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Delicious: The Evolution of Flavor and How It Made Us Human

A savory account of how the pursuit of delicious foods shaped human evolution.

"A love of complex smells and flavours gave our ancestors an edge and stopped hangovers." —Donna Ferguson, "How early humans' quest for food stoked the flames of evolution"

"Homo Sapiens, the name of our species, is often said to mean "knowing" (sapiens) "human" (Homo). But sapiens originates in a verb meaning "to taste" and later "to have discernment." One might then also read the name of our species as the human (Homo) who discerns through taste (sapiens) or flavor." —Delicious (p. 213)

I recently read a "couldn't-put-it-down" book by Dr. Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez called Delicious: The Evolution of Flavor and How It Made Us Human and I'm pleased to offer an interview with them about their engrossing and novel work.1,2 I learned a lot about the ways in which human preferences for delicious food evolved and the information about taste in nonhuman animals (animals)—along with other species’ pleasures—was eye-opening. Rob and Monica also write about the importance of mouthfeel (the sensation of touch inside the mouth, p. 15) and offer intriguing speculations about the psychology behind our choices of certain foods such as chili peppers (for example, Paul Rozin's idea of "benign masochism", p. 150) and the subconscious learning about spices that occurs in human noses and brains (p. 153).

Here's what they had to say about their "savory account of how the pursuit of delicious foods shaped human evolution" in their most fascinating and fact-filled book.

Why did you write Delicious?

Monica: We started off writing about food and flavor and their intersection with culture and biology and as we did, we had a chance to talk to more and more people about food. It became clear that lots of chefs, cheesemakers, primatologists and so on thought, personally, that food and flavor were central to the human story. Yet, they were rarely accorded a central place in the big human story. So we wanted to write the book that would do that. That is the big picture answer.

Princeton University Press, with permission.
Source: Princeton University Press, with permission.

Rob: We also like food and the chance to travel, talk to people and write together and this was a great opportunity to do so.

How does your book relate to your backgrounds and general areas of interest?

Rob: I study the ecology and evolution of daily life. And for years I’ve studied life in homes. In doing this, I kind of danced around food. We studied sourdough bread in my lab. Beer. Some kombucha. They were always side projects and then, in part because those were always the most interesting, these side projects began to take over.

But my perspective on food is that of an ecologist. I think about the general rules that species obey in dealing with their worlds. So the book fits snugly in that context. Though as an ecologist, we could have also written the book from the perspective of deliciousness and dogs. Or deliciousness and cats or squirrels. Ants. Or a sea slug. There is a version of this book that could be written for every animal species.

Monica: I’m a cultural anthropologist by training. I think about people. I’m probably the reason that this book is told from a human perspective and say, not, a sea slug. A lot of the work I have done has been about how culture influences health, wellness and medicine. And so, in the context of this book, I was redirecting that lens to think about culture and food.

Who is your intended audience?

Rob: I think one audience is just people who like food. People who eat with pleasure and want to think about the history and context of that pleasure. I also always think about students. I hope students read the book and find big gaps in our understanding and want to fill them with new insights. Or even students who think one of our arguments is wrong and want to prove it wrong. Oh, and then, of course (he says while pandering), psychologists.

What are some of the topics that are woven into your book and what are some of your major messages?

Monica: One thread is looking backwards and considering how, at a number of key points in our evolutionary past, the quest for deliciousness may have played a deciding role—with the invention of tools, for instance, the controlled use of fire, or the advent of fermentation. We also treat the use of spices in this same vein.

Rob: Another thread is about the consequences of our quest for deliciousness. We consider whether the species humans extinguished first tended to be the most delicious ones. We consider the relationship between the flavors of some of our foods and the taste preferences of other species.

Monica: Throughout the book, we consider the ways in which certain unusual features of the human flavor systems make humans use flavor in slightly different ways than other species. To do this, we provide some background throughout the book on how taste works, how aroma works, and so on.

Rob: I think one thread of the book that might be particularly relevant to your readers relates to hardship and flavor. We consider the argument late in the book that in times in which flavors are lacking in diets that people might have been (and be) particularly likely to be creative in how they engender flavors. We consider this in the context of Benedictine monks and the extraordinarily flavorful (and also stinky) cheeses that they preserved and engendered.

How does your book differ from others that are concerned with some of the same general topics?

Rob: Our perspective is really that flavor is not just interesting but instead central. Flavor tends to get treated as a bit frivolous. But many of the most important decisions we make ultimately are about what to eat and those decisions are framed in light of our perception which is a function of taste receptors, olfactory receptors, and mouthfeel. We take flavor seriously. We don’t take ourselves too seriously here. We don’t think we’ve answered any of the questions we’ve raised in a resounding way, but we take flavor seriously and I think doing so in a way that spans disciplines is somewhat novel.

Monica: It was fun to be able to hear people in many different fields talk about how important flavor was in their field, but then realize that that hadn’t been written about very much.

What are some of your current projects?

Monica: Right now I’m still thinking about the material from this book a lot. There are many more stories we didn’t tell than stories we told.

Rob: Yeasts. I think I’ve discovered a mystery (and its resolution) about the history of yeasts. At least that is the thing for today.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

Rob: I think maybe that one result of this book for us is that as we look around at nature that we see other species eating and, invariably, wonder what it is they are experiencing with regard to flavor. When the crow drops a mussel on the concrete and then plucks it out, does it enjoy the mussel’s slippery mouthfeel?

Monica: That is a good one. I think there is a whole world of pondering other species’ pleasures.



1) Rob Dunn is professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University and in the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics at the University of Copenhagen. His books include Never Home Alone. Twitter @RRobDunn; Monica Sanchez is a medical anthropologist who studies the cultural aspects of health and well-being.

2 The book's description reads: Nature, it has been said, invites us to eat by appetite and rewards by flavor. But what exactly are flavors? Why are some so pleasing while others are not? Delicious is a supremely entertaining foray into the heart of such questions. With generous helpings of warmth and wit, Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez offer bold new perspectives on why food is enjoyable and how the pursuit of delicious flavors has guided the course of human history. They consider the role that flavor may have played in the invention of the first tools, the extinction of giant mammals, the evolution of the world’s most delicious and fatty fruits, the creation of beer, and our own sociality. Along the way, you will learn about the taste receptors you didn’t even know you had, the best way to ferment a mastodon, the relationship between Paleolithic art and cheese, and much more. Blending irresistible storytelling with the latest science, Delicious is a deep history of flavor that will transform the way you think about human evolution and the gustatory pleasures of the foods we eat. Praise for Delicious can be seen here.

Bekoff, Marc. 'Red Gold': The High Price Tuna Pay for Being Tasty.