Recently I watched a television programme about Auguste Escoffier, the French chef who changed eating into dining, making the food of the rich not only opulent but delicious.
The programme reminded me that Escoffier was one of the innovative artists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries considered in Jonah Lehrer’s book Proust was a Neuroscientist. It is surprising to find a cook alongside such practitioners of the high arts as Cezanne, Stravinsky and Virginia Woolf. The book argues that avant-garde artists of that period anticipated the findings of twenty-first century neuroscience, and Lehrer describes how Escoffier elevated eating into an art form by exploring the sense of taste. He invented haute cuisine.It is a salutary tale of the practitioner of an art who triumphed by ignoring the “science” of the time. Instead he followed the knowledge gained from his own sensory experience. Since classical times scientists “knew” that the tongue could detect only four kinds of taste – sour, sweet, salty and bitter. Anything else, the scientists claimed, was the product of the imagination. Escoffier’s taste buds told him a different story – there was a fifth kind of taste, which made food delicious, indeed irresistible, something that human beings crave. While Escoffier was refining his culinary art in the West, a Japanese chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, was also pursuing a fifth kind of taste, but by scientific analysis. This he called umami. He found it by isolating glutamic acid. No-one took any notice of his discovery.
We now know that both Escoffier’s cuisine and the very different Japanese cuisine both seek to bring out this chemical in order to make food delicious, something which has the potential to turn a physical necessity into an art form. Only in the year 2000, however, did scientists catch up with Ikeda and Escoffier, when they discovered the receptors on the tongue which recognize this chemical. The people who believed the evidence of their senses, rather than the received wisdom of the “experts” were vindicated.
Is there a lesson for the theory and practice of education here?