XX.1 January + February 2013
Page: 14
Digital Citation

A matter of taste

Elizabeth Churchill

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Kantos Kan led me to one of these gorgeous eating places where we were served entirely by mechanical apparatus. No hand touched the food from the time it entered the building in its raw state until it emerged hot and delicious upon the tables before the guests, in response to the touching of tiny buttons to indicate their desires.

—Edgar Rice Burroughs, A Princess of Mars (1917)

...At the peak of the television boom, every bride dreamed of owning a vocalex kitchen someday that would exactly obey her most casual command to heat a roast for such and such time and baste it at such and such intervals. With the deluxe models, of course, came a set of flavor-fix rheostats which, among other talents, could mix salads according to the recipe of a famous chef slightly better than the chef could himself.

—William Tenn, The Jester (1951)

From the Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster to Soylent Green, science fiction authors have always enjoyed conceptualizing the future of food and drink—the circumstances of its preparation and consumption, its plentitude or lack thereof, its nutritional value, and, of course, its taste. Descriptions of food and of eating habits are evocative, and are especially useful when it comes to signaling similarity and difference. As Jean Retizinger says in a 2008 review of science fiction films titled "Speculative Visions and Imaginary Meals: Food and the Environment in (Post-apocalyptic) Science Fiction Films," "Familiar foods serve as an anchor in an altered world (evoking both nostalgia and parody), whereas unfamiliar food may become one of the clearest measures of how far we have journeyed from the present."

Envisionments such as Tenn's are not restricted to science fiction writers, however. Marketing firms love to create future food production imaginaries, illustrating innovation prowess and forward-thinking market differentiation. In 1956, "No need for the bride to be tragic, the rest is push button magic" was the message delivered by General Motors in its promotional film, Design for Dreaming. The short film features a young bride for whom a cake is baked automagically, with no labor on her part. Instead of slaving in the kitchen, she gads gaily about, a fashionably dressed socialite [1].

These fascinations are not really surprising. Food and eating are at the bottom of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, along with breathing, water, sleep, sex, homeostasis, and excretion. Simply put, human beings need to eat to survive. It is thus also not surprising that food and food-related habits have always been at the center of much research, design, and development: The physics and chemistry of cooking. The ergonomics of optimized-workflow kitchens. Cross-cultural comparisons of what is prepared, how, and when—and by whom it is eaten, where, and why. Critical perspectives on everyday cooking practices and eating rituals examined from multiple viewpoints including ethnic group, region, and class. Food also makes for compelling entertainment, whether it is titillation 24/7 on the Food Network or shopping for objects that scaffold aspirational lives. Any decent-size shopping mall has an assortment of shops willing to sell you ingenious gadgets that are not, strictly speaking, necessary for food preparation/consumption. Examples of curiously useless kitchen gadgets that make me roll my eyes disdainfully are the Egg and Muffin Toaster, the Roll 'n' Pour, the Pepper Prepper, and the Slap Chop. I take chef Alton Brown's line in believing that the only "unitasker" in a kitchen should be the fire extinguisher.

Personally, what has revolutionized my cooking habits is not a cooking implement at all: It's my tablet computer. Recipes are now animated; they are performed. Step-by-step multimedia how-to's take away all the interpretive guesswork, thankfully. No longer need I ponder the kinetics of recipe-appropriate forms of egg beating; I can see precisely the difference between beating lightly and vigorously, demonstrated by experts. I can see exactly how viscous the roux should be, what boiling rapidly looks like, and just what a soufflé looks like when it is collapsing. I can emulate, interpret, and despair/rectify as appropriate. I can see what needs to be done, when, and how. Long before the Internet, computers made their debut in the kitchen as gargantuan recipe books replete with lists of ingredients and procedural instructions. My favorite early example was the Honeywell H316 Kitchen Computer from 1965, which sold for $10,600, had 4KB of magnetic core memory (expandable to 16KB) and a system clock speed of 2.5MHz. It required the user to learn a language called BACK [2]. It was, by all accounts, not exactly easy to use. It is also not clear that any were ever sold.

Recent years have seen more imaginative uses of computational power in the kitchen than recipe storage and presentation. Smart, potentially connected devices and appliances have been flooding into forward-thinking kitchen design for at least 15 years, especially in university departments interested in robotics and/or pervasive/ubiquitous computing. MIT's Media Lab has long had a program focused on inventing the kitchen of the future, with innovations such as the Digital Fabricator, a 3-D printer for food; the Robotic Chef, which is equipped with drills, spice-injection syringes, and heating elements; and the Virtuoso Mixer, a three-layer rotating carousel that supports finely tuned ingredient mixing. Another of my favorite university research programs is more focused on practical, everyday kitchen support: The Ambient Kitchen from the Culture Lab at the University of Newcastle in the U.K. This program sits at the other end of the spectrum from the Media Lab's in that it is largely gadget- (and presumably robot-) free. Its designers state, "In sympathy with Mark Weiser's vision of the 'computer of the 21st century,' the projectors, wireless sensor network, RFID readers, cameras, and floor sensors had to disappear into the fabric of the kitchen itself" [3].


