Talking Palate Bandwidth with Adam Savage

Shootin' the shit, like you do.

July 8, 2015 ● 5 min read

The food world is such a fantastically subjective and nebulous place, built upon things we can’t always see or touch. Flavor is associated with tangible things, but once it hits your tongue, you’re dealing with a whole host of separate players—memory, sensitivity, inherent likes and dislikes.

When we found ourselves wondering whether training your palate was legit, or how you could measure a person’s capacity for taste, we figured we may as well turn to someone who has made a career out of an insatiable curiosity for how things work: our neighbor, Mythbusters’ Adam Savage. This is a guy who bought three Searzalls for Christmas, is smart enough to choose the egg as his desert island food, and would probably be willing to humor us. 

This is us, pulling an Elon Musk. Here's a Hyperloop, see what you can make of it. 

We begin our story outside the rusty front of a small warehouse, on one of the last days of January, shiny-hip San Francisco lattes in hand. We’re standing in front of Savage’s personal workshop—not M5, known to Mythbusters fans and located in Potrero Hill, but tucked off a side street in the Mission—and he can’t hear us knocking. A woman walks by and barks something derogatory in our general direction, and we nod awkwardly and rap again, a little more desperately, on the door.

For many moments there is nothing, and then suddenly Savage is standing before us in familiar, bespectacled glory. His silhouette is framed by disco balls and memorabilia and colorful odds and ends—mostly helmets, the guy has a thing for helmets—hanging from the ceiling. There can be no greater contrast to the lonesome sidewalk we were just standing on as we cross the threshold into the physical embodiment of a famous brain.

After a quick round of yes-hello-how are yous, he sits down in a chair (flanked by a life-size R2D2 and C-3PO) and bolts out of the starting blocks. The question we’ve posed to him is this: can you measure the bandwidth of a palate?

Savage says yes—at least the lower threshold of one. “You can get deep into the aesthetics and juxtaposition of taste, but if we’re talking about pure bandwidth, it really comes down to what you can detect,” he says. “Just like sound or smell. You’d be testing hundreds of substances and you’d come up with a point cloud, in terms of taste in the general population. In a neutral matrix like guar gum or something like that, you’d put a drop of lemon juice and see if someone can detect that." One drop, two drops. 

“Then it would be quantified in terms of types of tastes,” he continues, on a roll now. “There’d be sweet, salty, sour, perhaps spicy...and we’re all clear that when you go to different parts of the country, the hotness scale moves, right? We go to New York, and they’re like, ‘You want an extra hot?’ and I know that means San Francisco Mild. But I was in Austin last weekend, and they say hot, and you see the guy in the corner by the water fountain sweating bullets.”

After months and months of testing variants of taste types, it’d be a reasonable assumption that you’d begin to find outliers. People that can taste sour at a much lower concentration, for example. “But,” he wonders yet again, “I wonder if that bandwidth has an upper limit?”

Defining that upper limit is where things get tricky, because a diversified palate is powered by exposure. Chefs, by nature, are working with a wider repertoire of tastes. Does that mean they’re inherently better at determining those tastes, or are they just better at naming them?

“The interesting thing about training your palate is that many of the chefs I know try not to have the palate detecting brain on when they’re eating socially,” he says. “I don’t think someone like David Chang can turn it off, but I know Traci des Jardins really well, and I saw her do it once. We were at Bar Agricole and they were serving their trout on the cedar’s ridiculous. The fish has this texture I’ve never had before: it ends up with this slight chewiness that you never get from fish. I watched Traci eat that, and go,” here his face does thoughtful, “and I go, ‘You’re analyzing the bite!’ To watch her think that way was just to watch her put in a library. There’s a new bandwidth—now I know fish can go in this direction I didn’t realize before.”

Training your palate for depth versus breadth is another value you could plausibly see emerge from the point cloud. Fish reminds Savage of a recent sushi experience he's had, tasting toro, o-toro, and chu-toro alongside each other. 

“We definitely can become more sensitized to certain subtleties when we enjoy them, right? But different people want different things out of a taste. With eyes, it’s really easy, right? You can tell what people can see. What they can resolve close, and resolve at a distance,” he says. “You’re never questioning the aesthetics of what they’re looking at. With taste it’s sort of inextricable.”

But why is it that senses like sight and sound are so binary? We don’t qualify how brightly you see things, he notes, we qualify how well you can see in the dark, how well your eyes can adjust to the darkness. "I think the bandwidth of taste is absolutely about the bandwidth of detection," he continues, “And maybe it’s just a fuzzier metric. Maybe because when we look at a wall, we can see what it’s made up of, but when we taste a burger, we can’t necessarily. A good cook is looking to bring those elements together to work as one.”

The key then, to achieving a measurement purely devoid of bias or romance, would be to remove aesthetics from the equation. “A normal fast food restaurant is pretty sophisticated in terms of the taste matrix it’s giving you,” he points out. “That matrix hasn’t been worked by a chef, it’s been worked by a research committee, that’s had hundreds of thousands of people try this thing until the majority of them like it. I’m always joking about ketchup, like how a lot of chefs must look at ketchup and be like, ‘Fuck. I could work my whole life and never make ketchup.’ It’s just so good.”

"I love this kind of thing," he grins, before mapping out a rough sketch of phase one of the Savage Index: basing the structure off of a classic hearing test, where you're asked to raise your hand when you hear a sound, you would choose strong flavors from every category, and you would prepare five samples, each mounted on some sort of neutral base—say plain instant mashed potatoes. You’d sit someone down, and you’d have to have a resting period and a drink of water between each sample. You’d ask if they detect something (which is the equivalent of raising your hand for a tone) and if they do, what is it? As you give them these samples in random order, and if you manage not to bias their detection, you could tell that person that they were better at detecting low concentrations of savory rather than sweet, more sour than savory.

Beyond this one possible methodology, you could spend a lifetime teasing apart and layering the nuances of cultural and experiential bias, which you could argue is essentially menu creation at its core. Is there a capacity to how much we can taste? If you're going off of the assumption that each matrix just continues on itself—once you've identified chive, can you distinguish between multiple varieties?—combining base tastes to create newer, complex ones...all that would mean that our upper bandwidth for flavor was limitless. 

We think. Anybody have a shit-ton of plain mashed potatoes on hand? 

By Cassandra Landry