Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat
by John McQuaid
Scribner: 2015 $26

In 1942 psychologist Edwin Boring published a 600-page tome on sensory perception that dispensed with the sense of taste in just 25 pages. Within that brief treatment, however, Boring managed to popularize what would become a widely embraced scientific falsehood—that the tongue has distinct regions of flavor perception, neatly delineated like nations on a map.

Seven decades later we still do not know much about taste, at least compared with the other senses, writes author McQuaid in Tasty. The idea of exclusive taste zones was directly challenged in the 1970s, and in the 2000s the “tongue map” was finally debunked when scientists confirmed that every one of our thousands of taste buds is equipped with molecular receptors for all five tastes—sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami. McQuaid explores the growing scientific understanding of how the palate works and how it motivates both our ancient survival instincts and modern culinary fancies.

McQuaid makes a case for why taste is special among the senses. It is the most ancient of animal perceptions, most likely evolved from the earliest days of multicellular life. In mammalian fetuses, taste develops before all other senses. But its primitive nature perhaps has long made it less appealing as a subject of scholarly or scientific study. After all, the necessity of eating reminds us of our baser needs and our beastly origins, according to McQuaid. In Plato's Symposium, as he recounts, “guests gather for a banquet, but decline food or drink in order to keep their minds clear for the discussion on the nature of love.”

Moreover, unlike sound and light, physical forces that can be quantitatively measured, flavor is complicated by the vicissitudes of biology and chemistry that are still being untangled. Taste involves much more than the tongue, research shows. Mice genetically engineered to be unable to discern sweetness still strongly prefer sugar water over plain water, hinting at unconscious cravings that bypass our flavor perception.

Our relationship with food is intimate and personal yet also public and cultural. Sensitivity to bitterness, for example, seems to be genetic—a mutation in the TAS2R16 gene gives some people, known as supertasters, a more vivid experience of the tang, perhaps an evolutionary defense against natural toxins. But bitterness is also prized in cuisines worldwide—coffee, mustard greens, beer—and even supertasters can learn to love it.

An engaging writer, McQuaid takes his subject in unexpectedly wide-ranging directions, from the race to cultivate the hottest chilies to the quest to replicate an ancient Chinese beer. Along the way, you learn that dolphins and whales cannot taste anything but salt, and “chili pepper” is a misnomer coined by Christopher Columbus, after the unrelated black pepper. Tasty is packed with such fascinating tidbits—a pleasing sampling menu of a book.