LEXINGTON, Ky. — The medicines were rich and strange, their active ingredients so particular they sounded fictional.
One regimen involved jowl bits from Red Wattle hogs; the pigs were bred from sows named Fart Blossom and Hildegard, and had spent the end of their lives gorging on acorns, hickory nuts, apples, and black walnuts. Another experimental drug included the flesh of the Ubatuba pepper, picked when it was red as a Santa suit, dried at precisely 90 degrees for five days, and then pulverized, seeds and all, into a fragrant, pinkish powder.
These concoctions were meant to be therapeutic — but they hadn’t been devised by pharmacologists or biochemists or even lab techs. Their inventors had no scientific training whatsoever: They were celebrity Montreal chef Frédéric Morin and renowned Atlanta pastry-maker Taria Camerino, who would be facing off in an unusual culinary duel. They’d been challenged to help solve a problem that most clinicians and neuroscientists aren’t able to — the impairment of taste in cancer patients who undergo chemotherapy and radiation.
This cook-off in the University of Kentucky’s demo kitchen was the opener for the second annual Neurogastronomy Symposium, which was born over a boozy, late-night chance encounter between neuropsychologist Dan Han and Morin in the chef’s restaurant. Together, they envisioned a conference that would combine neuroscience, agriculture, history, nutrition, medicine, and cooking — to understand the art and science of why we eat what we eat, and how we could change it for the better.
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It isn’t your everyday scientific conference. It’s the kind of conference where invited neuroscientists and neurologists experience the flavor wheel of bourbon, sampling Woodford Reserve along with hazelnuts and then orange flesh to see how the liquor migrates into different parts of the palate. The kind of conference where a panel discussion on the science of taste includes a hip New York chef telling a roomful of dietitians that those with binge eating problems should “have sex! It will take your mind away from food.” The kind of conference where attendees suck lollipops designed to evoke the 1812 Overture.
You know, that kind of conference.
But behind the foodie fun is hard science and a real clinical conundrum. Killing cancer cells means killing healthy cells along with them. The poisons of chemo and the waves of radiation are especially good at taking apart the DNA of fast-dividing cells. That can help stop the out-of-control expansion of tumors. But the nerve cells in the nose and mouth replenish themselves quickly, and so they die, too.
Read more: How the way we chew food is uniquely human
The resulting changes in taste and smell might seem like a small price to pay for a lifesaving treatment. Yet one’s desire to get up in the morning can be intimately connected to one’s ability to enjoy food. Lose your ability to taste properly and your mental and physical health — which, for cancer patients, is already fragile — can suffer even more.
“Many people stop eating,” said Gary Beauchamp, a sensory perception researcher at the nonprofit Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It is a potentially lethal effect.”
The loss of taste and smell is among the most common complaints of cancer patients. But those don’t necessarily bounce back even if you’re lucky enough to transition from patient to survivor.
“The hope is that some of those taste abilities will come back. We’re all different. Some regain it very quickly; others — like myself — might not at all,” said Barry Warner, a 59-year old who was treated for throat cancer seven years ago, and one of the cook-off’s taste-testers. “The bottom line is, if after a period of time, it doesn’t come back, it’s something you’ll have to adapt to. There isn’t going to be anything the same as it was.”
Most doctors hardly ask about this side effect, and when they do, they don’t have much to offer besides apologies and explanations. Their focus is keeping you alive.
“You have no resources to help you deal with the taste aspect,” Morin said in an interview with STAT about a week before he flew to the conference, as he drove to visit a friend with late-stage metastatic cancer. “Who is the next specialist you talk to? It’s the nutritionist: an accountant of nutrition, a bookkeeper of calories. They don’t become nutritionists because they relish the smell and taste of the skin of a roast chicken.”
Camerino does a lot more than “relish” smells and tastes. By her own account, she lives through her sense of taste.
“I taste everything — like, everything,” she told STAT. “I taste colors, people, emotions, music … I can’t remember songs or movies, but I know what everything tastes like.”
That’s not just because she’s a celebrated pastry chef, who has devoted decades of her life to subtle differences in food. It’s also because she’s synesthetic. The unusual wiring of her brain makes her experience the world through her tongue. Sights and sounds conjure up complex flavors, allowing her to become a kind of mystical Willy Wonka, with top hat and plum velvet jacket swapped out in favor of big round glasses and snaking blue tattoos.
