I guess everyone knows by his or her own observations that it isn’t the food itself that makes a great meal. It’s the emotions and feelings we associated with that particular meal that remain in our memories. That’s a big part of the reason why your food will never come out as good as the one your mother or grandma served you.
You can mimic your mother’s recipes step by step using exact measurements and proportions. But even if there’s no objective difference in taste it just won’t taste right to you.
According to scientists, the pleasure of eating depends on a variety of external and internal conditions:
- External conditions are for example physical features of the environment and social factors: Communal eating is more pleasurable than eating alone and meals taste better in the comfortable environment of your own home than on, for example, an airplane seat.
- Internal conditions include motivational, cognitive, and behavioral factors: People who enjoy eating eat with the intention to enjoy the food. They take their time and solely focus on the food, during and after the meal.
As you can see, even if you mimic your grandma’s dish perfectly, you will probably never be able to replicate the internal and external conditions that make her food taste great.
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Why does your mom’s sandwich always taste better?
Adding to that, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University found out that people find more pleasure in eating sandwiches that some else prepared for them. Why that is? Well, according to these scientists, you already spend time thinking about and anticipating the taste of food while you’re cooking it. That way your brain will already be pre-satiated with pleasure.
The reason why there’s always room for dessert is that it’s so radically different in taste and texture than the main course. Our cravings for sweet food aren’t satiated after the main course. With every bite of the main course, we get more satiated for the particular food we’re eating. After we reach a certain level of satiation, we won’t get any increased pleasure out of a meal. The main course becomes boring but we don’t lose our curiosity and craving for foods that provide different pleasures.
The law of diminishing return
This concept is very well-known in fine dining and of the main reasons why the portion sizes are so small. Of course, you want to try as many different dishes as possible. But what really matters to the chef is that you feel pleasure with every bite. Pleasure is what makes your meal memorable and outstanding.
A multicourse meal with contrasting tastes and textures is like being on drugs for your taste buds. You always stop eating before you’re fully satiated. But then, instead of remaining disappointed, a new stimulus provides even greater pleasure to your brain.
The famous American chef Thomas Keller very accurately describes this phenomenon:
“Our whole menu is based on the law of diminishing returns. The most compelling portion of a dish is in the first three or four bites. With the first bite, you’re getting into it; by the second bite, you start to realize it; and it is at the third or fourth bite you get the maximum appreciation and pleasure from that dish … and you keep eating because of that memory of it being really extraordinary. But was it as good as it was at that second, third or fourth bite? No.”Thomas Keller
But it’s not just the food itself that makes fine-dining places so special. They work very hard to provide a pleasant atmosphere. The external conditions need to match the quality of the food. One very important factor is the type of cutlery they use. They use fancy silverware because it makes your food taste better. At least in your mind.
How cutlery affects our perception of food
For a perfect meal, every detail matters. Three scientists of the University of Oxford found out that diners enjoyed food more if the restaurant provided heavy cutlery. It’s not just a psychological effect. Cutlery made with different materials changes the taste of foods as a result of chemical interactions between the food itself and the material of cutlery.
However, the most important factor is our psychology. We perceive heavy things as valuable. The diners served food with banquet cutlery were willing to pay more money for exactly the same meal as diners who were given canteen cutlery (£13.9 vs. £12.0). They also generally liked the food more and rated it as more artistic than the meal served with canteen cutlery.
This phenomenon is called “sensation transference” or “halo effect”. It describes the tendency to rate one thing more positively because of an external positive influence. Diners in this study transferred their feelings about the cutlery to their feelings about the food.
A study of two Spanish scientists compared the effect of different kinds of spoons on the sensory perception of yogurt. They used one stainless steel spoon as well as one plastic spoon with a metallic finish. Both spoons looked exactly the same and had the same dimensions. The only difference was, that the stainless steel spoon was much heavier than the plastic spoon.
People preferred the yogurt eaten with the stainless steel spoon and assumed the yogurt to be higher in quality even though they rated the flavor intensity to be equal.
On the history of cutlery
There’s an intriguing essay written by Mark Miodownik. It’s called “The taste of a spoon.” Miodownik states that stainless steel spoons are one of the greatest inventions of our time because they are inert. They have no taste.
For most time in history, only the rich could afford to possess gold or silver spoons. Most people used wooden, bone, or ceramic spoons. The only affordable metals in the old days were iron, brass, bronze, and pewter. They all have an awful taste so that they never had a breakthrough.
Plastic spoons came into use in the 20th century. They are inert, just like silver and gold. However, even back then they weren’t perceived as valuable. Just as today, our human psychology rejects plastic cutlery. You might know this famous saying:
Mit einem goldenen Löffel im Mund zur Welt kommen
Be born with a silver spoon in your mouth
I think it’s quite interesting to note the difference between the German and British saying here. I have no idea why Germans say golden spoon and British silver spoon.
However, both sentences have the same meaning: To be born into a rich family. Silver and golden cutlery are a sign of wealth. It’s the stuff the royalty eats with.
How Harry Brearley changed the world
It took a long time for scientists to discover stainless steel. It was rather by accident, that the British scientist Harry Brearley discovered 1913 how to prevent steel from rusting. Stainless steel was born and quickly took over the entire world.
It’s thanks to this innovation, that you can eat with metal cutlery that doesn’t have a bitter and salty off-taste. Can you imagine ourselves eating with forks and knives made from wood or animal bones? Or even worse, that our whole cutlery is made from plastic?
Sometimes we take a lot of things for granted. No one today is thankful to own a stainless steel knife or to be able to eat their soup with a stainless steel spoon. But we should be. We’ve come a long way from where we were 100 years ago.