Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Tasteful Research

First, a link: What did Santa really look like? That's a nice research program, or programme as they like to spell it around here.

But that isn't what I came here to tell you about. When I got to work yesterday, I met one of the professors here in the Nutrition Dept on the elevator and I recognized her at once. You see, her picture on the staff bulletin board is right next to this blank spot where my picture will go in January (how cool is that??). So we got talking about our work and she generously shared some of what she knew about the projects Per and I have taken up. Even though we were already to her office by that time, I knew Per had bemoaned the lack of chatter in the hallways here, so decided he would approve the extra few minutes it took to follow up by asking what she researches.

Oh, whatever comes to hand, Prof. Utermohlen replied modestly. Since moving to the Nutrition Dept, she changed her research focus to how taste and smell sensitivity affect personality, eating habits, and in fact whole cultures. Her profile tells me she is also a pediatrician.

She gave me two beautiful examples of the effects of a discriminating palate. She asked me to guess which country's people had the least discerning taste buds. "The British," I hazarded. When she said I was right, I quipped that that certainly explains their cuisine. (Have you ever heard British and cuisine in the same sentence before? Neither have I.)

She explained that it does much more than that. Because of this, the English were ideally suited for exploring and colonizing other countries. They could take a lot more "gastronomic torture" in stride, living on hard tack and salt pork for months on a time and adapting to whatever the local fare was without difficulty. Ergo, they were more likely than other European powers to live among the colonized people, and, as Acemoglu demonstrates masterfully, more likely to "export" their good government institutions rather than imposing the more extractionary institutions regularly used when mineral exports were the primary objective. Fascinating.

She then had me guess who had the most discriminating sense of taste. My first thought was the stereotypical French, but I plunked for the Japanese instead. I was only close that time. The Japanese eat "fresh fresh fresh fresh fresh food" and so they can tell when something isn't "fresh fresh fresh fresh fresh."

But no, the people with the most highly developed taste buds in the world live in the equatorial regions of S. America and Sub-Saharan Africa. Why is that? Well, she explains, food spoils quickly in tropical climates. You have to be able to tell early on in a meal if it's already gone bad, or you're likely to die or be sick. So the people there develop a highly refined sense of taste.

Is that some cool research or what? Oh, the trials of having too many interests to be able to pursue all of them....

(PS - The hard part of writing this post was avoiding referring to the "best tasting people" in the world. Cannabal Quarterly still hasn't developed a consensus on that issue yet....)

1 comment:

Desi said...

What a truly fascinating post! Your colleague’s research sounds absolutely intriguing! She sounds like she would be a delightful addition to any party scene, as the crowd would be drawn in by her varied knowledge. Likewise, I found it interesting that those in the equatorial region have highly distinguished taste buds. It makes a lot of sense, though I’d never thought much about that aspect. The English lack of variety in food, that, I think many of us have discovered!

I also enjoyed the article on the forensic reconstruction of St. Nicolas’s face. It is amazing how similar the iconography is with the sculpture.

I love reading your blog! You provide so many fascinating topics to ponder! Thanks for putting in the time to share your thoughts with the rest of us!