Camerino talks about the flavors she perceives the way some saints talk about God — as an experience accessible only through metaphor. And just as monks might interpret their visions through the lens of scripture, she uses her training in French patisserie, Japanese confectionery, and coastal Italian cooking to pinpoint what exactly it is she’s tasting at that moment — and, in some cases, to reproduce it.
When she was tasked with “profiling” the chef and television personality Andrew Zimmern in a cake, she was startled that the first thing to appear on her palate was prawn shell. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding?’” she said.
“How do I take a prawn shell and put it into a cake? You toast it. I toasted it low, for a long time, so it never burned and it didn’t become overly sharp, and then I ground it into a powder and I folded it into the cake batter, so all you got was the essence, nothing overwhelming.” The other flavors she had felt — green Szechuan peppercorns, bay leaves, miso, Asian pear — became accompanying syrups and jellies, until she was confident her cake perfectly embodied Zimmern’s spirit.
Sometimes, she’ll get flavors she’s never had before, and only through extensive research can she identify them. A band she was taste-profiling a few years ago conjured up a tang that turned out to be a Southeast Asian fruit called calamansi. A man she met around 2001 evoked a taste that turned out to be mare’s milk, as used in Tibetan and Mongolian cuisine. She is sure of it, even though she’s never tasted horse milk of any kind.
When Han, the neuropsychologist at the University of Kentucky, emailed to invite Camerino to the conference, she thought it was a joke. Like most people, she had never heard the term “neurogastronomy.” After all, it was only coined in 2011, in the title of a Yale neuroscientist’s book. She wasn’t sure that such a conference existed.
But after a back-and-forth by phone and email, she agreed. The arrangement had a fairy-tale ring to it: The woman for whom taste is everything would concoct a special dish that could rekindle patients’ pleasure in food.
Barry Warner’s first hint of flavor began at least as early as 1957, in the months before he was born. His mother had grown up on a farm southeast of Louisville, where dinner came from the pigpen, the cowshed, and the vegetable patch. That kind of country cooking was what she learned and continued making into her adult years, and during her pregnancy, its fragrant particles filtered down though her digestive system and into her amniotic fluid, shaping what Warner would like once he was born.
He was raised among the rolling corn and tobacco farms of Nelson County, in a small town with a single stoplight. His parents weren’t farmers, but starting at 11 or 12, he helped neighbors to bale hay, loading it into trucks and stacking it in barns for the winter. He loved his mother’s cooking: cornbread sticks made in a cast-iron skillet, cooked cabbage, pork chops soft enough to cut with your fork.
But in 2009, eating became painful. “Every time I tried to extend my mouth wide enough to take a bite out of a sandwich or a hamburger, I had a burning sensation in my tongue,” he said. He went to see a friend, an oral surgeon who’d removed his wisdom teeth years before, and asked him to take a look.
“He thought it was cancer, but he didn’t tell me that and he didn’t tell my wife until he got confirmation,” Warner said. “I didn’t know about it until then.”
Throat cancer was one assault on his body and his ability to eat, but the treatment brought about many more. Five days a week, for seven weeks, he would be immobilized onto a steel table and inserted into a machine for radiation. He also got periodic rounds of chemo.
Those didn’t just dampen his ability to taste; they also left him without saliva and made him taste flavors that weren’t there.
“It really starts out when you’re undergoing chemotherapy, that metal taste you get,” said Warner. “It seems like no matter what you eat, the taste isn’t right.”
He could have been tasting the drugs in his bloodstream — but he could also have been experiencing what some call phantom flavors. Those phantoms, some scientists say, can be the product of a taste system that is no longer in control, like a trained horse gone crazy, bucking off its rider and reverting to a frenzy of kicks and twists.
“Taste has an interesting function beyond what you experience when you eat,” said Linda Bartoshuk, a taste perception expert at the University of Florida. “Nature wants you to eat, so the taste system can be used to turn off sensations that might interfere with your eating. Taste input actually turns down pain. How does taste do that? It does that by sending a lot if inhibitory messages in the brain.”
Take away those inhibitory messages, Bartoshuk said, and those unwanted sensations come roaring in.
Warner no longer tastes those stomach-turning flavors — but he can’t taste anything else either. He might be able to identify mashed potatoes, say, by the texture, and maybe a little by the smell. But beyond that, he wouldn’t be sure what he is eating.
