Chewscape in a food experience

This is an account of an unusually pleasant food experience I had about 48 hours ago.

I’m documenting it, partly as a way to remember, partly as writing practice because I’m curious about language’s ability to capture subjective experience, partly as an exercise in noticing and naming, partly because I’m curious about professional kitchens and how they use food as a canvas, partly because I’m idly fantasizing about writing a short story with a food-based magic system, and I think this experience can help me understand some qualities that make a meal feel good.

Let me set the table.

There were three main parts to the meal: a chicken caesar salad, french fries, and a spicy diavola pepperoni pizza. To provide more spatial / embodied context: this was my first meal of the day at about 7 pm, eaten in my apartment, right out of the take-out boxes in which the food was delivered.

The chicken salad was a system of multiple ingredients. First, a bed of greens, topped with grilled chicken slices, topped with croutons. Then three small containers, two filled with ranch dressing, and the last one with shredded cheese.

There was something meditative about the simple ritual of pouring the ranch in a thin cream stream over the salad, once, twice, and then shaking out the shredded cheese, taking care to distribute it evenly over the salad. It felt like “completing” the preparation of the meal.

Then I speared through a healthy chunk of chicken, through to the bed of greens, scooped up a crouton on the fork’s upswing into my mouth, and bit down.

I was not expecting the quality of sound. It’s not at all unusual to hear sounds when eating, of course, and I fully understand how this might read a little melodramatic, but hand over my heart, there was a bright, clear crunch as I bit down into the greens, loud enough to make me pause chewing. When I chewed again, there was a sharper crunch as I bit down on the crouton, and then the soft murmur of grilled chicken.

This is the thing I’ll remember most about this meal, I think; the palette of different types of crunches, reverberating against my molars in a way that I can only describe as musical. It added a strong auditory dimension to the meal in a very pleasant way.

I’m used to thinking of flavour as the primary driver of what makes a meal good, but here was an education in how it was possible to let satisfying crunches and sound lead the composition.

Add in the tanginess of the vinaigrette glancing off the very slightly bitter greens, the salt halo around the chicken, and the milky, modulating influence of the ranch and cheese, the entire ensemble of flavour and vibration came alive in the drum of my mouth.

The french fries added at least three new dimensions to the experience.

First, they added yet more species of crunch. These fries were very well salted, so there was the chatty rumble from breaking into potato skin, as well as the bright cymbals from crunching the salt crystals.

Second, they added an olfactory component. Biting into each salty fry stick sprayed a mist of salty, fragrant oils into the back of my throat. Through some trick of biology (or possibly the short distance between mouth and nose), my sense of smell became an active player in the experience.

Finally, the fries added a heat component into the ensemble, changing the experience. Each freshly hot fry stick raised the temperature in my mouth. It was as if by introducing this heat source, in the same cabin as the vinaigrette oils and french fry oils, the entire mouthful began to further cook, adding a different flavour note.

Then, the spicy diavola pepperoni pizza. The pizza acted as a kind of denouement, smoothing out the otherwise loud composition of bright crunches. After teasing with the greens, fries, and croutons, the pizza dough gave my molars something nicely chewy to work on, like when a cat kneads a blanket.

I only had cold water to drink during the meal, and it heightened the experience. Rather than a fizzy sugar blast overwhelming all the flavours, each cold sip refreshed my palette, allowing me to appreciate each bite anew.

I bought this meal from the East Legon location of Pinnochio & La Piazza (Google Maps). If you’re in Accra (Ghana), you should check them out. This is not a sponsored post, the owners of the restaurant do not know that I’m writing this, and as far as I can tell, I have no affiliation with the people who own the business.

To recap why this meal felt so good:

First, there was the pleasant ritual in how the meal began with pouring out the ranch and cheese. It was a very small act, but it felt like I had contributed something to the experience. Is this part of why sushi feels good? Does the ritual of engaging wasabi, pickled ginger, and soy sauce add something to the enjoyment of the meal? What are some other ways foods can be elevated by inventing rituals around “completing the cooking” or “opening the consumption experience”?

Next, the meal engaged several senses, simultaneously - not only taste, but smell, haptic feedback, and temperature. I’m so curious: to what extent do professional cooks aim to tune multiple senses? Will they throw in an ingredient which will have negligible influence on taste, but will add something to the aroma? I’m so curious about this.

Heat also played a surprising role in this experience. That illusion of the meal continuing to cook inside my mouth was a powerful one.

Denouement was an important dimension of the experience. But why? I don’t know, but I can say that having something calming to “taper” the end of the meal felt gracious. Even polite?

Lastly, time played an interesting ingredient in the experience. The croutons got more soggy over the course of the meal, which was nice, because while the crunchiness was thrilling in the beginning, it would have gotten old worrying at them throughout. It was also critical to eat everything immediately it arrived - you could not reheat this, hours later, and have the same experience.

This question of time made me consider: is there a notation for food experience?

I haven’t looked it up yet. Here is my first pass at a notation for documenting the first few minutes of this food experience.

Chewscape for dinner

This is highly imperfect, of course. The scope of the notation covers chewscape only. Height represents loudness, spikiness represents hardness, and sparks represents brightness.

I wonder what a more evolved abcedary for food experience would look like. How would you indicate temperature over time (maybe a colour gradient)? How would you indicate saltiness, spiciness, sweetness? How would you put everything together into a single page, which someone else could “read” to come close to understanding your experience of food?