Photograph by Larry Hoffman
Read Caption
A plate of caribbean jerk buffalo wings served at a restaurant in Siesta Key, Florida.
Photograph by Larry Hoffman

Is American Cuisine Destroying Palates?

On Thursday night I judged the Smithsonian National Zoo’s annual cooking competition with the secret ingredients, which the chefs were required to incorporate into their dishes, pulled directly from the zoo animals’ diets.

We had four top toques using beast favorites like nori sheets and apple juice competing to prepare the best American cuisine. Which started a discussion among the judges  of the 238-year-old question: What is American cuisine anyway?

In the past few decades a U.S. gastronomic explosion led in part by food TV has the culinary cognoscenti in a dither to define a national food character that includes barbeque, lobster rolls, foraged locavore salads, and molecular gastronomy. American food is above all democratic—we accept all flavors, and are a big-tent mixture of highs and lows with sharp, vivid, distinctive tastes.  We love our acids and spices; sweet and heat are our yin and yang.

America: Land of the Free, Home of Bold Flavors

In 2014, freedom and boldness define American cooking. Just as our political character grew more distinct and individual as we matured beyond an upstart new nation, the U.S. has in the past few decades ripened to embrace a national culinary character and become a respected worldwide player. As with politics, the trick to not overdoing it is keeping a steady hand on camaraderie and daring tempered by a sense of what will move the whole cause forward, the entire clanging and ragtag band of talented people.

There’s been some hand-wringing among the cognoscenti that America’s tendency toward big flavors may be a suicide mission of shock-and-awe. Some are concerned that because of our developing character as a nation of big flavors, our individual palates may no longer appreciate the subtleties of, for example, French food, with its delicate balances and harmonies. (This is also reflective of our reflexive group cringe these days at the word “big” in front of anything: big data, big agriculture, big flavor. It’s like using “–gate” as a suffix and suddenly the scandal is much worse.)

French Food vs. American Food

Whenever a debate boils over about whether French or American is better, I go as scientific and information-based as possible. Dr. Marcia Pelchat is an associate member of the Monell Center in Philadelphia, the world’s only independent organization dedicated only to taste and smell. Pelchat notes that studies with salt show that reducing the amount of salty-tasting foods for 30 days results in the palate perceiving foods as saltier. Sort of a palate reset for salt.

Although no analogous 30-day studies are available on hot-spiced food, the idea of a palate reset is more likely than the shock-and-awe theory that American food ruins palates. A hot-spices eater who takes a 20-minute break from eating will experience desensitization to hot spices when he picks up the fork again. This, at first, supports the dreaded palate adaptation to big flavors, because the same food 20 minutes later will taste less hot and spicy. But that effect usually wears off in a few hours, a day at most, and the palate is back to its baseline tolerance for spice. The palate appears to reset itself again and again.

Tongue Perceives Sodas as “Spicy”

Those who are determined to fret over the ruination of the American palate might refocus to carbonated beverages. The burning and tingling feeling that is generally thought of as coming from breaking bubbles actually results from carbon dioxide stimulating the same receptors as cinnamon, horseradish, and mustard do. The body therefore perceives any carbonated beverage as spicy and the eater who drinks lots of carbonated beverages becomes reliant on food as it tastes specifically with a carbonated beverage. But Pelchat says, “I don’t think that you can ruin your palate. This sounds like moralistic thinking that people in this country used to apply to sex: If you enjoy yourself, you’ll ruin yourself.”

So as American chefs define and refine our national culinary character, embracing the country’s brash beginnings while rejecting our artificially virtuous history is a tricky balance. But they needn’t worry about our palates being caught in the crossfire. After all, one of the greatest qualities of democracy is that we can tend to some things ourselves.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month Future of Food series.