Now, at the lunch before the cook-off, Warner took tiny bites of the squash-and-goat-cheese appetizer that was in front of him. Partially he was saving room for the two different regimens that were on their way to try to rekindle some of those lost gastronomic pleasures for him and a fellow survivor. But that is also just how he’s had to eat since treatment: slowly, mostly without talking, and with little enjoyment, forcing himself to take one small bite after another.
“I don’t really get hungry,” he said. “You might sit down at your meal thinking about how good it tastes. Instead, I’m counting how many bites it will take me to get through it. And you never think about how much eating is part of your social life. That changes dramatically.”
Warner has kept some of his habits anyway. He still drinks bourbon socially — a taste wired into him as a Kentuckian — and he can smell it, and feel the burn of the first sip. And he still drinks a cup of coffee every morning. But he can’t taste either one.
He doesn’t complain about these long-term side effects. “I am so grateful and indebted to the doctors that saved my life, I consider my hearing loss and my loss of taste just … collateral damage,” he said. “Seven years ago, when I was getting my diagnosis, the odds of me having this conversation were less than a flip of a coin.”
Still, part of him wishes that he could experience what he remembers of food and drink. He hopes he’ll wake up one day and be able to taste his coffee.
Camerino has devoted herself to sweets, studying chocolate-making and practicing the way to twist a pastry bag so a spritz cookie has the perfect swirl. But suffering, loss, illness, pain — those, too, have distinct flavors for her.
She grew up in a poor, abusive household in Gainesville, Fla., with a heroin-addicted father. “Everything tasted like too-salty water, the kind that you gargle when you’re sick and you’re not supposed to drink,” she said.
She remembers a year when they ate little but white rice and packaged brown gravy. She remembers struggling through eating disorders without ever seeing a doctor. She remembers the smell of the Miller High Life her father drank. Yet she also remembers her mother getting a job at the African and Asian languages department at the University of Florida, being invited over and presented with foods she had never imagined. Those visits pushed her into studying linguistics.
It was only a chance encounter with a pastry magazine that made her switch course: “I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do. I want to create something that’s bite-sized that can change your perspective on life.’”
The invitation to the Neurogastronomy Symposium seemed like a perfect opportunity. And as with many of her concoctions, she would be guided by both her synesthesia and her culinary education. This time, though, the food would be a kind of medicine. “I’ve wanted to do something meaningful with this superpower,” she said.
She had been told next to nothing about the patients she would be cooking for. Instead, she both did external research — and turned inward. She began conjuring up the flavors evoked by cancer, by chemotherapy, by terrible pain. They were not so different from what she tasted during the long recovery from a motorcycle accident she had this summer: something acidic, a bit like blood, with an astringent metallic edge. She wasn’t surprised that this was the same taste that many cancer patients got when undergoing treatment.
“The first thing I wanted to do was dim that down. If I can gain control of the taste in their mouth, if I can get rid of it, I can give them some relief,” she said. “Blood or metal, the best way to compete with that would be citrus. I’m not using a really strong citrus: Clementines are sweet, they have a little more of a delicate flavor. The clementine will cut through — it will literally cut through — the blood and metallic taste, so now I have a pathway through into their experience.”
Yet she also knew that some patients didn’t have much sense of taste left at all, so she wanted flavors that, to her, produce vibrations felt beyond the mouth: basil and pistachio. “By using the basil, now I’m opening up from the top of the mouth to the top of the forehead, that’s where basil affects you, now I have their whole attention. And pistachio, it has a floral quality, it’s reminiscent of the Mediterranean, of the ocean.”
She wasn’t completely giving up on the mouth, though. She thought of how fat can fall soothingly on the palate, another sensation beyond taste. Butter was too heavy, too overpowering, she said. Instead she went with olive oil.
The medication she came up with would be delicate, fragrant, and not too sweet: a clementine upside-down cake with a dab of basil and pistachio pesto, crowned with a scoop of olive oil gelato.
She wasn’t sure how well it would work. She had never made it before, and had no plans to try it out before she arrived at the event. She knew nothing about these particular patients. Yet as she was preparing for the symposium, she became so excited about the idea of helping patients with taste loss that she even began to dream up a lozenge with the same goal.
“I’ve made people experience emotions by combining particular flavors,” she said. “If I’ve made them experience disappointment, satisfaction, joy, then it may be possible to activate certain parts of the brain and make them experience all of that even without their sense of taste.”
The day of the challenge began snowy and gray. Two days before, fatty jowl bacon had been fetched from a long-bearded breeder of Red Wattle hogs, and driven 60 miles back to Lexington, for whatever taste-saving concoction Morin, the Montreal chef, had in mind. Now, the University of Kentucky chef-in-residence Bob Perry was picking up last-minute ingredients from the research farm where the Ubatuba peppers grow.
