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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
April 2, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Chocowabbits, Tasty, Smartphone Keyboard

I'm not sure how Easter got closely associated with candy, and I don't believe that our thoughts of the resurrection and atonement of Christ are enhanced by biting the heads off chocolate bunnies.

Nevertheless, I do not have any religious objection to the oral decapitation of lapiniform chocolate, and since they are most widely available at Easter time, that is when even devout Christians will find themselves promoting or participating in the consumption of chocowabbits.

There are adequate chocowabbits available in most grocery stores, with particularly fine ones in stores like Fresh Market and Earth Fare (speaking from experience). You can also order brilliant Easter chocolates from Fanny May or See's (and Fanny May's brilliant vanilla cream chocolate eggs are only available at this time of year).

Yet there is one more alternative I must point out: Greensboro's own Loco for Coco, which closed at its former location soon after the holiday of St. Valentine (patron saint of chocolate), is now open for business in its new location, where it has a delightful array of fine Easter-oriented chocolates available nowhere else in town.

In addition to chocowabbits, it appears that some things rabbits eat are now associated with the season, so Loco for Coco also has some very rich chocolate carrots, in both dark and milk chocolate. I am happy to tell you that there is no hint of actual carrot in these daggers of solid chocolate. I had never heard of a chocolate high, but I think I may have caught a glimmer of one with my first bite of a dark chocolate carrot.

But the important news is not Loco for Coco's seasonal offerings -- after all, by the time this issue of the Rhino Times hits the stands (where many copies can be stolen by criminals who hate freedom of the press), there will only be three shopping days before Easter.

No, what matters is that even though Loco for Coco will not have its official reopening for a while yet and they are still installing new features, displays, and amenities, they are open for business now, so that those of us who were forced to give up Loco for Coco truffles, mints, nonpareils, and Barkeater salted chocolate bars for Lent can return to the wonderful world of hedonistic self-indulgence.

And, yes, orally decapitate chocowabbits to our hearts' content, punishing them for their unfortunate habit of being delicious.

*

John McQuaid's book Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat is serious about the science of flavor, which means that it's not meant to be light reading, and it's definitely not a cookbook -- though reading it might prompt you to make some changes in the way you look at food preparation and purchasing.

It will certainly change the way you read the ingredients and nutritional information on food packaging.

McQuaid starts his book on the sense of taste in the best possible way -- by completely debunking that horrible tongue diagram we were all shown as kids in school.

You know, the one that shows clearly marked regions for sensing Bitter, Salt, Sweet, and Sour.

I remember as a kid thinking that this was stupid -- we have taste buds all over our tongues, and what are they doing in the regions not marked out for one of those tastes?

I even tested it at meals or while eating snacks, trying to see if sweets "woke up" the supposed sweet-sensing regions of my tongue, or if the Regal Crown Sour Cherry or Sour Lemon candies I was addicted to had a special affinity for the sour-sensing regions.

No. My whole tongue sensed every flavor, and that's the first thing McQuaid makes clear. All your taste buds are involved, all over your tongue. Period. Those regions reflect very slight, statistically insignificant, scientifically valueless research done more than a century ago and then popularized by later scientists who should have known better.

That tongue diagram is not just slightly wrong or a little misleading. It is completely, totally valueless. Throw it out. Science still doesn't understand all that much about flavor, but it sure knows better than that.

McQuaid spends time on explaining why the ability to sense flavors would have evolved -- and why plants that needed to be eaten in order to propagate evolved right along with our tastes.

Berries, apples, oranges, lemons -- they survive best if their seeds are carried far from the parent plant, because any new tree or bush that starts where the fruit simply drops will be competition for the parent. They can't both collect adequate sunlight from the same patch of sky and nutrients from the same patch of ground, not for long.

So oranges and lemons and apples and pears need to be eaten by sloppy monkeys and chimps, which will swallow the seeds without chewing and then drop them (or throw them) far from the parent plant when they poop. The sugars of the fruit are designed to make them delicious to the animals who pluck them and eat them; then the animal's poo will make a nutrient-rich environment for the seeds wherever they happen to hit the ground and start to grow.

Tomatoes, of course, are a different story. Those seeds don't necessarily survive through the whole digestive process. That's why tomatoes are so squishy and sloppy and wet. Bite into them, and you end up with seed-filled juices slopped all over your front. For civilized humans, that means laundry; but for more primitive primates, that means you carry the seeds around with you until they dry and drop off.

The effect is the same: Fruit-producing plants evolve in order to seduce us into eating them; and we evolved the desire to get those flavors into our bodies, because the sugar jolt from those fruits helps us store up fat to get us through times when fruits are out of season.

Oh, yeah. Fat. McQuaid spends a little time explaining why we desire flavors a lot more strongly than we need the nutrients. That is, sugar-rich foods will continue to be delicious and desirable long past the point where, for health reasons, we should stop consuming them.

