As Gladwell and Gopnik contemplate a link between food and politics, a food scientist suggests we embrace bitterness

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Barb Stuckey greets fans. (Dan Rosenblum)
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Malcolm Gladwell doesn't think he did too well in 2010 when he and Adam Gopnik conducted a "disastrous" lecture on modern life and culture for an audience in Naples, Fla.

"We thought we were here," he told a different audience last night at the 92nd Street Y. “We were actually in a room full of Republican elderly white men in pressed khakis.”

Gladwell sat alongside Gopnik, his colleague at The New Yorker, as he told the story.

“But It’s extremely instructive, because ever since then, whenever there’s something in America in the political life where I don’t understand--" here, he changed course. "You know the end of the Jack Nicholson movie where he says ‘forget it Jake, it’s Chinatown?’ I say 'forget it Adam, it’s Naples.'”

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The two were joined by food expert Barb Stuckey in a panel discussion about the "mechanics of food" that was one of many food evenings in an extensive series at the Y. Two of the three had recent books to riff on: Gopnik’s well-reviewed book of food essays The Table Comes First, and Stuckey’s Taste What You’re Missing about the science of appreciating food.

Stuckey's work is a little more specialized than her co-panelists: She works for Mattson, a company that consults on and develops flavors for brands like Frito-Lay, Tropicana, White Castle and Chiquita. So she is a literal taste-maker. (Gladwell once described her thusly: "She tends to think out loud, and, because she thinks quickly, she ends up talking quickly, too-in nervous brilliant bursts.")

She said part of her role was to make people aware that taste isn't the only sense we use to appreciate food. In the tasting lab, she said that eating in the dark and closing her eyes helped her to isolate the nuances of the taste; but recreating the lab experience is not, after all, what we are trying to do when we eat good food.

“We can’t let one sense dominate the others,” she said, adding that the differences can even be heard.

She said one experiment was to record and compare the sounds of pouring hot water into a teacup, then cold.

“And playing those two recordings for you, you will be able to tell the difference, which one’s hot and which one’s cold," she said. "And so, it just illustrated how much we are in tune with the sound of our food.”

Gladwell wondered about the link between enjoying fine foods and intelligence.

“Is a sophisticated palate a necessary component of a sophisticated worldview or is it a separate thing?” he said.

Stuckey said no.

“You can have a Ph.D. that’s been exposed to travel and really great food all over the world who has just a certain anatomy and genetic makeup that likes really simple food,” she said.

The conversation moved to food more as cultural guidepost and political pivot. Turning briefly to linguistics, Gladwell said native Texans tended to make their accents stronger as more non-Texans moved in. Do people, he asked, do the same with food?

“The same impulse that might make me want to join the Tea Party is the same impulse that might make me only eat tater tots,” he said.

The line got big applause.

Gopnik said from his experiences touring, he can tell a host's political leanings by what they serve for dinner. He said if there’s organic food, he practically knows how much the hosts gave to Obama the year before.

“It’s even true in Texas, where I’ve spent a lot of time,” Gopnik said. “If you were in Austin and you were given barbecue without white bread, you know you were in a small liberal enclave … . With white bread, you knew you were in authentic Texas Republican territory." 

This was how they got to that Naples story. (It should be noted that a search of the city’s top 10 featured restaurants on Yelp after the event returned listings for a Thai restaurant, two Asian-fusion restaurants, a vegan place, and a juice bar called “Food and Thought.”)

Of course, Stuckey is all about changing taste. When Gopnik wondered aloud whether the sugar-salt food culture of the U.S. could be redirected, Stuckey went on a riff about how Starbucks had, arguably, done just that.

“So that’s where you have companies that come in building businesses using bitter coffee and dark chocolates, and so that starts at the entrepreneurial level, and moves kind of to the center; and we start seeing the preferences for chocolate and for coffee moving ever so slightly to the more bitter, arguably more complex range,” Stuckey said.

But they haven't gone all the way: Starbucks customers load their coffee with whipped cream, sugar and caramel on top.

Stuckey said she often argues for adding more bitter tastes to Americans’ diets. She said only five percent of calorie intake in America comes from bitter-tasting food, and she feared the country could lose its taste for the nuances of coffee and chocolate if percentages got lower.

Stuckey recounted trying to create a “semisweet cola” with less sugar and no sweeteners.

“Our client killed it, so it never got to consumers,” she said.

Closing the night, Stuckey recalled a time when her mother went to a restaurant and wasn’t happy with her table. After she asked several times to move, the owner asked her to leave.

Stuckey said the logic behind that was because she’d already expressed her dissatisfaction and the owner was convinced her mother wouldn’t enjoy the food.

“You were starting out miserable and you could not be made happy,” Gopnik said.

“And apparently my mother’s face, that’s what she was saying and he saw it,” she said. “He said ‘leave.’”

“What restaurant was that?” Gopnik said,

“It was in Naples,” she said, laughing.