I adored this book, but it was so suited to my interests that I fear I may have dreamed it. I love to cook, I love social histories, and I love pop science, particularly deep digs into the everyday things we take for granted.
Bob Holmes takes us on a scientific tour of flavor, doing his best to separate it from the physical perception of tasting, the senses of smell and touch, while acknowledging how indebted flavor is to each. This is somewhat limited by language; it’s hard to separate flavor and taste when English uses the words interchangeably, but Holmes not only does an admirable job of keeping them straight, he also points out that this linguistic dearth may be part of WHY taste is neglected. When there are no terms to describe what you’re experiencing, you’re more likely to lump the experience with its nearest equivalent, and thus not appreciate it as different – or really experience it at all – as in the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This is easiest to analogize with colors: certain cultures without the word for blue are unable to distinguish between different shades of it, but in flavor we can see it in the term “hot” when referring to peppers. Calling something hot may refer to temperature or scovilles in English, where chiles came late to English-speaking places, but in Spanish-speaking countries – where Chiles are commoner – there is no ambiguity as picante refers to chile-burn and caliente to temperature.
If you found that last paragraph boring, which I could totally understand, find another book to read.
For me, I wish this thing had been twice as long, and in one area particularly – I love that Holmes speaks of the roles salt and sugar and fat play in flavor, and wine tasting comes up frequently, but I would have loved more on how alcohol contributes. When I was pregnant I never missed the buzz from alcohol, but I wanted the flavor enhancement you get from good drinks; the non alcoholic wine I tried lacked it, and as an interviewee says in the book, it was better to forgo it than accept a pale imitation, but I would have loved to know more about why it WAS a pale imitation.
Again, when the worst I can say is that a book wasn’t long enough, it’s a pretty strong endorsement. 12/5 stars for me. Your mileage may vary.