Most people can’t taste the difference between ham and shoelaces

Most people can’t taste the difference between ham and shoelaces

An obvious key to being a good cook has just dawned on me recently. I heard a struggling restaurant owner explain why he had no idea if the dishes coming out of his kitchen were any good.

He’d served in the first Gulf War and lost his sense of smell and taste in an oil fire there. What tasted perfectly bland to him was actually inedibly salty, and people were staying away from his food in droves.

I have an old and dear friend who suffered an accident many years ago that robbed him ever after of his sense of smell and taste. We were having lunch together at a buffet recently, and I forgot and asked how his food was. “How would I know?” he replied.

Then there was the person I knew who loved to cook and loved to cook for family at every holiday and birthday gathering. It was her way of showing love for the people around her, as so many of us do in our kitchens. But the problem was she really had no ability or sense of flavors at all.

She spoke of her desire to open a restaurant and share her culinary delights with a wider audience. You have to love a heart that is in the right place, but in this case, that place wasn’t rightfully in the kitchen.

To be able to cook food that tastes good, you have to have the ability to know, well, what tastes good. You have to have a palate and develop it.

There’s an exercise that looks deceptively easy: identify flavors while blindfolded. How hard can it possibly be to distinguish one food from another? But time and again, even among professional cooks, it proves to be quite difficult, and many, if not most people, can’t tell the difference, by taste alone, between ham and shoelaces.

It also speaks to how vision-based we are as humans. We can be transported by smells or jarred by an audible memory, but we really need to see things to process them, unless by some misfortune we lose the ability to see and the other sense are forced to fill the gap. This is the reason food presentation is so very important. We really do eat with our eyes first.

But we taste with our noses and mouths. How can we develop our ability to taste foods correctly and know what things are supposed to taste like? I think that, much like kissing or gardening, there are some people who will never quite get the hang of it; the basic ability to be finely attuned to the subject at hand just isn’t there.

But you can get better at it by being serious about tasting things.

Do you know what the spices and herbs in your cupboard taste like on their own? They will vary a bit from source to source, and quality matters, but you can gain an understanding of what tarragon, for example, tastes like. Like all herbs, it will have a slightly different taste in fresh and dry forms, and each is used differently.

Every time you buy produce, taste it as you prepare it. Even if you’ve eaten 10,000 apples, taste the one you’re handling today. How is it different from the other varieties you’ve eaten? How is it different in and out of season?

Right now is a good time to learn what a good tomato tastes like because gardens are starting to yield them up. Tasting the difference between a hydroponically grown tomato and one from the neighbor’s garden is an excellent lesson.

Finally, taste the food of good cooks and ask what flavors you’re getting. Is this bay leaf? Orange peel? Wine? Anchovy? Blueberry? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Most cooks love to be thought of as a source for good information. And they’ll be happier if you become a better cook.

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