Mark Schatzker is the writer in residence at the Modern Diet and Physiology Research Center at Yale University. His next book, The End of Craving, will be published by Simon & Schuster.
In February of 1997, I tasted a steak that changed everything.
It happened on a beach in Chile. My brother had moved there to work as a reporter. I had just graduated from university and decided to start my career with a vacation. One weekend, we headed to the beach. My brother packed an entire tenderloin, from over the border in Argentina. Chileans don’t always have good things to say about Argentines, but there’s a reason they eat Argentine beef.
Some food is so delicious you can’t eat it fast enough. You take a bite and the thing you want to do most is take another. But there is a rung of deliciousness even above that. This isn’t a stuff-your-face situation. It’s more like a state of awe. Events seem to take place in slow motion, like during a car accident. You are seized by the riot of pleasure raging in your mouth, nearly unable to form words.
That’s how good that steak was. And it made me ask what I thought was a simple question. Why?
It would take me more than a decade to answer it. During that time, I somehow managed to parlay my love of travelling and eating into an occupation by working as a travel writer. I got paid to eat food I would have been all too willing to pay for. I spent a week cooking under the guidance of the French chef Alain Ducasse. In 2007, an American travel magazine sent me around the world in 80 days without ever once taking a plane.
The luxury hotels began to fade into a blur of monotony. It was food I cared about. With a family of Mongolian herders, I ate mutton chops. A geneticist in Costa Rica introduced me to cacao fruit – the white pulp that surrounds the seeds from which chocolate is made – and I knew that a) cacao was one of the most pleasurable food experiences of my life and b) I would spend the next week eating as much of it as possible.
By 2010, that simple question I asked about that Argentine beef had morphed into a book: Steak: One Man’s Search for the World’s Tastiest Piece of Beef. At last, I had my answer. The reason that steak tasted so good was because of what the cow ate: grass.
But that just led to further questions. Like, why does food taste good in the first place? Cows, I discovered, had their own relationship with tasty food. They intuitively seek out the most nutritious grass. When deer are deficient in minerals, they begin chewing on old bones – you can find photos on the internet of deer munching dead rabbits. They don’t know what minerals are, that they need minerals or that there are minerals in bones. They just know what tastes good. Scientists call this “flavour feedback.”
Grass-fed beef, similarly, is richer in vitamins and minerals and has more omega-3 fats. Flavourful tomatoes are, very often, richer in micronutrients than bland tomatoes. Is there something going on with humans? Does the way food tastes tell us something about its inner goodness?
The official answer is no. And when you consider that obesity has become our No. 1 health problem, it seems unlikely we could have some intuitive sense of what’s healthy.
We have a long history, however, of ignoring our taste buds. As far back as the 1500s, Spanish explorers knew the healing powers of good food. Dutch sailors tried growing gardens on the decks of their ships to prevent scurvy, but waves plunged over and washed them away. But the medical authorities didn’t buy any of it: Scurvy, they said, was caused by the damp. Or by evil vapours that wafted from the earth.
We’re starting to wake up. We now know that taste isn’t some superficial experience devoid from the internal workings of the body. There are taste receptors in our stomach and all through our intestinal tract, even in our cells. The act of tasting food engages more of the human brain than any other activity. The Yale scientist Dana Small – a Canadian who grew up on Vancouver Island – recently discovered that sweet taste functions as a signal that plays a key role in how simple carbohydrates are metabolized by the body. When we disrupt this signal with, say, artificial sweeteners, we disrupt the way food is metabolized.
We are all in the grip of flavour, but I seem to have a particularly severe case. When I’m not writing about the science of flavour, I find myself obsessing over about what to eat for dinner, or sending Italian corn seeds to an heirloom chicken farmer in British Columbia whose Instagram handle is Captain Poulet. I am helping to open a steak restaurant in New York City, and another in Los Angeles. I don’t dare say this in polite company, but I’m secretly hoping the thundering buffoon occupying the White House wins a concession on supply management, because the mediocrity of most Canadian cheese belies a scandal of overpriced food, naked self-interest, regional pettiness and corrupt, two-faced, lying politicians. (You could say cheese is a quintessentially Canadian food.)
Mainly, I think we’d all be better off if we spent more time thinking about how food tastes rather than obsessing over calories, or carbs, or fat. That sounds odd, sure. But the three countries in the developed world with a reputation for the most delicious food – Italy, Japan, and France – are among the very leanest. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
Flavour has something important to tell us. One day, I hope we’ll all sit up and listen.