A Fishy Situation: Mind Vs. Mouth

The New York Times ran an expose a few weeks ago about Kate Stoeckle and Louisa Strauss, high school students in Manhattan who did a most interesting science project: They dropped a couple hundred dollars on sushi from restaurants and grocery stores, and then sent the fish off for a DNA analysis that would positively identify each sample’s species. The result? Mislabeled fish turned up at 2 of the 4 restaurants and 6 of the 10 grocery stores.

Of course, in the wake of this article, the world has been turned on its ear. Predictably, big hitters like Eric Ripert of New York’s seafood cathedral Le Bernardin and the guys from Nobu issued impassioned declarations that they never never swap in cheaper, farmed fishes in lieu of the exotic, expensive ones that are advertised on the menu.

So that’s a story in and of itself, and probably worthy of more in-depth coverage on this blog. But! The real story here, at least to us, is an op-ed that ran today that takes this bit of fishy business as a springboard for a discussion of the power of the mind to dupe the palate.

The key here is a trick of the trade held close to the heart of magicians, con artists, and other sleight-of-handers: It’s easier to fool an expert than it is to fool a naif. Citing examples of white wine dyed red, and chocolate yogurt mistaken for strawberry when eaten in the dark, author Edward Dolnick illustrates just how easy it is for us to dupe our tastebuds when we trust the information coming to us from another source — a wine expert asking us how we like our Pinot Noir, or a lab tech asking us whether we taste the strawberry, or (as it turns out) a menu telling us that the tilapia draped over a lozenge of sticky rice is actually “white tuna.”

Of course, there are some food-related sleights of hand that make us happy: think meatloaf cupcakes, or Chef Michel Richard’s virtual eggs. But we’re the first to admit we’re not immune to the power of suggestion: the first time we tried one of the virtual eggs (made from mozzarella and yellow tomato) our first thought was not “oh hey, cheese and tomato shaped like an egg.” It was “whoa, this egg is rotten.”

Given that, we’re keeping a more critical eye (and, er, tastebud) on what goes in our mouth. Hey, garde mangers — consider us en garde.

Fish or Foul? [New York Times]

[Photo: Heck knows what kind of fish any of this is anymore. Via sifu_renka’s Flickr]

A Fishy Situation: Mind Vs. Mouth