How Stories Can Impact Your Taste In Food
Ask any epicure, a good meal is more than just taste. Beyond finding the perfect mix of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami flavors, food scientists such as Charles Spence at Oxford University have explored the influence of other senses—sight, smell and sound—on dining experiences.
Now, Matt Johnson and Prince Ghuman—Professors of Neuromarketing at Hult Business School and co-authors of Allure: The Neuroscience of Consumerism—are taking a different direction, suggesting that a great story can influence taste more than you think.
According to Ghuman, there’s a hilarious skit (‘Is the chicken local?’) from the TV show Portlandia that perfectly encapsulates this point. A dining couple asked about the story of the chicken within a dish—the name (it’s Colin), breed, roaming area, whether it’s local, and so forth and so on. “Although hyperbolized for humor, the underlying point is that the story about the restaurant, the food, and the employees can affect our brain’s enjoyment of the meal.”
Considering the number of times I've ordered a dish based on more description about a chef or an ingredient, this makes a lot of sense. While it would've been better if I had actually known the significance of the details, it’s by no means a prerequisite.
As it turns out, noted Ghuman,
Your brain doesn’t have to know about raising cattle or the location of the farm to fill in the blind spot. You are drawn to it because of your brain’s natural ‘filling in’ process. The sources of ingredients provide more info. You fill in this new information along with the taste signals sent from your tongue upon your first bite.
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To fully understand this, the key is to know how reception and perception work. According to the neuroscientists, we receive information about the food through taste, but how we ultimately perceive lies in a mental blind spot. With our senses only making up a small amount of information, the majority of our view is in fact “unconsciously ‘filled in’ at the blind spot.”
Obviously, the source of your food is just one of many stories within a meal. Since studies have shown that "hero-driven stories trigger a higher release of oxytocin (also known as the love hormone)," restaurants too can benefit from having their own hero or heroine to make an entrée tastier, said Johnson.
Aside from the restaurant's origin or the source of different ingredients, sharing more about the chef’s personal journey could make a restaurant’s overall story more compelling.
This is something the late Anthony Bourdain did extremely well. Personifying an “empathetic, global mindset” when embarking on his food adventures, the appeal of “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” lies in revealing the context of each dish, according to Ghuman. "So if you visit one of the restaurants discovered on his show, these stories fill in the blind spot and affect your taste before you take a single bite."
This concept certainly resonates with Catherine Neville, Emmy-winning Host and Producer of tasteMAKERS, a new series that focuses on the people behind our food system. As someone who has been telling the stories of chefs, farmers and makers for about 20 years, Neville believes “makers” are the next wave of the American food movement.
The food industry is no longer solely focused on farm-to-table restaurants, with chefs presenting dishes made with ingredients sourced directly from local producers. Now, people want that type of connection in everything they eat. They want to know who roasted their coffee, who baked their bread, who made their pickles. They want to feel good about who and what their dollars are supporting and they want connection to their community.
On the marketing front, the beauty of storytelling lies in its broad application. While some may have a higher budget and more knowledge than others, the success of storytelling lies in consistency and authenticity, according to Johnson.
You can’t have a great story about the humble origins of your restaurant or its founder, and then have ostentatious decor with top 40 music. Whatever the restaurant’s story is, it must be consistently displayed throughout. The actual telling of the story is important.
Perhaps this is why "grandma’s" cooking is always a popular choice. Personally, I've been eating this minced pork dish cooked by a loved one again and again since I was five. If it were up to me, I could eat it every day for as long as I live. While it may not be the best meal on earth (just typing this feels wrong), the memories, and the emotions associated with it, will always be irreplaceable.