Harold McGee is a fine food scientist and writer but even he fails into lazy talk when discussing the philosophy of food.
In his article on flavor perception in the May issue of Lucky Peach he insists that “Flavor is in the Brain, Not in Foods”:
These days, neuroscientists are telling us that flavor is all in the brain. Flavor is a perception, an experience that’s constructed in the brain. Food is made up of molecules, and molecules by themselves don’t have any sensory qualities. Our experience of food is sensory: there’s taste and smell and pungency, texture and temperature. The chemical and physical materials that generate these sensations in us do not, by themselves, have any of those qualities.
So the quality of saltiness is something that is the result of sensors in our tongue telling our brain that there are sodium and chloride ions in whatever we just put in our mouth. Our brain turns that into a sensation of saltiness. Yes, chemically, the food has salt in it—but the taste and experience of salt is a construction of our brain and the sensors that feed into it.
Well, not really. Yes, there is plenty of neural processing going on to create our sensations of flavor. But food has objective qualities that our sensory mechanisms respond to. When we taste there are flavors in food that we can fail to notice. If flavor is entirely in the brain there would be nothing to be mistaken about. A jalapeno pepper is hot and spicy; its not just hot and spicy to me. Of course people may differ with regard to how sensitive they are to capcaisin, the heat-producing substance in hot peppers. But the fact remains it’s the capcaisin that causes the heat.
Flavor is a complex interaction between objects in the world, our sensory mechanisms, and our brains. Subtract any element from this equation and you won’t taste flavor.
It is puzzling why commentators are so quick to ignore the object when discussing flavor. We seem to reflexively reject any intimation that there may be something in a plate of food or wine that we are not fully appreciating; that our tastes can be mistaken.
Does it matter that influential writers like McGee consider taste a purely subjective affair? I think it does. If we cannot be be mistaken about what we taste, if the pleasure we get from food or beverages is just something each of us manufactures in our private sensorium, then there are no critical standards for what is good. And without critical standards our burgeoning culture of food and beverages will wither and fail to advance. No doubt taste is in part subjective, but the “in part” is important.