Exercising the Mental Mouth

26 Jan 2012, Posted by Jennifer Iannolo in food, sensuality

I’ve just received the first set of menu ideas for my first Sex on a Plate™ event, which will be part of a documentary called “Eat, Cook, Love” in which I’ll be featured as a food expert. The subject matter is the art of lost indulgence, so I think I’ve got this.

As I review the flavor profiles, my mental mouth is hard at work to determine what I think will work, and what I might like to tweak. So I thought this was a good time to talk more in depth about this phrase to which I’m constantly referring.

When I talk about the “mental mouth,” I mean your little inner chef, who goes to work when you are hungry, or are planning a meal. He’s the one who calls to you when you’re craving something like honey-roasted figs stuffed with whipped blue cheese and pine nuts, or who takes stock of your fridge’s ingredients and says, “We’re having a Gruyere omelette with sauteed onions, a side salad with honey Dijon vinaigrette and grilled bread.”

He’s also the one who craves things at the most inconvenient times, like homemade Chinese dumplings at 2 AM. (Incidentally, my brother Phil, whose palate blows mine away, will get up and indulge that craving. His dumplings are some of the best I’ve ever tasted.)

That little inner chef is the keeper of food memories. The storer of flavor profiles.  The master of indulgences. And the more you exercise him — by tasting, exploring, sniffing, touching — the more skilled he becomes. After many years of training, I can now confidently open any fridge and plan a meal (except for Chef Mark’s, which has little to work with but bottles of foreign ingredients I can’t decipher). For example, if I see eggs, flour, cream and some vegetables, it’s time for pasta primavera accented with whatever herbs and spices I have to work with.

Sometimes the mental mouth can fool us. It can say “Yes! Try the abc with the xyz!” — and it’s a disaster. Sometimes it’s a win — think dark chocolate-dipped bacon.

The mental mouth is what has led us to evolve as a cooking and eating species. It has created the winning flavor combinations of lime, cilantro, chile and beef, or pasta, Pecorino Romano cheese, butter and truffle shavings. Someone had to take a risk — and we get to benefit. The more you taste, the more data you store in that inner chef’s recipe files, so when you stumble upon the perfect tomato he goes to work. Do you want to eat that juicy ruby with citrusy cilantro or spicy basil? With red onions or sweet white ones? Alone or with some bread?

As you develop his repertoire, you can then look at a dish named Beef medallion with celery root puree, confit garlic foam and spiced port reduction and give it a “Hell, yes.” Right now my inner chef is dancing in the combination of the delicate celery root and sweet garlic foam, knowing a little punch will come from the spicy reduction, all blending together perfectly with the richness of the beef. I can taste it in my head.

So if you want to develop your own little inner chef, start paying closer attention when you eat. See how the flavors play on your tongue, and your palate. Take note of what specifically you like about the flavor or texture. Do avocados make your tongue sing with their delicate, silky texture? Do you like the way noodles feel as they slide down your throat? Does the smell of fresh oregano make you swoon? The world is your laboratory. Go play.

And yes, I’m serving that beef dish at the event.

Photo: Kelly Cline

  • Curious – when it comes to taste profiling, do you go by just direct experiences, or do you use any of the lab stuff?

    For example, in graphic design, we have the color wheel and all of its variations. We have very clearly defined complementary, opposing, and contrasting colors, pre-defined palettes of known combinations, etc. to help “jumpstart” our abilities as designers.

    Given how many tastes there are – bitter, sweet, sour, salty, hearty (umami), spicy, etc. – do you ever look to or reference similar concepts for cooking?

  • That’s a great question, Chris. I use a combination of the two. For example, there are scientifically ideal pairings (a red wine high in tannins matches well with a high-fat cheese because it softens the wine on the palate). What’s great about this, particularly when it comes to pairing wines with food, is that you can choose to complement or contrast the flavors. If you were going for a complementary pairing, you could serve a green apple dessert with a wine known for a distinct green apple flavor. The whole study of such things is fascinating, and this may lead to some interesting blog posts.

    There are two great books from Andrew Dornenberg and Karen Page: What to Drink with What You Eat, and The Flavor Bible.

  • I’ll have to go hunt those down. We need a food wheel :-)

    Also, one other recommendation that I thought was rather interesting – a deficiency in zinc in your diet can negatively affect taste perception (presumably because the body needs to override sensitivity to taste when it’s really hungry/mineral deficient and will eat damn near anything). Thus, if you’re at risk for any kind of zinc or mineral deficiency, a day before a tasting of any kind, take a full dose of a good quality multivitamin to satisfy any mineral needs and you’ll get a more accurate reading.

  • We do need a food wheel. :) Thanks for the vitamin info — I was not aware of that. I always learn something from you.

    Here are links to the books (our affiliate links, of course):

    What to Drink with What You Eat: The Definitive Guide to Pairing Food with Wine, Beer, Spirits, Coffee, Tea – Even Water

    The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America’s Most Imaginative Chefs

  • Thanks for the links :-)

    Here’s two other tips!

    1. Take vitamins before bed. Your body does most of its repairs and healing during sleep, so having the tools needed to do that makes the most sense.

    2. If you use Greasemonkey and Firefox to browse, use this extension:

    and it will override any page you’re on with your own Amazon codes so that you don’t forget to pay yourself when you’re randomly browsing.

  • Nice! Thanks!

  • My mental mouth is a bit of an odd duck. He only understands cryptic language.
    Use case: I’m hungry, but I don’t know what for
    Question 1: Round or Square?
    Answer: Round
    Q2: Hot or cold?
    A: Hot
    Q3: Hard or soft?
    A: Soft
    So, to summarize, you want something: Hot, Soft and Round (innuendo aside thank you sassy lady) I’m going to guess FRESH soft pretzel or piroshki.

    Yeah, my mental mouth never uses “food” analogies (so, no salty or sweet, chicken or beef) and also picks different questions based on my mood. Try it yourself next time you can’t figure out what you want. You’ll be amaaaaaazed! (or…you know…I’m nuts…either way.)

  • Well, you are nuts, but aside from that, I sometimes want “fresh” or “citrus” without a specific food, so I have to explore a little further. But your odd duck still gets you what you want. :)