upon returning from my travels), but rather try to taste the local cuisine, though this does not prevent some weird incidents from happening from time to time.
Insects, for instance, do not appeal to me very much. I tried them once during a sophisticated party in Milan, where one of the dishes included some sort of insects that I could not identify. I found the courage and tried them. To be honest, I do not recall they had any particular taste, yet there are populations that normally eat insects, which undoubtedly have a high protein content.
As I write, I am realising I might sound pertly self-assertive, perhaps even a bit cocky, in judging the dietary habits of other cultures.
On second thought, it is not fair and, besides, such an attitude may actually backfire, because we tend to not take into account that the feelings we have towards foreign food may be mutual, meaning that foreigners might dislike what we eat as well.
Although Italian cuisine is universally acknowledged as excellent and we Italians have a Ptolemaic concept of our cuisine, where we are at the centre of the gastronomic universe and everything else orbits around us, I have also happened to take foreign guests of mine out for dinner who were not all that excited about eating dishes we Italians consider an indisputable paradigm of superb taste, flavour and beauty, such as spaghetti with tomato sauce and basil for instance.
We need to understand this is absolutely normal and have to accept it.
Food is a cultural fact because it also comes from the contexts that condition it.
In our time, any supermarket can offer any food all year round.
I recall my grandmother telling me how in the 1940s / 1950s bananas, for instance, were almost unknown to Italians, a rare treat for the very few and lucky. A few years later, in the 1970s, the port of Genoa suddenly started to see a strong traffic of "banana boats", engaged in the new venture of bringing this popular fruit to Europe.
I, myself, recall when the first, very expensive, kiwi fruits started to appear, and how uninviting they looked, at least to me. They are now abundantly available and at a very low price.
Foods of far-away exotic countries that were once vital for feeding the local populations of those areas of the world so distant from us are now also available in Europe, everywhere.
In Milan, in the early 1980s, the very few Chinese restaurants in town were viewed with suspicion.
Japanese restaurants were even scarcer, with only three or four of them, and very expensive too.
The paradox is that, today, the once very normal Italian “trattoria” restaurant is becoming a special treat.
Tastes for foods have changed and food trends drive people to new experiences. Until a few years ago, the sight of raw fish on a dining table would have been quite unappealing to most people, whereas it has just taken a bit of neat slicing, plenty of soybean sauce and wasabi to turn it into a mouth-watering special we all crave for - sushi.
Speaking of mouth that waters, have you ever wondered why we say so?
Finding out about this instinctive reaction of our body is rather interesting since it takes us to the very heart of our journey where sight travels with smell and taste to enhance the experience we have of food.
The watering of the mouth is a so-called "conditioned reflex" and was discovered and investigated by Russian physician Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology in 1904 for this discovery and the research it triggered.
Pavlov was highly regarded by the Soviet government, probably because his studies were seen close to Charles Darwin's theories on the evolution of species, which the Communist regime appreciated.
He was able to continue his research until he reached a considerable age. Despite praise from the Soviet Union government, the money that poured in to support his laboratory and the honours he was given, Pavlov made no attempts to conceal the disapproval and contempt with which he regarded Soviet Communism.
In a now-classic experiment, he made dogs listen repeatedly to a bell which had previously been associated with the sight of food. After a while, the animals started to salivate abundantly when they heard the bell ringing, wagging their tails happily as they looked forward to the food they clearly associated to the ring of the bell - man has always had this reflex.
Have you ever seen an image advertising a very tasty burger with chips as you drive and suddenly felt the irresistible craving? Have you ever noticed how food shopping patterns change depending on whether you have had a meal or are on an empty stomach? Going shopping for food while hungry is a bad idea, everything looks much needed.
We are driven towards food we would not even notice if we had gone there on a full stomach, which we will regret not doing when we realise we have to pay a surprisingly high bill upon checkout – so, next time, take a bite first before food shopping.
To conclude, can we include sight among the senses that drive our and appreciation of food? I definitely believe so.
The fact remains that, as intelligent beings, we are also called to intelligently be curious about everything around us, like enjoying foods that are different from the regular local food we are used to, as we mentioned earlier.
While it is legitimate to appreciate our extraordinary Mediterranean food culture, it is also nice and advisable when we are travelling for work or leisure not to obsessively look for Italian macaroni only, but rather dare to explore the local cuisine.
By the way, exploring different-than-usual foods might mean something more than the mere eating gesture.
As I enjoy a local dish for the first time, I might look up to meet the eye of the waiter who served it to me, or perhaps meet the gaze of those around me.
Suddenly my view might expand, going well beyond the food, reaching out to the world around me, that is sitting next to me.
The normal, very ordinary moment of feeding ourselves, of satisfying a primary physiological need, can turn into a moment of meeting others and sharing experiences.
In the end, sight does not just serve to enhance the taste of food, it actually puts more flavour into life!