I learned – A universal theory of deliciousness

A few months ago I made an amazing salsa using strawberries and ginger. It was transcendent.

But why did it work so well?

It’s an oddly visceral experience, to prepare a food that is called one thing (salsa) that it clearly isn’t, and yet somehow is at the same time. And David Chang in his recent piece in Wired, “The Universal Theory of Deliciousness“, explained to me what I was experiencing.

Chang’s grand idea is that a truly great dish doesn’t just please the palate, but also evokes memories of dishes from our past. Our brains preserve memories as stories, so even memories of smell and taste get woven in to grander reminiscences of childhood and family. By retelling these food stories in new ways, a dish can be more than good – it can surpass the moment and capture something about our personal history in each bite. Food prepared with this kind of thought goes beyond nourishment, and speaks directly to who we are.

I totally buy this. Chef Watson, IBM’s recipe generator (www.ibmchefwatson.com) is what got me to that strawberry ginger salsa. Using a very similar-sounding process to Chang’s, it breaks ingredients into classes (spicy, fatty, sweet), and then randomly suggests replacements (such as swapping serranos for ginger and tomatoes for strawberries). It’s computer controlled, yet somehow has its own genius. And when it works, it delivers an emotional wallop.

Of course, Chang not only has a good theory of food, he’s exceptionally well practiced and thoughtful about details as well. So he probably wouldn’t have made my next attempt, a hot mushy mess of ginger bacon pumpkin chili that sparked a kitchen revolt by my family.

I haven’t played much with Watson since that particular disaster, but Chang has inspired me to go back. By overlaying some of his wisdom on top of the randomness of their algorithm, perhaps I can do better than my past luck would allow. And maybe I can plant some great memories with my kids as well, for them to rediscover while eating another dish, decades later.

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