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Review: 'Delicious' a sensuous and mouth-watering new volume on our culinary choices


DELICIOUS: The Evolution of Flavor and How It Made Us Human. By Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez. Princeton University Press. 304 pages. $27.95.

The word “delicious” derives from the Latin word deliciosus, which describes something that is not merely pleasant but sensuous, even voluptuous.

Fitting, since we discuss our contemporary repasts in sensual terms: tastes, textures, colors, presentations, etc., not always remembering that food selections originally meant survival.

What is flavor, anyway, beyond the obvious? And how, one wonders, did humanity make the many culinary choices that helped define who we are? Rob Dunn, an ecologist and evolutionary biologist, and Monica Sanchez, an anthropologist, provide the answers, locating deliciousness in all its manifestations in an eye-opening and mouth-watering new book.

While anthropologists and historians often talk about the diets and foods available to ancient peoples, seldom (say the authors) do we ask what their favorite foods might have been, what flavors enticed them, and why.

Serving up speculation as well as fact, Dunn and Sanchez link deliciousness to human evolution, ecology, agriculture and history. The roles of neurobiology, psychology, chemistry and even physics also are on the bill of fare.

“Pleasure was central to the biggest changes in our evolutionary past,” they write. “Cuisine is a major evolutionary innovation. It is rare in nature.”

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It hardly seems a radical idea, as Dunn and Sanchez would have it, that humans and other animal species are drawn to what they find delicious (and what smells good), and that we will prefer to eat these things when given the choice. But this simple notion, with profound consequences, was given short shrift until Brillat-Savarin wrote “The Physiology of Taste” in 1825, setting in motion as gastronomic revolution, and to this day remains little considered in academe.

Among a smorgasbord of related topics, they address the integral role of aromas and our unique sense of smell in “cataloging flavors, ranking them from delicious to deadly and responding accordingly,” the uses of spices as preservatives as well as flavor enhancers, the magic of fungal foods, the primacy of beer, and how the techniques of cutting, grinding, fermenting and cooking softened foods and freed many hours of the day that would otherwise been spent chewing.

But the extraordinary variety of foods we savor can come at a cost. Dunn and Sanchez also relate how humans have eaten a great many species into rarity or extinction. This menu, if written on the familiar restaurant chalkboard, “would be a tally of a lost world.”

From a practical standpoint, they hope to make home cooks better understand the food in their kitchens. They envision a new future of the study of flavor, with seats at the table for everyone.

This search for great flavors is embedded in our species’ very name: homo (human) sapiens (knowing). But “sapiens” originates in a verb meaning “to taste” and later “to have discernment.”

Dunn and Sanchez translate this as “the human who discerns through taste,” confident in their belief that “we sit together and make sense of the world one bite at a time.”

Reviewer Bill Thompson is a writer an editor based in Charleston.

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