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Does Blind Tasting Change The Way We Experience Food?

By Anthony Todd in Food on Oct 3, 2012 3:10PM

2012_10_3_Blindfold.jpg When I was asked to participate in a blind taste test event to benefit Share Our Strength, two thoughts ran through my head simultaneously. First thought: "I'm going to look like a complete idiot, lose all of my foodie cred and be revealed for the poser that I am. Second thought: "Maybe I could learn something." I'm a geek (and it was for charity) so the second thought won. I didn't win (that honor went to Heather Sperling of Tasting Table and Chandra Ram of Plate) but I learned something important.

At Sono Wood Fired Pizzeria on Monday night, each taster was blindfolded and sat down opposite a very accommodating Kendall College student who fed us tiny spoonfuls of anonymous ingredients. After a couple of tastes, we made a guess. Textures were no guide—some ingredients were intentionally pureed, liquified or crisped up through frying to mess with our perceptions.

It's a cliche that losing one sense or physical ability leads to improvement in others. People with diminished eyesight often have improved hearing or more sensitive fingers, for instance. But I naively thought that this axiom wouldn't apply to taste. How would that possibly help someone navigate through life? No one ever said "I'm blind, but if i stick my tongue out I can taste my way around by licking the air."

Turns out, I was wrong—and it may change the way I eat.

I once had dinner with a friend of mine who did something that at the time seemed very strange. Before taking a bite of a new dish, he raised it to his nose and smelled it, ostentatiously and with a deep inhalation. In a fancy restaurant, this attracted glares from old, dignified women, but he just smiled and explained that it was part of the experience of eating for him. Since then, I've occasionally imitated him, and he's right - engaging another sense really does change the way food tastes. Eating blindfolded is like this on steroids.

Foods that normally wouldn't get to me were suddenly shocking. Fish sauce, for instance, tasted like I'd swallowed part of an evaporated tide pool. I almost spit it back out. I'm not sure I could recognize celery root in a refrigerator reliably, let alone on a plate, but it was painfully obvious and very strong when I had nothing else to rely on. If i'd been able to see, I probably would have been confused by an anonymous brown, thin liquid, but when blindfolded, the flavor of lobster stock was like a punch in the brain.

It was also a humbling reminder of how we let our supposedly-educated taste buds slide. I like to think of myself as a cocktail expert, but I couldn't identify Aperol blind - I thought it was vermouth. I excuse myself for missing Guava syrup (i'm not sure i've actually had guava syrup) and Marjoram puree (really?) but the Aperol hurt. It's good to be reminded that you still have plenty to learn.

Don't think that blind tasting is a panacea. There are a few ingredients that, if I could have seen them, I bet I'd have had a better shot. Pumpkin puree might have been visibly orange, so that I'd never have assumed it was spaghetti squash. Chimmichuri sauce has a distinctive look, but try tasting it blind and you'll think it's anything from pureed garlic to flavored grass from your front lawn.

That being said, you can bet i'm never doing a dining review (or a complicated tasting menu) again without closing my eyes occasionally. I may get some strange looks from the dining public (or even from my date) but as modern cuisine incorporates more and more wacky ingredients tortured into different formats, simply shoveling food in your mouth and relying on your taste buds won't do. Smell, taste and maybe even touch your food - and then look at it. You might learn something interesting.