It is the 100th birthday of one of the most discussed kitchen appliances in the era of ubiquitous and pervasive computing. In 1913, Fred W. Wolf invented the Domelre (Domestic Electric Refrigerator), the first electric refrigerator designed for home use. The Domelre failed to gain market traction; all that is left of the original design is the ice cube tray that was widely copied by other, more successful manufacturers. Augmented fridge scenarios of the past 15 years usually invest this everyday object with sometimes useful and sometimes rather disturbing forms of agency—from helpful shopping-list suggestions to diet enforcer, the gatekeeper who stands between you and indulgence. Fulfilling this latter role and at the top of my list of creepy technologies is the talking fridge released in 2012 by LG as part of its LG ThinQ smart appliance series [4]. The fridge helps you diet by telling you to put down unhealthy foods you have taken from its scanned inventory of what you placed in there. You tell the fridge your BMI and your dietary goals, and a smart TV coupled with voice-recognition software recognizes you when you open the door. Given the excesses of the holiday season that just ended, I actually think it may be useful. However, being harangued by my fridge while reaching for a slab of Brie does not sound like my idea of a good time. I suspect I will end up impersonating others in the household to get past the fridge's prescriptions regarding my eating allowances. I would prefer to be tricked into reducing the size my food portions than prevented from indulging altogether—and, as it happens, researchers from the University of Tokyo have been using augmented reality to make your portion seem larger than it in fact is [5]. Appliances designed to tell us what we should eat can offer interference before we even get to the kitchen. The Meal Planning Solution, part of Intel's Connected Store, is a kiosk where something called the Anonymous Video Analytics Technology (who named that?) zooms in on your face to determine your gender and age group to work out what you may want to eat. What could be more aggravating than being told what to eat based on some generalized model of food preferences sliced by gender and age? (Perhaps being told by a fridge not to eat what's inside it.) Sadly, most designs that embed interfering agents in the name of personalized service tend to fail, as most exemplify unimaginative, patchwork, "we did it because we could" engineering gone amuck.

Flavor is next on the technological-meddling horizon, and not only in the form of genetic modification of fruits and vegetables, which apparently can taste more "real" than the real thing [6]. Marshall McLuhan's 1964 vision in Understanding Media is that electronic technology is extending our senses. It seems we have expanded from sight and sound—his focus—to sensation more broadly, and have reached the sensation of taste. There are four basic tastes that your taste buds and brain are responsible for registering: sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. These correspond to useful information for human survival. Simplifying wildly: Sweetness implies the food contains nutrients your body needs for energy; saltiness implies minerals your body needs that may have been excreted through sweat or urine; sourness is correlated with something being not ripe and therefore hard to digest; and a bitter taste suggests poison. More recently, nutritionists have acknowledged the existence of umami, a Japanese word coined in 1908 by a scientist at Tokyo Imperial University meaning savory, tasty, or brothy. Umami enhances all the other flavors—like monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Our tongues have receptors for umami, but its registration passes along different brain-body signaling pathways from the other four flavors. Umami helps us to identify protein-rich foods. Foods that contain umami include breast milk, soy sauce, parmesan cheese, Worcestershire sauce (yum!), and anchovy [7].

Recent work from researchers at the National University of Singapore demonstrates that the stimulation of taste buds is possible. They have built a control system that enables digital stimulations of the sense of taste through electrical and thermal stimulations of the tongue. So... imagine the creation of flavor where there is none. Or the alteration of flavor. Back on the dieting theme, you could be eating celery, a vegetable long hailed as taking more calories to digest than it has in it, but trick your taste buds into thinking you are eating chocolate-covered Hobnobs [8]. However, the researchers have not quite conquered all flavors reliably. So far sourness and saltiness are reliably evoked, but sweet and bitter sensations remain elusive [9]. As does umami.

Douglas Adams was excited in 1979 about the potential of taste-bud stimulation, but also sanguine to the fact that things could go wrong: "He had found a Nutri-Matic machine... The way it functioned was very interesting. When the Drink button was pressed it made an instant but highly detailed examination of the subject's taste buds, a spectroscopic examination of the subject's metabolism and then sent tiny experimental signals down the neural pathways to the taste centers of the subject's brain to see what was likely to go down well. However, no one knew quite why it did this because it invariably delivered a cupful of liquid that was almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea" [10].

