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A Plate of Strange Bedfellows

Author: | posted 10/27/10 | Print This Post Print This Post |
bitter chocolate, strong cheese, dill pickles

Which of these does not belong?

Pickles, cheese, and chocolate: Three ingredients, three possible pair-wise combinations, two really good and interesting tastes, and one impossibly disgusting mouthful of gag reflex. If I like cheese with pickles, and (somewhat surprisingly) I like chocolate with cheese, then why don’t I like chocolate with pickles? I mean, other than the painfully obvious – in point of fact, it tastes even worse than it sounds – why the apparent lack of transitivity?

As an amateur cook and a professional economist, I find the logical inconsistency of the human palate fascinating. If you ever signed up for an econ course – or, like my family, found yourself living with an economist – then one of the very first things you learned was how economists think about consumer choice, what it means to assume that people behave rationally, and the behavioral implications of that basic assumption. If you study economics for long enough, you’ll find that a few, simple, first-semester models form the bedrock for pretty much everything that follows, from the ubiquitous demand curve to sophisticated models of the macroeconomy. Grouped under the catch-all heading of “choice theory“, these models are simple, elegant, and powerful. However, just like the Brooklyn Bridge, Newtonian physics, and portfolios of residential mortgage backed securities, they tend to fracture if you tinker too much with the underlying assumptions.

Newton needed his Three Laws of Motion: Bodies at rest tend to stay at rest; for every application of force, there is an equal and opposite reaction; and of course, the simple little formula that put man on the moon, Force Equals Mass Times Acceleration. That bridges generally remain standing and astronauts usually return to earth constitutes a powerful argument in favor of Sir Isaac; less so, the big banks: To nearly everyone’s (although, importantly, not absolutely everyone’s) surprise, home prices actually could go down as well as up, the Upper West Side and Upper East Side of Manhattan, despite the fact that New Yorkers think you need a visa to travel between them, were not, in fact, two uncorrelated real estate markets separated by a big lawn, and – this being one of the Big Lessons of the past two years – if you violate these two basic assumptions, then a multi-trillion-dollar edifice will collapse on your collective heads like the crescendo of a James Cameron movie.

Economists, for their part, require “reflexivity” (if items A and good B are identical, I will be indifferent between them), “monotonicity” (if I like A, then I prefer more A to less), “completeness” (faced with a choice of what to consume, I am capable of making a decision), and – the centerpiece of today’s conundrum – “transitivity” (if I like A more than B, and B more than C, then I also like A more than C). Transitivity, at least, seems not to apply to the sensation of taste. But why? I recently read a review of The Flavor Thesaurus by Niki Segnit, who breaks down as many foods as possible into 99 distinct components (grassy; fruity; earthy; zesty…), and then considers, on a molecular level, why some of the 4,851 possible combinations thereof taste good, while some – like chocolate and pickles – make you wish, and I now know this from bitter, personal experience, that you were sucking on a day-old sock, or worse. I believe her idea is to provide a  molecular basis for food pairings and, in the process, explain the classics and encourage new and interesting things to try together, with a more scientific roadmap than my usual home-cook’s idea closet, filled as it is with ideas spun from too much wine and half-remembered meals prepared by chefs of “cutting edge” status, or some such.

I can’t say whether the intransitivity of taste will ultimately figure prominently in the theoretical foundations of classical microeconomic theory, or whether we could have avoided the mortgage meltdown simply by acknowledging that pickles and chocolate really suck when you put them in your mouth at the same time. Sociologists and psychologists (and – increasingly – behavioral economists as well) will debate the appropriateness of the “rationality” assumption, and – increasingly – it seems to me that they have the data on their side. Certainly, I’ve come across legions of irrational fools in my life, and that is only speaking from direct, personal experience; I’ve not entered so much as a footnote for broader historical record of human folly. I can say, however, that I would like to know a bit more about how our sense of taste works, and why I nearly vomited cheese, chocolate and pickles all over the butcher’s block. I’m hoping that the book is really cool and I get to do a bit more of this.

Just Three Ingredients, and the Intransitivity of Taste: Pickles, Cheese, and Chocolate

  1. Secure a few chunks of bitter chocolate (I used 85% cacao), something very dark, with no milk – dairy is a different cup of tea entirely.
  2. Choose a stinky, wash-rind cheese (I used French Raclette).
  3. Slice up a good dill pickle (I used Alexander Valley Gourmet’s Spicy Bread and Butter pickles – the sweet, hot, vinegar-y tastes made the results literally pop on your tongue).
  4. First try the two combinations with cheese (doesn’t matter which, but cleanse your palate in between). The stinky cheese and pickle is just awesome – the acidic, sugary crunch of the pickle really contrasts nicely with the musty, creamy cheese. Now try the pickle-and-chocolate. Sounds weird, but really it isn’t (even somewhat “conventional” – here is a blog that describes a whole “tasting” of cheese, chocolate, and wine at a well respected restaurant); the bitter, earthy chocolate fits nicely with barnyard impression from the cheese. Finally, steel  yourself, and take a bite of the pickle and chocolate together.
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