Saturday, October 6, 2012

Food and the Senses

This semester for my Masters in Liberal Arts, Gastronomy program at Boston University I am enrolled in a class entitled Food and the Senses. The course is an interdisciplinary look at the senses. We're looking at the senses physically - how do the senses work (like taste and smell receptors) as well as how do we perceive sensory experiences. We're also looking at food and the senses in a cultural context. How does sensory experiences translate from an individual experience to social phenomena?

We started with a science heavy look at just how the senses work. We had a biologist talk to us about how taste receptors on the tongue and olfactory receptors in the nose take in information and pass it up into the brain. We had a neurobiologist explain where this sensory information goes in the brain and how it gets processed. There are still a lot of unknowns in this area. Having not taken a real science course since high school, it was fascinating to relearn details of the brain and how amazingly it interprets all of the information inputs it is constantly receiving.

Now we're moving into each sense individually. The class readings and discussion look at both historical and contemporary research on the senses, as well as different cultural meanings and contexts. Each week we also have a lab experience to continue to understand the sensory experience with food. Our first lab had us smelling five different pieces of scented cloth and ranking them by the intensity of the smell. Our second lab had us start by closing our eyes and holding our noses. We then tasted three pairs of food items without knowing what we were trying. Each pair was two items similar in texture and flavor. The challenge was to first see what our experience was like having only touch and mouthfeel to inform the experience. Then the items were revealed to us and we tasted a second time (still no sight or smell). We were asked how did our experience change after we knew what each item was?

These are some of the questions we are considering - and  thought I would share my first written assignment to give you a 'taste' of a few questions I've been thinking about after the first few weeks of class. I'd love to hear your thoughts! The reference for the article is at the end, if you would like to look it up to read.

The article “Flavor and the Brain” by Dana Small defines flavor as “a perception that includes gustatory, oral-somatosensory, and retronasal olfactory signals that arise from the mouth as foods and beverages are consumed (Small, 2012).” Small discusses that “although the sights, sounds and smells of foods that occur just before, or in the absence of eating, can impact flavor perception, it is argued that these sensory signals exert their influence by creating expectations based upon prior associations  (Small, 2012).” The discussion touches on “top-down” influences including attention, expectations and beliefs and how they impact neural and perceptual responses (Small, 2012). For example, being told about the intensity of a flavor can impact the resulting response in the brain. In the context of her article, Small also talks about how vision influences flavor, similarly to how verbal labels and cues might create expectations about the sensory experience. These top-down mechanisms bias “the neural code towards expected experiences (Small 2012).”

After reading the article I began to think about how flavor is influenced by expectation, specifically in the context of dining out at restaurants. What information influences and shapes the diner’s expectations and how does this impact the diner’s perception of flavor? Is it influenced by expectations created before the dining experience as well as during the experience?

When information is readily available, how does this change the dining experience? If the diner is armed with a photographs and descriptions prior to eating will the flavor he experiences be different than if he had just ordered off the menu with no prior knowledge? There are numerous ways to get information before dining out. Information on restaurants is available on websites, on television, in magazines, in guidebooks, and in newspapers. Information ranges from a basic review of offerings all the way to photographs and reviews of individual dishes. How does this impact the diner’s sensory experience? Websites like Tasted Menu and smart phone apps like Nosh let users post reviews and photographs of individual menu items at restaurants. Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram let users post real-time accounts of their dining experience.How does this information and visual representation shape the diner’s expectations? An interesting experiment would be to have a diner read about a dish and view photos ahead of time and ask them to describe the flavor, then compare it with the description from a diner with no prior knowledge of the dish.

Information on food is also presented through both food advertising and food television programming. There are numerous television programs that feature restaurant dishes, like Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. What impact does watching this type of program have on a viewer’s future dining experience? The viewer is watching participants in the show prepare the dish, eat, and describe their experience. The viewer is getting a visual (and sort-of auditory) play-by-play of the sensory experience of the host – smells, texture, and flavor – but without actually experiencing them. An interesting area for research would be how watching this type of programming causes responses in the brain while they are watching. Also, if the viewer dines at the restaurant featured in the show, how does this prior information impact their experience?

Areas for future study could look at the impact that this prior information has on shaping expectations and the resulting brain response and perception of flavor. From a marketing perspective, restaurants and food companies could understand how this type of information either positively or negatively impacts the diner’s experience.

Small, D. M. (2012). Flavor is in the brain. Physiology & Behavior. doi:doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2012.04.011

Friday, September 14, 2012

A Peek at Tempurpedic + My Favorite Egg Recipe

This week I was invited to check out the new Tempurpedic store at the Natick Mall along with my friend Renee from Eat Live Blog. The timing worked out great - an 8:00 am breakfast event is probably the best time I could think of these days. As a work outside the house-graduate student mom, free time is pretty non-existent. When I'm home, I like to be totally focused on enjoying time with my little guy before he is no longer little. So squeezing in a fun event before work was a great opportunity!