Indeed. It could be that making tea is particularly difficult—at least one might think so when living the U.S. (I say this as a British tea drinker who is often confronted with tepid brown water purporting to be tea, even in the best of restaurants). But I think it is also because taste perception is rather hard to pin down.

One reason is that taste is not dependent on simple physiological mechanisms. Many things affect taste perception. Smell is crucial, as anyone who has had a bad cold or is for some other reason anosmic knows. In researching this column I read somewhere that if you hold your nose and bite into an onion while thinking about strawberries, you will taste strawberries. I am not sure I believe that and I am not about to try it, but it seems plausible. Texture and appearance also play a part, and so does, surprisingly, pain. Located in the tongue's papillae, pain fibers are wrapped around the taste buds. Capsaicin in chili peppers, gingerols in ginger, piperin in black pepper, and isothiocyanates in onions, mustard, radishes, and horseradish trigger these fibers. They also trigger sensors that monitor temperature [11]. Hence, you'll get a burning sensation even if you bite into frozen chili peppers. "Transient desensitization"—exposure to a trigger—also reduces its effect. Try it out: Eat several slices of jalapeno, wait a few minutes, and then have another one. The final one will seem less hot than the first [12]. Taste is also hard to crack because, as chemosensory researchers have shown, people vary widely in their taste sensitivities, with genetics being one cause of the variance. "Supertasters" sit at one end of the extreme. Identified by experimental psychologist Linda Bartoshuk in the early 1990s, supertasters have elevated taste responses owing to more papillae on their tongues.

Even more interesting to me, research into sensory crossmodality has revealed that people's responses to food and beverages are affected by multiple factors, including: the color of the plates and bowls; the weight of cups, plates, and cutlery; the size of plateware; the music being played; lighting; menu naming; and item pricing. Extensive research indicates that "non-consumable elements of the table setting can exert a significant effect on our perception of, and behavior toward, food and drink" [13].

Another thing to reckon with is taste in food as well as taste of food. As my mother would have said, some foods are an "acquired taste." Retzinger says: "Food connects us to others—both directly, through shared meals, and culturally, through shared 'tastes.'" The experience of a flavor is affected by the setting, as noted above, but also by cultural factors. I wonder if the grocery shopping aids, the whisk-wielding robots, and the taste-triggering actuators can read us well enough to gauge both our contextually sensitive, current and our nostalgic cultural identities? Will they know that custard is a comfort food, and while not nutritionally at the top of the chart, is, quite simply, just the very best thing for my mental health right now?

back to top  References

1. See, for example,

2. See



5. Narumi, T., Ban, Y., Kajinami, T., Tanikawa, T., Hirose, M. Augmented perception of satiety: Controlling food consumption by changing apparent size of food with augmented reality. Proc. of CHI 2012. 109–118.

6. Perhaps one might say that correspond more accurately to some nostalgic imagining of a flavor. "Shoppers who miss the taste of farm-grown tomatoes may find solace in a new technology that puts back what generations of breeding for hardiness and shelf life have taken out." announced Scientific American in 2007;

7. Thai and Italian chefs have their own versions of umami called nam pla and garum, respectively. Garum dates back to ancient Rome, but is used in many Amalfi Coast dishes—it is the "leakage" from the bottom of the barrels in which anchovies have been preserved in salt.

8. Hobnobs:

9. Ranasinghe, N., Cheok, A.D., Fernando, O.N.N., Nii., H., and Gopalakrishnakone, P. Digital taste: Electronic stimulation of taste sensations. Ambient Intelligence: Lecture Notes in Computer Science 7040 (2011), 345–349; DOI: 10.1007/978-3-642-25167-2_48

10. Adams, D. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Pan Books, 1979.

11. The alcohol in beer stimulates three sensory systems: taste (it's a little bitter), olfaction (many beers have a slightly sweet smell, while others smell to me like wet dog fur), and the trigeminal system (which is why beers can have a little bite). It's hard for alcohol-free beer to taste the same because it is the confluence of these elements that give beer its fully rounded flavor.

12. A nice summary article from 1994 by Michael Berry:

13. Spence, C., Harrar, V., and Piqueras-Fiszman, B. Assessing the impact of the tableware and other contextual variables on multisensory flavor perception. Flavour 1, 7 (2012);

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Elizabeth Churchill is the current vice president of ACM SIGCHI. Her research focuses on social media. Currently an independent consultant, she was formerly a principal research scientist and founder of the Internet Experiences Group at Yahoo! Research.

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