Morin, it turns out, hadn’t really planned his dish out in advance. He’d asked for some vegetables, wine, bacon, spices. He’d figure something out. Camerino, on the other hand, arrived at the university’s demo kitchen with her own ice cream maker and a duffel bag of tools — infrared thermometers, weird tweezers, Q-tips, an offset spatula, an elaborate assortment of spoons. She was going to bring her own olive oil, too, but thought that might be overkill.
Before they headed into the kitchen, the clinicians and scientists and chefs and sommeliers gathered around Warner and another cancer survivor named Erica Radhakrishnan like overeager medical students crowding around a rare and fascinating case. They peppered the two with questions. What was their most memorable meal? Are there textures you find comforting? Did you eat processed foods before? What about the savory taste, which the Japanese call umami?
Then, with whatever intel they could gather, the chefs began to cook. Morin peeled potatoes and fried bacon. Camerino cracked eggs with a single hit on the side of the bowl, a quick squeeze and a pull.
Camerino adjusted her recipe slightly, making room for local ingredients. She incorporated a sprinkle of Ubatuba paprika into a syrup for the cake; she used molasses boiled down from the green juice of sorghum grass instead of cane sugar.
She had been nervous when she arrived, but now she was in her element. She needs no timer to know exactly when something should come out of the oven, perfectly brown. She tasted a spoonful of the basil-pistachio pesto. “This is a trip to Sicily,” she said. “Your marriage is struggling, it’s winter, you’ve lost the ability to communicate … and you go to Sicily with your partner. That’s what this is.”
On the other side of the kitchen, Morin was breaking up the fractal patterns of Romanesco broccoli into tiny bits of chartreuse, as a topping for his potato soup. “If he does not taste anything, I also have a bottle of bourbon,” he muttered in Québécois French.
The kitchen began to fill with the smells of bacon and basil, a hint of curry, and the sweetness of cake. The dishes were ready. At the last second, Camerino spooned a glistening white ball of gelato onto the two desserts.
The chefs each came forward to introduce their dish. Then they pulled back toward the kitchen. And with everyone watching, Warner and Radhakrishnan took careful bites, rolling around first the soup and then the cake in their mouths. The chefs looked on, tense, as Warner primly wiped his moustache.
Both tasters complimented the moisture of the cake and the aromas of the soup, the way the spices enlivened the purée, the way the ice cream made it easier to swallow the cake. They would not reveal the winner until the next day, at the end of the conference, in an auditorium full of academics and clinicians.
But a few minutes later, when the room’s attention had moved elsewhere, Radhakrishnan, whose sense of taste has largely come back after two battles with breast cancer, turned to Warner.
“Barry, are you able to taste anything?” she asked, gesturing toward the cake.
There was a pause. Warner looked serious, like he was concentrating on a math problem. “No,” he said quietly.
It might have worked for Warner while he was undergoing chemo and tasting its metallic tang. Or it might have worked for someone else. Just as Warner’s pleasure in food had been shaped in complex ways — by his genes, by the country cooking he’d sampled in the womb and as a child, and then by those foods he’d grown to appreciate as an adult — his preferences were equally unique after he’d lost his sense of taste. After all, a loss is only a loss in relation to what came before.
To Camerino, the challenge was at once amazing and humbling. “I could have cried a lot — I cry really easily,” she said. The experiment only heightened her zeal: She is now working with a molecular sommelier to dream up four different lozenges for people with taste loss, and, for those without saliva, two aromatic sprays. She isn’t sure about the exact ingredients, but she is thinking citrus, basil, barley malt as a sweetener, and something reminiscent of anise.
Han hopes that these events for chefs and scientists can move from “fun preclinical challenges” to more rigorous research about what can actually help these patients and survivors. Morin is working on an app for cancer patients to share what helps for which kinds of taste loss, and there are other ideas in the works. “We’re doing very early studies to take stem cells to see if we could regrow the system,” said Beauchamp, the researcher from the Monell Center. “But we’re a long way from that.”
For now, Warner keeps to the regimen he’s turned to for seven years. He uses whomever he’s eating with as a timer for when he can stop making himself take bites. He smells coffee in the morning, sipping it as he heads into his sunroom to listen for birds. He feels that first burn of bourbon, and notices how it falls away with each subsequent sip.