In celebration of opening their first retail store, Tempurpedic organized an event entitled "Breakfast in Bed with Barbara Lynch!" We couldn't technically eat in the beds, but we did get a chance to relax and sink into the beds before we enjoyed a fresh and delicious spread.

I remember mattress shopping when I graduated from college and moved into my first apartment. I had been sleeping on a twin extra-long with an egg crate topper for the past four years, so any mattress was a treat after that! But the shopping experience was stressful - being followed around by a salesperson trying to upsell me.

The feeling in the Tempurpedic was the opposite - soft lighting, inviting bed set-ups, and teddy bears. They explained to us that if you didn't want to interact with a sales person you didn't have to. Each bed set-up included a short video discussing the benefits and features of the product. You could also test out the features of the Ergo Base - think lifting your head to watch TV and a massage feature.

The store is a way for consumers to test the feel of the different Tempurpedic mattresses and pillow styles and to educate consumers about the difference between Tempurpedic and other mattresses. The Touch & Feel wall was a fun way to see the difference between the different Tempurpedic styles.

The store also stocks a number of complementary products like teddy bears, pillows, slippers, and dog beds. In addition they are testing out some home products like scented candles and lotions called Nest. 

At this point a new mattress isn't in the budget for us, but having another option to test out mattresses will be great when the time comes. Tempurpedic plans to open another store outside of Cinncinnati soon, with more on the way. From meeting the head of sales, the digital marketing manager, to the in-store salespeople you could tell that they were passionate about their products. A quick look at the Tempurpedic website will give you a look at their history and mission.

Thanks to Renee for inviting me along, and thank you to Tempurpedic for a delicious "breakfast next to bed" before work!

For those times when you have to make your own breakfast here's one of my favorites - baked eggs! This dish was a staple in our breakfasts growing up. It's easy enough to make anytime and can be dressed up for company. Pair it with bagels and lox, fresh fruit and a steaming cup of coffee and you have the perfect morning treat!

Baked Eggs
Note: This is for a 9x12 baking dish. There is a little bit of 'eyeballing' measurements here

1-1/2 dozen eggs
4-8 oz cream cheese - softened for easier blending
Milk proportionate to eggs
Salt and pepper to taste

Put these ingredients in a blender or mixer and blend on medium until frothy

At this point you could fold in shredded cheese and then gently hand mix

If you want other ingredients in your baked eggs, such as sauteed spinach, mushrooms, zucchini, tomatoes, onions, bacon, salami,lox etc...Optional seasonings can be sauteed with additional ingredients (dill, oregano, basil, chives). Prepare those separately and then put into the greased baking dish.

Pour egg mixture on top.  You can top off with additional cheese

Bake in 350 degree oven for 45-60 minutes or until puffy and golden brown and all liquid in the center is cooked.

I was invited to attend this event and enjoyed a complimentary breakfast while browsing the store. I was not obligated to write a post, but was given a free Tempurpedic pillow for writing a post. As always, my opinions are my own. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Summer Evenings: Chilled Asparagus Soup from Mom

My mom is the the master of the "take whatever is in the fridge and make a fantastic meal". Her creations are always creative, unique, and of course delicious. She sent me this recipe last week for a flavorful summer soup that can be served hot or cold, depending on your mood. Enjoy!

Last night I made asparagus soup.  It was delicious hot and very refreshing as a chilled soup garnished with a ring of sweet red pepper, a dollop of sour cream and garnished with lemon zest!

6 cups of water
1 dozen asparagus stalks
1 large garlic clove, chopped
1/2 cup chopped sweet onion
2 tsp of chicken flavored "Better than Bouillon" soup base (Or, substitute chicken broth for the water if you don't have this)
Salt and pepper to taste

Cut asparagus in 1-1/2 inch pieces. Chop onion and garlic
Put water Into a 4 quart pot
Add all ingredients
Cook on a medium heat setting for an hour until asparagus is tender.

At this point the soup can be served hot. It will have the asparagus pieces.

To prepare for a chilled soup, reserve some of the cooked asparagus tips to use for a garnish. Use a hand blender to puree the warm soup.  Chill soup for several hours or overnight.

For garnish
Sweet red bell pepper
1 lemon
Sour cream
Asparagus tips 

To serve, ladle soup into a bowl. Top with red pepper sliced in rings or chopped pieces, a teaspoon/ dollop of sour cream. Add lemon zest and a squeeze of lemon juice onto the soup. 

The chilled soup could also benefit from some chopped fresh basil as a garnish. 

Served hot you could add baked croutons  and top with shredded carrots for a colorful garnish. 

Thanks for dinner Mom!


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