I was just listening to one of Robert Krulwich’s many delightful podcasts on science (Krulwich on Science — if you haven’t listened to it you must) and he was explaining how the “umami” taste was discovered. It turns out that for years and years scientists accepted the mantra that there are four basic tastes — sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. These are the ones that we learned in school (or at least I did, but maybe I’m dating myself here). Then this French chef came along — Auguste Escoffier — and turned it all on its head. He made this delicious soup stock by boiling veal bones for hours. He created a revolution in french cooking, concocting recipes which were, essentially, delicious. But the problem was that the deliciousness of much of his cooking, in particularly his veal stock, didn’t adhere to any of those four flavors. He revolutionized cooking, but not chemistry.

However, a Japanese chemist noticed the same thing, but with respect to the flavors of a traditional japanese soup. He had the means at his disposal to analyze this flavor, however. It turns out that the key ingredient of the veal stock and of the japanese soup (and of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, and meat) is glutamate. That’s what makes MSG (monosodium glutamate) taste so good too. He called it “umami” or “yummy” in japanese.

One thing that’s really interesting to me about this story is how difficult it can be for us to describe our experience until we have the verbal categorization to attack it with. I guess this would go in the same category as ye olde “eskimoes have umpteen-million words for snow” argument (which I hear is somewhat of a myth). Are people so tied to organizational schemas that we can’t even recognize an experience until we’ve put words to it?

The other thing that struck me is something that Krulwich mentions in the podcast, which is that this is yet another example of art leading science. A master chef is an artist, yes, and he recognized our true experience more honestly than the scientists of the day, who accepted the commonly held view without too much question. This harkens back to my previous post, Why art?

Krulwich writes:

But because artists are so good at describing what it’s like to experience the world, so intent on delivering the truth of what it feels like to be alive, so intuitive, in each of these eight cases, the artists learn something that the scientists don’t discover until years later.

Art, Jonah reminds us, describes the same world that science does; art just does it by a different route. And sometimes, more often than you would suppose, the artists get there first.

Here’s the link to Krulwich’s story on NPR.