Here's a recipe for weirdness: Put about 100 food writers from across the country in a convention center at Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas. Load them up with jellybeans, Q-Tips soaked in tannic acid, bottles of chopped crayons and coffee, plus a healthy dose of androsterone (the chemical found in boar's saliva that makes swine sexually attracted to each other). And what do we learn? That in the business of enjoying food, the sense of smell is as important, if not more so, than taste.
Also, that restaurant reviewers don't necessarily have super-powered nostrils. Given how several food experts in the group responded to sniff challenges, I've got to wonder what in the world they've been eating. One pro is certain that she's sniffing vomit (it's really coffee). Another insists her sample is bubblegum (it's actually chocolate). And yet another is convinced she's been given used Band-Aids (it's a trick sample of crayons).
The seminar, "Honing Your Palate," is one of many educational classes at this year's Association of Food Journalists' Conference. We're being tutored by Marcia Pelchat, Ph.D., of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, an institute dedicated to all things stinky. Jellybeans, she says, offer insight into how valuable our schnozzes are to our stomachs.
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We pinch our noses, and blind taste a bean. It's simply sweet. We release our noses, and suddenly, whoosh, we're impacted with the heady force of licorice. "You've just learned the surprising nature of letting go of your nostrils when you eat," Pelchat explains. Another trick in finding flavors is to move food around to different parts of our mouths -- tuck a bit between our upper lip and gum, or shove a sample to the sides of our cheeks. This is why we're chewing on the acid-dipped ear swabs.
The swine stuff? That's to determine how sensitive we are. About 50 percent of the population doesn't detect any odor from it. If we're true professionals, though, we can pick up the frisky notes of urine or sweat. If we're really experts, snouted animals will suddenly seem remarkably attractive, I suppose.
If you want to find a food reviewer in any restaurant, we wouldn't be hard to identify. We're the party in the corner, pinching our noses between bites, storing food in our cheeks like hamsters, and wrinkling our noses at the crayons given to children if it's a family-oriented restaurant. The biggest giveaway? Our dinner companion is a pig.