An Evening at the Rubin Museum: Attached to Touch

When I think of grated mountain yam (also known as “tororo”), my mind goes back eight years to when I first tried it in Japan. My great-aunt sent a large cardboard box from the countryside filled with potatoes, carrots, beans, a sack of rice wrapped in cloth, and mountain yams—all harvested that morning. My grandmother grated the tororo over a bowl until it was filled with the slimy, white paste, which we ate over rice. It was refreshing and bizarre—and so delicious that I became obsessed.

If you were to ask Tom Colicchio (renowned chef and celebrated judge on Bravo TV’s Top Chef) what he thinks of grated mountain yam, he would picture the same bowl of slimy paste and cringe with disgust. In fact, that’s exactly what he did on Wednesday evening when Dr. David J. Linden asked if there was a specific texture in food that he couldn’t stand. Unfortunately, Colicchio did not elaborate on his memory of mountain yam; though it must have been pretty bad judging by the way he shuddered. We make associations with certain smells, textures, and tastes the first time we experience them, and these associations greatly affect the way we respond when we encounter them again, Dr. Linden said.

As the first event of the Rubin Museum’s eighth annual Brainwave series, the Top Chef and Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist paired up to discuss the importance of the basic five senses –including hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, tasting—in the kitchen. They also discussed how genetics play a major role in the foods we favor or disdain, and why human evolution has changed the way our bodies react to certain flavors.

Tom Colicchio (left) speaking with David J. Linden (right). Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

Tom Colicchio (left) speaking with David J. Linden (right). Photo courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.

While it seems like taste or smell would be the most vital sense for anyone (most of all a chef) when preparing food, both men agreed that the touch-based sensation of different textures is one that they could never be without. When talking about his goals as a chef and restaurateur, Colicchio also expressed his desire to “touch people emotionally” through his food and hospitality. Linden described the varying degrees in which touch is received and how we are unconsciously processing sensory reactions when we sit down to enjoy a meal: “I think, for most of us, we take touch for granted. We can imagine the loss of other senses…but our touch is always on. It’s very hard to imagine a world without our tactile sense at all, and I think something that is central to this is that touch–as a sense–is intrinsically emotional.”

Our experience of food is influenced by the cultural, personal, and hereditary expectations of our environment. According to Linden, approximately 80% of our food preference is swayed by our environment, while only 20% is hereditary. Our sensory system is designed to give us what it thinks we most need in order to survive, and as we are presented with more varieties of “basic choices” (such as the universally-enjoyed flavors of fatty and sweet foods), our palates evolve. The expanding “culinary landscape” challenges our basic human instinct for survival; and as flavors that once signified a toxic food (i.e. bitter, sour, fermented) are promoted as good, we recalibrate our taste buds for acceptance.

We in the audience got to experience this distinction ourselves. We were each handed a mint leaf and asked to crush it just enough to release its oils and then rub it on our hand. As the mint leaf’s oil produced a cooling sensation from my hand, Dr. Linden explained that most food sensation comes from our touch receptors. He added that “there is no pure sensation,” as all of our senses constantly interplay with one another. By the time we feel any sensation from the “external world,” it will have already been combined with life experience and culture, and it will evoke emotion. It’s something to keep in mind the next time you come across a nostalgic smell or sit down to enjoy your favorite meal.

This year marks the Rubin Museum’s eighth annual Brainwave series of conversations, films, and experiences revolving around neuroscience. Events continue until April 29; tickets can be purchased at the door or online.

-Seimi Rurup

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