Compulsion and complexity in food

When I was first becoming a foodie in college I decided to switch my major to food science. I registered for most of the required basic science courses, as well as the intro class for majors. Unfortunately that class is why I'm not a food scientist. It was taught by a former head food scientist from Kraft and you could have retitled it "how to sell massive and ever increasing amounts of garbage commodity foods to Americans." I remember in one lab we toured they were making crispy puffs out of some soy byproduct that they told us would otherwise go to waste. I ate my bag and went back for more, but I otherwise remember nothing about that "food." 

Some of my friends in neuroscience study how to prevent addiction, food scientists at these labs were studying how to encourage it. The End of Overeating documents their extremely successful methods.

I decided food science was not for me and ended up not switching my major. In fact, I decided that food science was evil and I wanted nothing to do with it.

But is food science going to be saved? Since I've started getting into modernist haute cuisine, I've noticed a movement from within to turn food science back into quality rather than selling people mass quantities of commodities. Ferran Adria of elBulli was an early pioneer of using food science in the haute cuisine kitchen and Harold McGee brought food science to conscientious home cooks through On Food and Cooking. Now Ferran has retired from the restaurant business to teach a form of food science known as "culinary physics" at Harvard and research gastronomy there. Super rich internet entrepreneur Nathan Myhrvold funded the development of the "bible" of Modernist Cuisine, using his millions to assemble a team of chefs and scientists to figure out how to perfect food as an aesthetic experience. Here is a Ted talk from one of the authors, Chris Young, a biochemist.

And now there is a new open-access academic journal called Flavor that had an article that caught my eye yesterday: Seaweeds for umami flavor in the New Nordic Cuisine. Turns out it's a collaboration between a physicist at the University of Southern Denmark and the Nordic Food Lab, which was started by Rene Redzepi, who runs the restaurant Noma. Noma took the mantle of "best restaurant in the world" after Ferran entered academia. I suppose Rene is trying to do academia and restaurants at once, with some successful results from his own Nordic Food Lab.

I think now that the concept of "food reward" has come into popular consciousness in the evolutionary blogosphere, some people have confused high "food reward" with good. That's the interesting part- foods that are high "food reward" are not often particularly aesthetically pleasing. They are not "good" in any way. Few writers are going to wax poetic on a cheeto the way you can about ikura or fine wine. High food reward foods stimulate compulsion. They hit the parts of the brain that make you want to eat more.

As I wrote about in my Paleolithic Post-Modernist Cuisine post, Ferran conceptualized food that hit not only the taste buds, but also had intellectual value " in which other elements come into play, such as sense of humour, irony, provocation, childhood memories, or -- a very important point."

A major difference between the modernist cuisine* type of food science and the food science that has led to the creation of bran flakes and Cheetos is that the former is all about quality, whereas the later places more of an emphasis on creating foods people want to eat more of.

When your ingredients cost as much as $6000 a lb, the last thing you want to do is create dishes that make the eater crave more. I remember eating one of the rarest mollusks in the world, abalone, at Manresa. It was a tiny tiny sliver, but I'll remember more about it than I'll ever remember about the fried chicken I used to binge on in the dining hall in college.

This is why I think it's vital for the neuroscientists who study food reward to collaborate with the nascent scientists of the modern gastronomy movement. While I think Whole Health Source is one of the best blogs out there, the low-reward food diet seems kind of harsh to me.

"Eat only single ingredients with no flavorings added. No spices, herbs, salt, added sweeteners, added fats, etc. If you eat a potato, eat it plain." When I have tried a diet like that, it triggers anhedonia and I can't keep it up. I also simply don't think that "low-reward" has to mean miserable food. Reward is about triggering a system of compulsion, not about aesthetic reward.

Stephan says that "You may initially feel deprived, but you should become more satisfied by simple food over time." But I think for those of use who are very hedonic, this is unrealistic and why would I want to give up the pleasures of truly luxurious food if I don't have to? Maybe it's because I come from a family of people unusually attuned to risk and pleasure seeking and my dopamine receptors are insane. 

The dishes I have eaten from the kitchens of the modern gastronomists have plenty of flavor and aesthetic reward. But they do not leave me craving more. They are not dishes that stimulate compulsion, but appreciation of beauty, complexity, and the unique flavors of each quality ingredient.

Here is a "dish" I ate at a 14-course meal at ElIdeas here in Chicago. It was titled "roe - katsuobushi / tapioca / coconut." katsuobushi is also known as "bonito fish" and is one of the foundations of traditional dashi, the broth that is the nucleus of Japanese cuisine. It is the quintessential "umani" ingredient, imparting savory flavors. But unlike purified umami, which is MSG, it has a complex heavy somewhat-fishy flavor. It's made of mackerel after all.

At ElIdeas the guests are invited to participate in the kitchen, where I happily saw that the chef was using the whole dried fish, shaving off flakes by hand. Most Japanese restaurants in the US use commercially-made "bonito flavored" flakes that are often mostly MSG. The real thing is not easy to find, it's not something you want to create a dish with where the eater will crave more, but one that highlights the unusual and rich flavors of each ingredient.

The food science that has dominated the industry and academia for so long is mainly concerned with making crap better. The new modernist food science is mainly concerned with getting the best out of wonderful things. I hope they can collaborate to work out culinary principles for food that tastes good AND doesn't hijack the senses in order to trigger compulsive eating. That's going to be hard, because everyone seems to have different triggers. 

In my own kitchen, the practical applications of what I've learned from fancy food are pretty easy to spot. I cook with only the best ingredients and favor complex and unusual flavors, like spicy mustards, heavy misos, real high-quality fish sauce, seaweeds, and offal. Interestingly, haute cuisine shares elements and flavors with ancient peasant cuisine, probably because despite their divergent costs, they both have the same goal of making the most out of small amounts of things. 

An simple recipe I enjoyed for breakfast today was Trader Joe's smoked wild salmon wrapped in roasted seaweed (I used seasnax), drizzled with some spicy mustard. Delicious, pretty, and satisfying. 

* I would note that this movement is seperate from the gastropub and new american food movements, which often do feature compulsive little snacks like fries with aioli