Because, of course, with modern packaging and preservation techniques, and with our ability to extract sugars and make our own starchy, sugary, and/or fatty desserts, these high-nutrient delicious flavors are never out of season.

In fact, given the point-of-sale candy displays and the many occasions when refreshments are served, these high-nutrient delicious flavors are never out of reach.

Poverty used to help most people stay lean and healthy; fat bellies used to be a mark of wealth. Now a lean body suggests you're rich enough to have the leisure time for regular exercise.

But Tasty is far more than a tract about how modern life makes us fat -- in fact, that's only a small part of the book (though it's the clearest, least-nonsensical, most scientifically valid explanation I've seen to date.

The most interesting parts of the book deal with subjects like the hotness of chili peppers and why Soylent, the most perfect and delicious food, still isn't enough to make us happy.

Early in this decade, Rob Rhinehart, "a Silicon Valley software engineer, became fed up with eating.... He resented having to shop, cook, and wash dishes. He didn't want to go to a restaurant or wait for takeout to arrive." Believe me, this is why computer nerds are famous for living on pizza -- pizza that comes to the door is the maximum food with the minimum interruption of coding.

So Rhinehart created a concoction that included all the vital nutrients for a completely balanced diet, mixed it in a blender, and then tested it on himself. The resulting swill was, to his surprise, delicious. "At the time I didn't know if it was going to kill me or give me superpowers," Rhinehart said, but when he drank it, "I felt like I'd just had the best breakfast of my life. It tasted like a sweet, succulent, hearty meal in a glass" (Tasty, p. 211).

Because he was a computer guy, he knew the 1973 movie Soylent Green, and even though his concoction was made for rather than made of people, he called it Soylent. For a month he ate only Soylent and water, monitoring his weight and testing his blood for various "nutritional markers."

He lost weight, so he drank more. When he found his potassium spiking, he reduced the amount -- because he was controlling the potassium directly rather than eating a bunch of bananas.

Rhinehart felt as if he had completely triumphed over our junk-food age. He was getting exactly what his body needed, in exactly the right amounts. He felt good. He was healthy. And he had cut his food costs by more than two-thirds.

And yet the blender mixture gradually became less delicious, until it was a chore to drink it. That's because we primates evolved to seek variety in our diet -- too much of the same thing becomes steadily less delicious, even though the actual flavor hasn't changed at all.

Some people are more sensitive to the boredom problem than others -- I can eat the same food for weeks on end without wearying of it. But then, I've never been as relentlessly monotonous in my eating as Rhinehart was.

Rhinehart's solution was to eat a regular, old-fashioned meal a couple of times a week. He especially came to relish sushi -- and after having all his nutritional needs met in such a boring way, he was newly awake to the nuances of sushi flavors. Soylent replaced food -- but also made him better able to appreciate other food when he got it.

One remembers the story of manna in the book of Exodus. Even though the Israelites were provided with breadlike food that appeared on the ground like dew every morning (except the Sabbath), they were only demonstrating human nature when they demanded animal protein. They had discovered that it wasn't enough for food to be plentiful, it also has to be varied and delicious.

The lesson is that flavor is not just about nutrition, even if it "should" be. That is, our bodies evolved to survive in the wild -- after ten thousand years of agriculture, we still have taste mechanisms and desires that were ideally suited to a foraging lifestyle. That's why so many overweight people (like me) live by browsing; we have a desire to munch on something whether we're hungry or not.

Other people don't have that desire, or at least not to the same degree. So, not feeling the need, they are quite smug about judging us browsers as if we were morally deficient. But I find that it's easiest to criticize "sins" that we're not tempted to commit -- not feeling the desire, we don't have much patience with those who do.

The sense of taste exists in order to tempt us to eat certain things in preference to other things. Chimps chew on leaves all day -- but they're happy to stop chewing and voraciously consume fruit as soon as the bright colors signal from far away that it's ripe and ready to eat.

We don't always eat the same stuff chimps eat, though; our DNA may overlap with chimpanzee DNA to an astonishing degree, but one of the differences, I'm happy to say, is that we don't have teeth or jaws that are capable of chewing ordinary leaves thoroughly enough to make them a usable part of our diet.

On the other hand, because we invented cooking -- surprisingly early in human evolution, so it's no surprise that playing with matches is an activity that is endlessly fascinating to children at an afarensic stage of development -- we can eat and digest meat and animal fats. We're the only primate who can afford to invest the time to hunt, because the nutritional -- and flavor -- payoff is high enough.

And what is the "taste" of meat? Surprisingly, it's that new "fifth" flavor, umami. A better word for it is "savory," if only because it's already an English word and has useful connotations. We aren't really aware of umami as a separate flavor; but when we bite into meat dishes, some of the pleasure is from umami.

