April 15, 2013

the spicemaster & the neuroscientist

The Rubin Museum of Art
the evening's program
the theater
Spicemaster on the left, Neuroscientist on the right
the first spice we tasted was urfa pepper from Turkey 
the second was one of his custom blends containing mystery ingredients

What drew me to the Rubin Museum of Art last Wednesday night was one of those "only in New York" kind of events—Lior Lev Sercarz, a local spicemaster (perhaps you read the profile of Lior in the Times magazine last weekend?) and Donald A. Wilson, a neuroscientist specializing in the sense of smell, came together for a conversation about smell, memory and taste. The talk was part of the Museum's Brainwave series, which I found out about just in the nick of time to score tickets.

The two men (who looked almost like mirrored images of one another, with their shoulder-length gray/white hair) had never met before that night, and their curiosity of one another's work was palpable throughout their conversation. They joked about how smell is one of those senses that you do "whether you want to or not" and Dr. Wilson  introduced us to the concept of retronasal olfaction— how humans are really skilled at smelling when we are exhaling. "The tongue is telling you things," said Dr. Wilson.

Lior, who has over 41 different blends for sale in La Boite, his small shop in Hell's Kitchen, said that he sees spices as a "tool to another plane of understanding." Soft-spoken but with a slightly missionary zeal about him, Lior spoke very poetically about smell and memory, and how smell is "very robust in evoking something, it's hard to remain indifferent to it."

Apparently, one of his specialties is creating the  illusion of meat through his special spice blends. He told us the story of a man who had to give up meat for health reasons (are you thinking what I'm thinking?) and came to Lior's shop desperate to recreate the taste. So Lior developed a custom spice blend for him that the customer now uses every night, transforming a plate of tomatoes into what tastes like steak to him.

Dr. Wilson spoke a bit on the idea of smell and memory, saying that "smells are learned through experience, for the most part. Reactions to odors are dependent on your early life experiences." Apparently, cultural preferences for food can be transmitted through a mother's milk and the amniotic fluid.

One of his other fun facts was that until the 1980s, the dominant thinking in science was that there were seven primary odors. He didn't elaborate, but a quick scan of the "odor" page on Wikipedia turned up the list:

  1. Musky (perfumes)
  2. Putrid (rotten eggs)
  3. Pungent (vinegar)
  4. Camphoraceous (mothballs)
  5. Ethereal (cleaning fluid)
  6. Floral (roses)
  7. Pepperminty (mint gum)

So glad we have evolved from those initial seven. Now we have the Spicemaster to lead us into "another plane of understanding." 

To read more about the Spicemaster, check out this article on his shop:

And also this article originally from Food+Wine magazine:

Donald Wilson's book about smell is called "Learning to Smell: Olfactory Perception from Neurobiology to Behavior"

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