On Flavor

It seems like the world operates on a freaky kind of synchronicity such that when I am thinking deeply about a subject, it seems like others are, too. More likely, it's just that I happen to notice when other people are talking about the same things I've been thinking.

Today's synchronicity: flavor. Let us begin with a wonderful book published in December called Neurogastronomy by Gordon Shepherd. Shepherd is neurobiologist at the Yale School of Medicine and an oenophile foodie. This book collects together the scientific thinking to date on the way humans process and construct flavor from what turns out to be a staggering variety of inputs. (Shorter Shepherd: flavor is mostly retronasal smell, humans have evolved, perhaps uniquely to appreciate flavor--we're born foodies--and our sense of flavor is modified by emotional cues, color, hunger, and mood. Our brains are highly evolved to detect and process scent, and it's inaccurate to think of this sense as subservient to sight.)

Every well-read beer geek should have a dozen or so titles in her collection like Tasting Beer, Brewing With Wheat, Amber, Gold and Black, Good Beer Guide to Belgium, and so on. I would place Neurogastronomy on this short list.

On cue, Alan McLeod broaches the topic from another angle, taking the idea of food and beer pairings to task:
One of the main reasons I don't like the idea of matching and pairing is that everything pretty goes with pretty much everything else in the right combination.
This is less a declaration than a paradox: how can everything go with everything else in the right combination? They are interchangeable or they require the right combinations, seems like. But never mind. What's more interesting is the resulting discussion thread, which includes our own Ben Edmunds, and you should go have a look.

Food and beer pairings are my white whale, a topic I intend to pursue maniacally in the coming year. I harbor the idea that it's possible to come up with a system that allows diners to select appropriate beers for their meals. I further harbor the idea that the key has nothing to do with styles and everything to do with flavor elements in beer. Texture, effervescence, attenuation, strength, and taste/scent compounds--somehow these should line up with food flavors. It will never be as simple a prescription as red-wine-with-red-meat (at least a partial fraud, by the way), but it could at least be consistent. Maybe.