The most common way to enhance umami in foods is monosodium glutamate (MSG). I grew up using MSG regularly in the form of a sprinkled-on product called Accent. Accent wasn't just useful on meat dishes. Umami has the ability to enhance our appreciation of all the other flavors, as well. And it especially enhances the kinds of foods used heavily in east Asian cooking, which is not as meat-intensive as our own.

In recent years I've become sensitive to MSG, so that if it's present in a food, I break out in patches of psoriasis, mostly on my face. So restaurants that use MSG are now off-limits to me -- just as my new peanut allergy forces me to check labels and keeps me from Chick-fil-A, which cooks everything in peanut oil.

One person's "tasty" is another person's "poison" -- and our sense of taste is separate from our immune system, so that just because something gives us a rash (or worse) doesn't make it stop tasting good to us! Bummer, huh?

There is a movement lately to classify "fat" as a sixth flavor. We definitely sense fat, and even if we can't name it, we know it's there -- potato chips aren't just salty, they're also oily, and we respond to both flavors, even if the chip is so crisp that we can't actually feel the oiliness in our mouths. So the mouth-feel is crisp, not fat, but the flavor of fat is still there, just as umami is there as part of the pleasure of meat.

My favorite section of the book Tasty, however, was the long discussion of chili peppers. That's because the "heat" of chili is definitely not a taste -- it can be felt in many parts of the body besides the tongue. We now know that capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers, affects all kinds of cells in our body by directly activating their heat sensors. We aren't actually on fire, but our body definitely registers capsaicin as intense, unsurvivable heat.

The mystery that remains is why chilies ever became popular. Nutritionally, they're somewhere between inert and trivial; adding chili peppers to your diet does not affect the nutritional value in any way.

It may be that it is just another way to get variety in our diet -- but that wouldn't explain why in many cuisines, intense dosages of chili peppers are a relentless presence.

Chili peppers evolved alongside potatoes in the fields of Andean farmers (long before the term "Inca" had ever been heard of). Since potatoes, which were originally bitter and poisonous, had to be turned into a dirty tasteless mass in order to be storable, transportable, and edible, it might be that chilies made it possible to eat this most complete of food plants, month after month.

When Columbus first tasted chili peppers, he thought that this would be the New World product that would make him rich. That's why he called them peppers -- because black peppercorns from the East Indies were more valuable than gold.

But scarcity contributes greatly to value, and whereas the spices of the Indies could not grow anywhere else, as far as anyone knew, chili peppers can grow anywhere. They had already spread all over the Americas, and Europeans quickly discovered that they didn't have to import chilies -- they could plant the seeds and grow them in any garden.

The result was that chilies spread faster than any other New World import -- so that when Europeans reached some hitherto unknown Pacific Islands, they found that chili peppers had already beaten them there. Chili peppers are now a vital part of the national cuisines of many people from southeast Asia to Africa, from north to south, from desert to swamp.

And yet we can't figure out why human beings seem to thrive on a "flavor" that is not a taste at all, but rather, quite literally, a pain. It doesn't make us want to spit it out, like foods that are too bitter, or that taste (and smell) of rot; instead, it makes us want to cry and/or run away.

But there's a constant competition among chili-heads to develop ever hotter peppers. Once upon a time -- quite recently -- habanero (not habañero) was the hottest pepper known to Western cuisine, rating 200,000 on the Scoville scale. Then the Indian "ghost chili" was found to be much hotter, at least in some varieties.

Today, though, there are new chili varieties and hybrids that test above two million Scoville units -- and people who want to eat them. Some chili-heads are happy to enter their hottest peppers into competition for the world record, but the serious chili developers aren't interested in one-shot hybrids -- they work on creating hotter chilies that also breed true, so that they can market them as crops.

Crops, but ... don't try to work with them in your kitchen. The hottest peppers are handled almost the way you'd work with virulent disease agents, wearing haz-mat suits in a sealed environment. That's because the vapors produced by cooking with really hot chili can burn your eyes and ruin your day, and I know from experience that if you get even the relatively mild habanero on your hands, it can remain potent there after multiple hand-washings.

The book doesn't really go into this, but I'm going to digress for a moment to chastise those who refuse to learn to spell or pronounce chili and habanero correctly. Much of the confusion now comes from dictionaries, which stopped printing correct spellings and pronunciations and merely report all the common spellings and pronunciations, without advocacy.

However, this does not stop you from looking like an idiot if you pronounce "habanero" as if it had an "ñ" rather than "n." Jalapeño does have an ñ, which is pronounced like the "ny" in the name of Irish new age singer Enya. Habanero, though, does not have that letter in its name, no matter how many grocery stores try to put it in.

Just because jalapeño has the "ny" sound does not mean that habanero does, any more than the fact that the Spanish word "señora" has that sound does not mean that the name of the Mexican state and desert "Sonora" must also have it.

