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Experiencing and explaining

October 22, 2019

Yesterday, I made cassoulet. Sadly, I took no photos, so you’ll have to take my word for it that it was visually appealing – at least until our crowd attacked it. It was also really tasty, filled as it was with yummy. Let’s talk about yummy for a moment and how it relates to the title of this post.

In the late 1800’s, in Paris, the bourgeoisie were finally getting their own great chefs. Even during the extended bloodlettings that were the various French Revolutions, the truly great chefs, including Marie-Antoine Careme, who baked Napoleon’s wedding cake and is credited with inventing French cuisine, worked for the aristocracy. For them, the appearance of food was everything, even if it wasn’t edible (or only barely so). Careme’s dishes, for instance, were often served cold because his sculptures of lard, marzipan, or spun sugar would melt at warmer temperatures. The appearance of decadence was what mattered, even if the “food” was largely (or entirely) inedible. The presence of yummy was not the only, or even perhaps the primary, consideration.

Enter Auguste Escoffier, stage right

Escoffier was a chef for the bourgeoisie. He did three important things. First, he wrote a cookbook, The Guide Culinaire, in which he effectively opined that the purpose of food was to be eaten and enjoyed. Second, he opened what was arguably the most revolutionary restaurant Paris had ever seen (as well as the most expensive). Third, he invented veal stock. Now long considered a fundamental part of classical French cuisine, it’s important to understand that prior to Escoffier, no one cooked with veal stock, simply because it did not exist. People tend to overuse the phrase that something “changed everything,” but in the case of French cuisine, veal stock did just that.

People raved about his restaurant and the food prepared and served there. It tasted like nothing they had ever eaten. Escoffier himself seems to have suggested that the veal stock infused food with something new, something different. A taste that could not be defined as salt, sweet, sour or bitter, or even some combination thereof.

No one, aside from his customers, was convinced. After all, Democritus had declared there were four basic tastes (having added “bitter” to the already recognized three of sour, sweet and salty). Plato was good with that, as was Aristotle. It worked for the philosophers who were the basis of Western civilization, and so it was. Escoffier and this customers could exclaim about the new flavor all they wanted, but it did not matter. Sweet, salt, sour, bitter were the only ones which existed. Four was the counting thereof, and no more.

Enter Kikunae Ikeda, stage left

Halfway around the world, a Japanese man named Kikunae Ikeda noticed something, specifically while eating a classic seaweed soup called dashi. It was good. Really good. More than that, it was good in a way that was not limited by the standard categories of tastes. Whatever could it be?

As it turns out, Ikeda was a chemist, and so he set out to learn exactly what this amazing flavor was. It was glutamic acid, which Ikeda decided to rename “yummy” (technically, he called it “umami,” but I’m writing this so we’re using my lousy translation). This thing which Escoffier was concentrating in his veal stock? Yummy. The thing Ikeda noticed in his bowl of dashi? Yummy. He published his findings in the Journal for the Chemical Society of Tokyo…and no one believed him.

It was almost 100 years later that scientists discovered the human tongue has receptors for, you guessed it, yummy. Umami was real. Escoffier and Ikeda were right.

What does that mean? In this case, it means that what some people had experienced or observed was real. Now, we simply have the science to explain it. That’s ultimately what science does. It explains what is observed or experienced*. It doesn’t change what we experience. It merely provides an explanation (sometimes accurate, sometimes not so accurate, but that’s a separate matter).

We see this in other areas of life, as well. St Paul would write in his first letter to Corinth (and in a specific context) that when he was a child, he thought, spoke and perceived as a child, but that all that changed when he grew up. That observation was not peculiar to him, of course. People have observed that phenomenon seemingly since we have been observing things. It was people like Jean Piaget who set out to develop a theory (one of many) to explain it.

“Why are some elderly people positive and cheerful, regardless of their physical condition and others are just grouchy and bitter” is a question, based on observation/experience, that has perhaps been asked by people for as long as there have been people. Erik Erikson would explain it with his theory of psychosocial development.

Whether we’re talking about food, how people develop intellectually, or how they act at different stages of their lives, we seek to explain what we see with theories. Sometimes, we run into difficulties due to conflicting views, not simply of explanations, but of how we perceive things. Allow me to attempt and explanation.

I play the guitar. That’s what I call it, anyway. Some people disagree (critics are everywhere!). One of the hardest things for me to learn was how, when playing rhythm, to pick a strum pattern. I could look at the music and note the time signature. I could tell you what the numbers meant. In spite of that, much of my playing was wooden. It wasn’t until a guitar player I really admired told me to “stop trying so hard and just let yourself feel the rhythm” that I was able to progress. The same thing was true with chord changes in a song. It was only when I allowed myself to “feel” the music that I suddenly realized I could anticipate not only the need for a chord change, but even what that chord was likely to be. In my case, I had the theory (or at least some of it), but not the feel. Other people struggle from the other direction. They can feel the music (Robert Pirsig’s acquaintance who said “you just have to dig it, man”) but can’t necessarily explain the theory that explains it. Our challenge is to incorporate both into our lives, whether with food, cognitive development, psychosocial development, music, or the vast myriad of other facets of human existence.

Sadly, some people are so afraid of the approach that doesn’t come easily to them that they denigrate it, or even deny that it can produce anything of value. “Artists are frivolous” and “scientists are rigid” are both examples. This fear and subsequent hostility are understandable, I guess, but short-sighted. I didn’t really appreciate music theory and how it can help a musician (or a would-be musician like me), until I let myself “feel” the music. Likewise, I didn’t really understand just how much my family of origin influenced who and what I am until I took the time to study and gain some understanding of family dynamics and systems theory.

Enjoy what you enjoy. Experience what you experience. Don’t fear or avoid the things that can help you understand and explain it.

And every once in a while, eat something yummy.

*During my first college career, I was a hard sciences major, so I understand that science also observes in order to collect the data which is analyzed to draw conclusions and on which to build theories, but I’m speaking broadly here. 

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  1. OldNFO permalink

    Good post. I’m old/grumpy, but I DO go with the flow… Not much other choice. 🙂

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