Meeting Ottolenghi and the Case for Cauliflower

It actually happened.  I met one of my heroes last week.  Thursday, April 25 to be exact.  It didn’t unfold as I had scripted it in my mind, casually bumping into him at our neighbourhood green grocer while evaluating some broccoli rabe or reaching for a packet of sumac.  Instead, I met Yotam Ottolenghi at a book signing after hearing him speak as part of a panel at the British Library on the topic “Taste: How Does it Work?”

Though I didn’t think ahead to bring one of my many marked up cookbooks for him to sign, I waited in line with a post-it note.  He was as generous and engaging as I imagined he would be, seemingly delighted to hear my story about feeding three hungry boys (he having two boys himself) who now refer to “Ottolenghi” as either a verb or food group category.   We then talked about being neighbours — I told him what street I lived on and he told me which street he lived on, though it was a detail I already knew.  We all have a little stalker in us.

And while it was fun to meet a celebrity chef who has single handedly up’ed my cooking game, I’ve actually been thinking more about the topic of the talk that night — taste and why it matters — more than I have been daydreaming about my famous neighbour bumping into me, remembering my name and our delightful conversation and then casually extending a dinner invite.   My brain has been tied up and my kitchen in varying states of experimentation to get too far into my Yotam Delusion.

It’s a given we need food for survival.  It’s also well understood that we need certain kinds of foods to deliver nutritional value.  Receptors in our mouth help check for poison and pause for kimchi.  But taste and flavor is that elusive thing we don’t have a great vocabulary for and yet are also wired to need.  The wired bit has to do with the fact that many of our 26,000 genes are geared towards our senses.  Taste then is that deeply personal experience in our nose and mouth (and to a lesser degree our stomach) that makes us either want or reject a second bite.

Perhaps most interestingly, taste isn’t something that’s static. Though we each start in different places (and different parts of the world with different food options), it is up to us to develop.  We can moderate our tastes like a dimmer switch through exposure.  Receptors drop off if we don’t use them.  It’s why you can hate mushrooms as a kid and learn to like them as an adult. 

It was a stimulating conversation, but it’s been swirling around in my head because it’s interlocked with this equally mysterious verse from the Bible: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”  I’m not talking in a literal communion wafers and grape juice kind of way (because that would be tragic), but in a metaphorical kind of way.

We were taught the four basic food groups to deliver nutritional value in the same way that faith has been reduced to a basic moral framework.  We count our good deeds like calories.  But faith, like food, is only absorbed when you let it pass from lips to your gut.   And like taste, which is so specific because it’s tied to our individual memory centers, we don’t have a lot of useful language to explain the phenomena of faith.  We just know it’s the thing that moves us to want or reject a second bite.

It makes me think of the many people I know who had an early bite of religion and thought it was not very good.   But if taste is truly dynamic, is it possible that what we put in our mouth or heart one or two times isn’t the final word?  If converts have been made out of the Case for Cauliflower then isn’t the Case for Christ worth a few more tries?  In the same way it’s not useful to label a child a “picky eater” when eating is one of the few things you have true agency over as a child, it also seems hasty to accept an early decision you made on something as delicious as avocados because you weren’t into “anything green” back then.

One of the other interesting things that Yotam and the taste panel talked about was the danger of the movement towards homogeneity. It’s not only the sweetening of the global palette through packaged products that condition people to crave more sweetness and softness that is alarming, or the many known diet related diseases, but it’s the movement towards the “flattening out” of taste that poses the greatest threat.  It’s a threat because one size does not fill all and because our gut requires variety.  Sounds a lot like the danger happening in many churches. 

Anyone who cooks knows that sometimes it’s a labor of love.  But when you watch someone’s reaction to something you’ve made — and you know it’s good — and then you see their eyes roll back and they make that “mmmmm” sound,  there is pleasure going both ways.  Maybe it’s a little like that verse that keeps urging us to try new things: “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”