Language that is in good taste

An English chef's experiments with synesthesia give new meaning to the promise 'I'll eat my words.'

Here's a very quick lesson in foreign-language menu reading. Imagine this: You're ordering off a very short menu in a restaurant in a country that speaks a very unfamiliar language. You know that one of the two entrées listed involves brie and the other, lots of tart, tangy cranberries. Can you figure out which is which? Would it help you to know that one item was called takete and the other, maluma?

If you're like a lot of people, once you hear the words, you can figure which of the two entrees they apply to. In fact, the sound symbolism is so strong that in phrasing the question in the paragraph above, I took the liberty of transposing the "right" answers.

Takete and maluma aren't real words in any language I know. But Oxford University scientist Charles Spence has been working with hot-ticket English chef Heston Blumenthal on experiments to find out how people combine auditory and gustatory experience. They're looking into what certain words "taste" like. And he's found that the connections between brie and maluma and cranberries and takete are very strong.

As they told the BBC recently, "The idea is that you get people to take part in the experiment by giving them two plates of food, and saying 'one of these is a takete and one is a maluma,' but not tell them which is which until they've eaten it."

Dr. Spence and Chef Blumenthal's work goes way beyond the kind of menu-prettification efforts such as the renaming of "dogfish" as "rock salmon" or "grayfish." What they're exploring is the phenomenon of synesthesia, in which stimulation of one sense produces a secondary response in another sense. People who experience this may associate color with sound – they "hear" music as color, for instance.

An extreme case of this may be James Wannerton, president of the UK Synaesthesia Association, who last year told a conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, how images and words trigger taste sensations in his mouth. Saying the name of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair left him with a taste of dried coconut. " 'George Bush' gives me a taste similar to the crusty potato bit on top of a cottage pie."

But Spence's work suggests that synesthesia is a far more widespread phenomenon. He and his colleague Cesare Parise conducted an experiment in which subjects were exposed to an image of a black dot, either smaller or larger, and to one of two tones, higher or lower pitched. They were asked which came first. Did they hear the tone first, or see the dot? Researchers found that their subjects naturally matched the larger dot and the lower-pitched tone, so much so that they saw them as one phenomenon. When the dot and the tone "matched," the research subjects had trouble telling which came first. When the dot and the tone didn't match, subjects found it easier to separate them perceptually.

Something similar happened when they experimented with two other images, one a vaguely starfish shape and the other more sharply angular. The angular shape "matched," in the minds of subjects, the higher pitched tone.

Spence thinks his findings can be built upon to enhance people's experience of flavor. Blumenthal may be able to incorporate words in some fashion into the dining experience at The Fat Duck, his much-honored restaurant in Bray, England.

It all gives new meaning to the idea of "I'll eat my words." And meanwhile, make mine maluma.

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