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Producer's Notes: The Science Of Taste

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I love producing QUEST stories because there’s so much I learn in the process. Who knew that 95 percent of what we think is taste is actually smell? Or that flavor is really a complex combination of all the senses mixed with our feelings and perceptions?

One element of the story that especially resonates for me is the piece about smell memories. I’ve always found smell to be very evocative, and so I asked our experts about smell and memory and emotion. Hildegard Heymann, the UC Davis sensory scientist who we feature in the piece had wonderful things to say about smell memories and why they can be so powerful. Our favorite smells may not be pleasant in the typical sense, but they can have a true therapeutic effect.

For example, one of Dr. Heymann’s favorite smells is the odor of skunk. In her interview she described it this way: “For me, the smell of skunks makes me intensely happy. I know, intellectually, exactly what is happening, but even though I know that, emotionally it never ceases to work. My husband will literally drive around to try and find the smell of skunk when I’m depressed. He gets me in the car and takes me there. Because it immediately makes me happy. Why? I grew up in South Africa where going to the beach at Christmas time, which is in the middle of the summer, we had to cross the sand dunes. And they had these little plants that when you break them, smell like skunk. So to me, skunk means Christmas, happy, vacation—all those things. And even 35, 40, 50 years later, it still works that way. So we all have them. You just need to figure out what your aromatherapy odorants are, and then hopefully they’re purchasable. Skunks aren’t!”

Personally. I love the smell of Italian delicatessens. My father had a passion for salty Italian meats, cheeses and olives, and I have distinct childhood memories of deli cases full of colorful antipasti, burlap sacks full of dried beans, and shelves lined with bottles of wine. My odor memory is a wonderful blend of ripe gorgonzola, fat rounds of parmesan, salty prosciutto, briny olives. This mélange also probably contains hints of burlap, cardboard, oil and vinegar infused wood floor, wine cork, and who knows what else. It’s a pretty pungent aroma, but I find it enormously comforting, not unlike Hildegard Heymann’s skunk.
On a final, flavorful note I want to share a wonderful poem by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. I found it in a book of food poems called O Taste and See. Even if you’re don’t like tomatoes, I think you’ll enjoy this evocative, colorful, delicious poem.

Ode to The Tomato

The street filled up with tomatoes, noon, summer, the light splits in two tomato halves and the juice runs down the streets. In December the tomato breaks loose, invading kitchens, stealing into lunches, lounging on sideboards and in between glasses, butter dishes, blue salt-shakers. It has its own light, benign majesty. We must, unfortunately, murder it: the knife sinks into its living flesh, it’s a red viscera, a cool sun, deep, limitless, it fills the salads of Chile, marrying happily the bright onion, and to celebrate, we let oil, child and essence of the olive, pour down over its open hemispheres, pepper adds its fragrance, salt its magnetism: these are the weddings of the day, parsley raises its flags, potatoes boil vigorously, roasting meat bangs on the door with its aroma, it’s time! let’s eat! and on the table, on the waist of summer the tomato, astro of the earth, fertile, ever multiplying star, reveals to us its orbits, its canals, the distinguished plenitude and boneless, heartless, armorless abundance, brings to us the gift of its fiery color and the integrity of its freshness.


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