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The Manhattan experiment: How one drink, served blindfolded, can change the way you taste

Bethany Jean Clement, The Seattle Times on

Published in Variety Menu

SEATTLE -- I am sitting blindfolded at Becky Selengut's kitchen table. I hold out my hands, which feel amorphous and worthless without my eyes to guide them -- they wait, suspended in space, for vessels of various shapes, full of things for me to taste. My ears, on the other hand, seem sharpened, the smallest sound ringing through the molecules of the air -- I'm listening for clues, trying to figure out what Selengut is doing so I can get the right answers. It sounds like she's making extra noise to mess with me, clanking stuff around, and I wouldn't put this past her, I tell her. She laughs and denies it.

I don't want to spoil the experiments in Selengut's new book, "How to Taste," for they are fascinating, fun and sometimes super-surprising, as is the book itself. Of course, there aren't "right" answers when it comes to taste, but for a food writer, a series of blindfolded tests can't help but feel consequential.

Selengut was a chef at The Herbfarm during its days with the renowned Jerry Traunfeld in charge (he wrote the foreword for the book); she's a professional cooking instructor (at PCC and the Pantry); she's also the author of the books "Good Fish" and "Shroom." But, like "How to Taste," she's anti-intimidating, encouraging and funny. My sightless taste-test adjectives, no matter now tentative ("Grapefruity?"), are met with what sounds a lot like joy. "Taste it again!" she'll exclaim.

It's not giving too much away to say that one of the "How to Taste" experiments should be conducted, if possible, with the kind of classic stemware that martinis come in, and that drinking from that shape of cocktail glass with a blindfold on feels precarious and hilarious. Selengut laughs, approvingly, at my description of one sip as "like your great-uncle would drink in his leather chair, old-school, gasoliney." My nose, deprived of my eyes, feels extra-alive; my mouth is suffused with a not-unpleasant burning. I'm winning at the Manhattan experiment!

"I can already tell you're an average taster," Selengut says. Yessssss!

"Supertaster" sounds like a superhero, and it is real, but you really don't want to be one. Selengut knows from personal experience -- her wife, April, is a supertaster, and Selengut calls it "a terrible thing." Supertasters -- sometimes, and more rightfully, called sensitive tasters -- are so attuned in that sphere, Selengut explains, that they get overwhelmed, horribly so. (In her kitchen, she describes her wife as "a picky (expletive)!") Supertaster powers are great for wine experts -- and April is a sommelier -- but give her a piece of mango, "How to Taste" details, and "she nearly gags: 'This tastes like GRAVE DIRT.'" Selengut took a series of sommelier classes with her early on, so as not to be left behind, and says now, "That just ruined me! I used to drink cheap wine happily!" She's an average taster, too.

Average, in this case, is what we all want to be. Tolerant tasters, with the lowest density of taste buds, are dealing with a blunt instrument, tongue-wise. (She confides that she thinks it's tolerant tasters making all the IPAs these days. That over-the-top hoppiness seems great to them! "How to Taste" contains a neat trick for those of us who cringe when we're handed one at a party.) But, Selengut writes, "Everyone can learn how to taste more astutely and, in so doing, learn how to make their food taste better."

Selengut's book about how to do that is a delightful, full-on geek-out: six chapters on the basic tastes (salt, acid, sweet, fat, umami, bitter); followed by three on aromatics, bite and texture; then important material on stuff like booze and "The Total Dish." It's all divided into digestible sections, including the aforementioned at-home taste experiments, "Fun Facts," lists like "Top 5 Signs a Cookbook Isn't Worth Your Cash," sidebars like "My Dad Sucks Lemons," recipes that demonstrate various principles, charts and more. If you're a food dork like Selengut, you'll be thrilled to see that there are numbered footnotes throughout, guiding you to resources from the blog Serious Eats to the journal "Frontiers in Psychology."

The book, Selengut confesses, started out half again as long. Cutting it down "totally hurt," but she knows that soon she'll be able to really, truly appreciate the editing. (You'll appreciate it now -- the book's compact, the pacing perfect.) She shows me the shelves of books she read so we don't have to: "Neurogastronomy," "The Dorito Effect," "The Physiology of Taste." "I'm so nerdy inside!" she says. "And maybe not even just inside!"

"How to Taste" arose, in part, from Selengut's allergy to garlic -- for a professional chef, an extremely problematic deficit. How could she make her food taste good, while, crucially, still being able to taste it? In a section of the book called "My Culinary Nightmare," she discusses her process of reverse-engineering a garlic substitute. "That started getting me thinking about food in a whole different way," she says. "Like what is it that chefs think about when they're trying to balance a recipe? How do you know how to tweak and find that little element that's missing?" The results of that change in perspective are all here.

Selengut's cooking-class students also demanded the book. They'd watch her taste something and know exactly what it needed -- but how? "It's really unsatisfying, as a teacher, to be like, 'Well ... spend 20 years in the business!'" she says. "How to Taste" is a sort of shortcut, so you don't have to go work in a restaurant to learn to be truly comfortable with cooking, she says. It's a book that can fast-forward you through years of trial and error, of abject misunderstanding.

In the end, Selengut tells me that I did great with the taste experiments. I also got to drink a Manhattan. And, as I tell her, learning from "How to Taste" that she once made chicken soup as watery and sad as I did that one time is deeply reassuring. If only I'd had her book!

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