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Thought for food…

5 Jan, 2012

In the latest of our shortlisted entries to the 2011 Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize, Ben Storey tells us about the associations between taste and memory.

In 1973, a short bespectacled, and very demanding, customer walked into an ice cream parlour. Two minutes later, he walked out having baffled and entertained millions – millions who had tuned their television sets to another episode of The Two Ronnies. “What flavour?” Barker asked, playing the role of the parlour proprietor. “Smokey bacon.” Corbett calmly replied.

The Ronnies had not only amused their audience but also, perhaps accidentally, brought to light an aspect of taste that few scientists or chefs were seriously considering – our memory.

When we talk about flavour and taste we immediately point to the tongue, the nose, perhaps even the eyes. But it is our memories that influence our food choices. If ice cream as a starter or a main course, the majority of us would think it odd as traditionally it’s a dessert – to be served as accompaniment to my mum’s mouth-watering apple crumble (in my case).

So when I read how savoury ice creams, particularly the now famous bacon and egg flavour, were coming into fashion I found my face contorting into an expression of utter revulsion. It seemed inconceivable that bacon and ice cream could be found in the same recipe. As far as ice cream is concerned, it seemed that my mind has made both positive and negative associations.

In combination, the tongue and the nose can detect hundreds of flavours, but it was Dr John Garcia who proved there was yet another dimension to flavour during his extraordinary experiment in the 1950s. While researching the effects of radiation on rats, he noticed that they developed an aversion to the sweetened water they had been fed prior to them being irradiated. The rats were associating their sickness with the water.

Taste aversion, also known as ‘The Garcia Effect’, was used successfully in the late 1970s on a sheep ranch in Whitman County, Washington, USA. The ranch was losing sheep to coyotes but the Government resisted culling for fear of destabilising the environment. Scientists and ranchers working together laced sheep carcasses with small amounts of lithium chloride. While this didn’t cause the coyotes any harm, it did make them violently sick for a few hours. The association between sheep and sickness led to a decrease in killings by more than half in just a year.

This probably explains why I haven’t been able to stand the sight of crispbreads since I got food poisoning after eating them. Although I’m sure the crispbreads weren’t the offending foodstuff, I still associate the very sight or smell of them with being violently ill.

Fortunately, the memory can also make positive associations. Why do chips never taste as good as when they’re eaten out of paper at the seaside? Why does wine never taste as good it did on a romantic evening in Paris? Only relatively recently have enlightened chefs started to explore these positive association. For example, the Chicago restaurant Alinea has a course during spring that emits the scent of freshly cut grass while the guests eat. Similarly, the Fat Duck in Bray has a dish called the ‘Sound of the Sea’ where the customer listens to an iPod playing the gentle sound of waves lapping up a shore. It may seem pretentious – even ridiculous – but when you consider that visitors have broken down in tears, overwhelmed with emotion, it suggests that food can have a far deeper and more profound effect on us than just to keep our stomachs full.

We may feel that our memories are personal to us, and research has suggested that our taste preferences begin to develop in the womb. Restaurateurs have realised that despite this we still share similar experiences. The sound of waves lapping on the shore is familiar to us all, but can evoke memories that are uniquely personal. For some it may be a recent holiday to the Bahamas, for others a childhood trip to Bournemouth. Strong as these memories may be, these associations, whether good or bad, can be snatched away from us. It has been shown that sufferers of Alzheimer’s can have their taste preference reset. An aversion or preference to a particular flavour disappears as the memories that it is paired with is lost.

At the end of the Two Ronnies sketch, after failing to choose an ice cream, Corbett asks instead for a raspberry ripple flavoured packet of crisps. Why not? If we can get bacon and ice cream to work, raspberry flavoured crisps doesn’t seem so crazy anymore. Your move, Walkers.

This is an edited version of Ben’s original essay. Views expressed are the author’s own.

Find out more about the Wellcome Trust Science Writing Prize in association with the Guardian and the Observer and read our ‘How I write about science‘ series of tips for aspiring science writers.

Over the coming months, we’re publishing the shortlisted essays in this year’s inaugural competition.

Image Credit: roboppy on Flickr
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