UK’s Neurogastronomy Symposium Brings Medicine & Cuisine Together
“In healing, the body is restored to itself. It begins to live again by its own powers and instincts, to the extent that it can do so. To the extent that it can do so, it goes free of drugs and mechanical helps. Its appetites return. It relishes food and rest. The patient is restored to family and friends, home and community and work.” –Wendell Berry, “Health Is Membership”
In an event declared “historic” by participants, the University of Kentucky hosted the first ever Neurogastronomy Symposium on November 7 at the Chandler Medical Center. Speakers ranged from medical doctors to famous chefs as together they raised questions and sought common ground in exploring the medical applications of food and flavor.
Booths were set up for Symposium attendees to experiment with their own senses of smell and taste. We were challenged to identify smells without the context of taste and taste without the context of smell or sight. Invariably, the trials turned out to be an embarrassment of failed identification, underscoring the interrelationship of the senses in the process of taste.
Dr. Frederick de Beer opened with an acknowledgment that the new multidisciplinary field “opened my eyes to my limitations.” That recognition set the tone for the entire day of speakers.
Dr. Dan Han echoed that idea, stating that Neurogastronomy “changed my way of practice.” As he indicated in his second talk in the afternoon, Han began asking his patients “Are you tasting food?” and “Are you enjoying things as you used to?” Those questions may seem obvious, but they simply have not been part of standard medical practice.
But rather than simply being yet another medical conference incomprehensible to the layman, the Symposium included insights from chefs, the experts in creating taste. Each of the chefs railed against the horrible standard of hospital food, an issue highlighted by Wendell Berry over 20 years ago in his essay “Health Is Membership”:
But probably most of the complaints you hear about hospitals have to do with the food, which, according to the testimony I have heard, tends to range from unappetizing to sickening. Food is treated as another unpleasant substance to inject. And this is a shame. For in addition to the obvious nutritional link between food and health, food can be a pleasure. People who are sick are often troubled or depressed, and mealtimes offer three opportunities a day when patients could easily be offered something to look forward to. Nothing is more pleasing or heartening than a plate of nourishing, tasty, beautiful food artfully and lovingly prepared.
Fred Morin of Montreal restaurant Joe Beef, Dr. Han explained, was one of the driving forces behind the Neurogastronomy Symposium. The two met at Joe Beef late one night when there was a mixup with Dr. Han’s reservations. Morin spoke of the idea that “part of terroir is pride and patriotism” because of its inherent connection to location. He also raised the interesting question as to whether reactions to terroir and taste might be connected to gut biome. “At what time did food and medicine break apart? How do we get that back?” –Chef Edward Lee
“At what time did food and medicine break apart? How do we get that back?” –Chef Edward Lee
Chef Bob Perry of UK gave one of the most practical—and certainly the tastiest—talks as he explained a heritage hog experiment at Berea College. A variety of heritage hogs were compared for taste and yield in a controlled experiment where each was treated, fed, and processed the same way. He pointed out that whatever pigs eat during their last 30 days ultimately decides their taste.
After Chef Perry’s talk we were dismissed to sample hams, one from a Mulefoot and one from a Red Wattle. The hams were salt cured, but not smoked, and presented as charcuterie, which means they also were not cooked at all. The Mulefoot ham was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted, simply melting in my mouth. I decided it was important to conduct my own field experiment and confirm that conclusion through multiple tastings.
Yale’s Dr. Gordon Shepherd, the founder of Neurogastronomy, explained the scientific, and decidedly unromantic, perspective fundamental to the field that “Flavor isn’t in the food. Flavor is created by the brain.” The importance of flavor cannot be underestimated he stressed. Shepherd pointed out that preferences for flavor have been driving forces in history and the economy.
Shepherd argued that human flavor engages more of the brain than any other human activity. We taste food, we smell it, we touch it, we hear it as we eat, we see it before we eat.
Several of the chefs shared their experiences of working with loved ones with cancer and trying to feed them. Chef Jehangir Mehta of New York’s Graffiti and Food Network’s Next Iron Chef, spoke of his wife’s cancer. Midway’s Chef Ouita Michel discussed her mother’s struggle with cancer.
Chef Edward Lee of Louisville’s 610 Magnolia spoke through the lens of his wife’s recent successful battle with cancer and his attempt to “trick her brain into having an appetite when it doesn’t.” Lee explained how he tried to trigger positive memories by using a “pretty plate we bought in Maine,” and igniting his wife’s sensations through aromatherapy.
Lee asked, “Why can’t we personalize a meal plan in a hospital?” He pointed out that “any native cuisine has a medicinal reason for its evolution.” Pre-modern and ancient recipes were medicinal—“at what time did food and medicine break apart? How do we get that back?”
Those questions are at the core of Neurogastronomy as the new field seeks to break down the walls of specialists who traditionally haven’t listened to one another. UK’s inaugural Neurogastronomy Symposium was a major step forward in encouraging all sides to speak and hear, in many ways finally addressing what Wendell Berry has urged for decades.
This video provides a nice overview of the event, and as a special bonus has a cameo closeup of me thoughtfully tasting food at the end.
If you’re really committed, you can watch the entire series of talks from the Symposium.