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Glasgow Science Festival Event ‘The Perfect Meal’

In space, no-one can hear you eat ice cream

As with most things in life, it seems food is all about managing expectations. That was the take home message from Professor Charles Spence’s lecture on ‘The Perfect Meal’, drawing from cutting edge research from the world of gastrophysics. Put simply, stop reading Yelp! reviews before you hit a new restaurant. Just go.

And when you do, spare a thought for poor astronauts – they really miss proper food out there.
This opened up the lecture when discussing the hundred-year plus premonition that the future of food inevitably involves ‘food pills’. Here we are in 2015, with no sign of it.

More importantly, as discussed, it isn’t likely to happen at all. Why? Well let’s just say that food isn’t just about food. In fact, it has very little to do with the food itself.
Much of the lecture focused on how our senses play a critical role in how we perceive food, with most of the research discussed involving sound. Professor Spence arguing, quoting the works of others, that eating is the only thing humans do that involves all of our senses.

It was no surprise to see that technology plays an increasingly more central role in crafting dining experiences. And I don’t mean taking photos of your dinner to post on Facebook. It never occurred to me to eat my dinner off of a tablet device, but it’s a wild wild west out there in the world of Heston Blumenthal and co. Anything goes.

Considerably less techy, there are even restaurants where you aren’t allowed to speak. The concept is simple – to really focus on the food.

Discussing restaurants all over the world (but not Glasgow), Professor Spence highlighted some of the wacky ways in which innovative chefs are now blowing people’s minds and wallets. Perhaps when some of the more successful ways become more affordable, we can all enjoy them.

Notably here, Professor Spence speculates that cultures with a more concrete ‘food identity’ (such as France) are more hesitant about reinventing the wheel with crazy food experiments. Countries such as UK however, more cosmopolitan in nature, are more likely to give it a go.

The lecture was also interesting in its own right by charting the challenges facing researchers to measure such a thing as ‘the perfect meal’, as well as highlighting some of the fascinating ways in which we humans are prone to being, well, not so smart. Heavy cutlery, for instance, is perceived to cost more and so patrons are willing to pay more for food accompanied with weighty utensils. The same goes for food arranged in particular ways, even with equivalent volumes of food. In other words, the content was extremely wide-reaching.

Ending on how emerging crowdsourcing practices are revolutionising how chefs gather feedback to help inform their dishes, it became apparent that the lecture missed something obvious: audience participation. The lengthy discussion after the lecture went some way in making up for this and uncoincidentally the most interesting content emerged here. It seems, for instance, that you might enjoy your food more when you’re out with friends if you order your meal first. Oh, and if you are out with lots of friends, you will probably eat more than usual.

All of this of repositions food in a social context – we don’t eat just to survive.

Published on: June 8, 2015

Filled Under: Features, Social Sciences

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