By Punch Contributor Lani FurbankÂ
When youâ€™re enjoying a nice meal, you typically wouldnâ€™t want to be asked to suck on a little strip of paper that may or may not taste horrifically bitterâ€¦but atÂ National Geographic Liveâ€˜s event,Â The Science of Delicious, scientific wonders like thatÂ piece of paperÂ were what made the evening so memorable.
The event was designedÂ to bring to life aÂ storyÂ in the magazineâ€™s December issue,Â which explored the science behind how we taste. It was presented in partnership withÂ Chaplinâ€™s Restaurant,Â who provided a full selection of cocktails, and a delicious dinner that included a Bento Box (Wakame Salad, Beef Gyoza, Tori Karaage & Chicken Yakisoba) and a steaming bowl of Chaplinâ€™s signature ramen as only ChefÂ Myo Htun can prepare it.
DuringÂ the continuous stream of cocktails and food, Pam Caragol, the executive producer of â€œEAT: The Story of Food,â€ introducedÂ an impressive panelÂ of experts.
First, Senior Photo Editor Todd James spoke about the difficulties of photographing something as abstract as taste. As you can see fromÂ the selection of photosÂ in that accompany the story, photographer Brian Finke (who was not present at the event), managed to pull it off. To capture his images, he traveled toÂ Nomaâ€™s â€œscience bunkerâ€ in Copenhagen, blind taste test facilitiesÂ at the University of Florida, and the Culinary Institute of America.
James shared the storyÂ behind each image, speaking with a sense of awe regarding Nomaâ€™s ventures into culinary experimentation. In their â€˜bunker,â€™ Nomaâ€™s scientists haveÂ a rotary evaporator they use toÂ extract the essence from various substances, and they evenÂ created anÂ â€œumami meterâ€ to measure flavor (itâ€™s essentially a rudimentary mass spectrometer). James also mentioned the work of another lab in Copenhagen,Â the Nordic Food Lab, which is working to changeÂ societal prejudices against certain nutritious foods that have been deemed â€œundesirable,â€ such as insectsÂ or fish guts. The researchers at the Food Lab focus on ingredientsâ€™ inherent flavors, not socially accepted stigmas, and they areÂ helping to balance the food system by encouraging people to eat in a way that is more ecologically friendly.
The assignment also sent FinkeÂ toÂ a neuroscience lab at Louisiana State University where the scientists study catfish. James explained that catfish are the super tasters of the animal world â€“ their skin and outer body parts (gills, lips, etc.) are covered with taste buds! This explainsÂ how catfish can find food in murky water.
After James provided some insight into how the story was photographed, Julie Menella, a scientist who was featured in the article, provided an eye-opening look at how we taste. Menella isÂ a biopsychologist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, where she studiesÂ the sense of taste in babies and toddlers. Sheâ€™s the one who asked us to suck on that bitter piece of paper. The piece of paper was actually coated with a mysterious bitter agent which only tastes bitter to certain people. Some licked the paper over an over again, but tasted nothing. Others noticedÂ a subtle hint of bitterness. Others, like myself, were overwhelmed by a horribly bitter flavor that lingered far longer than IÂ would have liked!
Lani Furbank is a freelance writer and photographer who covers the intersection of food, farming and the environment. She is based in the DC area and loves cooking, hiking and crafting. Read about her adventures atÂ www.LanisCupOfTea.com.