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Music: “Eat It” from Greatest Hits by “Weird Al” Yankovic. Released: 1999.The ubiquitous “they” say that “you eat with your eyes first”, although the term has been around for so long, no one individual seems to be able to claim the fame for the quote.
In “The Physiology of Taste” by Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, he explores the various ways in which our senses contribute to the enjoyment of the taste of the foods we eat and discusses at length the use of the senses, the influence of smell on taste, the power of taste and much more.
In his chapter entitled “Meditation XIV” (On the Pleasures of the Table), Brillat-Savarin talks about a gathering of gourmands, namely the clergy, to which he and a friend (non-clerical types) were invited. Brillat-Savarin describes the dishes presented, including a “…virgin rooster….truffled to the bursting point…” He describes the event:
“In effect, all conversation ceased as if hearts were too full to go on; all attention was riveted on the carvers; and when the serving platters had been passed, I saw spread out in succession on every face the fire of desire, the ecstasy of enjoyment, and then the perfect peace of satisfaction”
Clearly, Brillat-Savarin is describing the palpable “eating with the eyes”, in which the guests were eagerly anticipating devouring some of the delicacies being flaunted in front of them. One can imagine the guests salivating and barely restraining themselves before gorging on the delicacies.
So, if we assume that “we eat with the eyes first”, what triggers this state? Do our eyes have a direct link to our taste buds from former experiences? What if we’ve never had a particular food previously? Do our eyes fail to tell the taste buds what’s down the line?
Is “eating with the eyes” a luxury for those with the money and leisure time? Presumably, a homeless person, not knowing where his or her next meal is coming from would not be predisposed to “eat with the eyes” in the sense of colour, presentation, etc. Food becomes an urgent need and, most likely, the colour be damned. Most homeless shelters can barely provide food to those who need it, let alone have the time to present artful meals, although I’m sure many wish they could.
I wonder if eating with the eyes is strictly a human phenomenon and is found in all cultures. Presented with an artistically designed plate of scorpions on a stick, would the average North American eater begin salivating? Would that be true if the scorpions were still alive, writhing around on the plate?
Suppose a totally blind person has no “eyes to eat with“. Does the sense of smell replace that sense and is it as powerful a stimulant to the appetite? Alternately, if a colour blind person cannot determine that his or her food is red or green, will that affect the appeal of the food to that individual?
Perhaps a lot of eating with the eyes is simply conditioning. For example, most of us are used to rice being white or ivory colored, so if we encounter rice that is blue, would that affect our appetite and make us suspicious? In order to test this, I conducted an experiment with an unnamed person as the guinea pig. I filled my rice cooker with jasmine rice and water, and added several drops of blue food colouring (see photos).
When the rice was cooked, it took on a lovely turquoise colour, very appropriate for the Southwest.
After putting some pork ribs on the plate, I dished up the rice.
My guinea pig saw the plate being set down on the table and exclaimed “whoa!” Clearly, in his “conditioned” state, rice is supposed to be white, not turquoise and the shift took him by surprise.
After tasting the rice and being assured that it still tasted like the jasmine rice I usually serve, he had no hesitation in finishing it and having a second helping. Now that he is conditioned that rice can be white/ivory or turquoise, he won’t be surprised the next time. Of course, I’ll probably try another experiment with an equally astonishing colour. Any cook knows that rice can be altered by the addition of saffron or turmeric (yellow/orange), fresh herbs (green), red (tomato juice), etc., but turquoise is not among the usual complement in the colour scale.
Would we be fooled if we were served a plate of orange-colored potatoes in a white sauce, thinking that the orange colour was from cheddar cheese, even if there were no cheddar cheese in the dish and the colour was simply food colouring? Certainly, food for thought!