And while I'm quibbling, let me also point out that the nation Chile ends with an "e," and in Spanish it is pronounced differently from the pepper called "chili." Dictionaries now include both spellings, but that does not mean that they are equal. Spelling the pepper as "chile" still makes you look like an idiot -- both geographically and vegetatively. (Just as anyone who says "octopi" when they mean "octopuses" seems illiterate.)

Even though we call chilies "peppers" does not mean they're related to the traditional black pepper we put in shakers alongside the salt. Peppercorns (genus Piper) were developed in southern India, and the "heat" of black pepper comes from the chemical piperine rather than the capsaicin of chili peppers (genus Capsicum).

Oddly enough, chili plants are of the nightshade family -- like tomatoes, eggplants, potatoes, and, moving away from the edible, tobacco and such poisons as deadly nightshade and jimsomweed. When you think about it, the edible nightshades are so common that if you're allergic to them (and many people are), they can be devilishly hard to avoid, especially since they're sometimes hidden away as "other natural and artificial flavors and colorings."

We don't generally put salsa on potato chips, or we might find ourselves eating an all-nightshade snack of chips and tomato-chili salsa!

Come to think of it, why is it that we don't put salsa on potato chips? Why do creamy sauces feel right on potato chips, and tomato-chili sauces on corn chips?

The book Tasty doesn't address this exact question, but it does deal with the principle that even though taste is passed along in our genes, our tastes are also culturally influenced. The "disgust face" we make when we eat icky foods is identical across the whole human race -- we use the same facial expression when people's behavior disgusts us -- but the foods and flavors that evoke it change greatly from one tribe to another.

I remember that when I lived in Brazil, I sometimes horrified people by combining "doce" (sweet) with "salgado" (salty) in my diet. Some people reacted as if they thought I was going to die. Then again, when I tasted goiabada -- guava jelly -- I wanted to die. Nastiest food known to man -- and also a favorite Brazilian snack or treat food.

Then again, 19th-century American children used to relish horehound candy -- which rates somewhere under castor oil on the palatability scale.

Anyway, back to chili peppers. One of the hottest peppers now available, which breeds true and delivers a predictable -- and devastating -- punch, is called Carolina Reaper, which averages about a million-and-a-half Scoville units -- nearly eight times the heat of the habanero.

I don't intend to become a connoisseur of chili peppers. Some slam you instantly; some take ten or fifteen seconds to creep up on you. Some have a heat that dissipates quickly; others keep burning you so long that you get a lively reminder of having eaten them about a day later, and not in your mouth.

But capsaicin has an interesting side effect, because our cells' heat receptors are designed to shut down when they are overloaded. That is, there's a sudden jolt of pain -- but then, with the heat receptors "filled," there's a lingering anesthetic effect. For years, researchers have tried to find a way to isolate that capsaicin effect in order to create a topical anesthetic. Bad news: Nothing has worked yet.

There are times when reading Tasty is exactly like reading a science book -- because it is a science book. But it's a very well written one, and well-researched, too. As with all science, new discoveries and developments will eventually make it out of date; but at this moment, Tasty is the best guide to an overall understanding of how the sense of taste works -- and how the things we do in the farm, the factory, and the kitchen play off of, manipulate, and satisfy our desire for more and different tastes.

If your book club thought that Fifty Shades of Grey was the best book they've ever read, I think Tasty is unlikely to be a hit with them. Though it does have some graphic descriptions of people undergoing the agony of being taken by surprise by slivers of two-million-Scoville-unit chilies, they were mostly men and were all fully clothed.

But I'm assuming that readers of my column are open to many kinds of reading, searching for things that will broaden their understanding of how things work through science, history, and biography as well as fiction. So to you I recommend Tasty very highly. It is an intellectually delicious book, and I believe I now have enough new information to be tedious at parties for many months to come.

*

I don't know of anybody who actually loves the virtual keyboards on smartphones and tablets. It's not just the faulty (but essential) error correction that causes pain. It's the fact that you just can't type.

Which is fine if your typing is never longer than a tweet or a text. But if you're writing something longer -- or trying to do real work -- you need a real keyboard.

I've tried all kinds of little keyboards that would give me back what I used to have on my Blackberry -- a tiny physical keyboard on which I made far fewer typos than with the built-in virtual keyboard. But now, following up on a review from the Ziff-Davis daily email I subscribe to, I bought and have tested the best portable keyboard by far: Lapworks Amigo 2.0.

It's a bluetooth device, so the connection is wireless (if your device has bluetooth). It comes double-folded into quarters, but when you open it out, it's a genuine full-size keyboard. Not a chiclet pad, but a real full-stroke keyboard just like grownups use.

You do have to push the keys together to start touch typing, and you need to be able to set it on a flat and firm surface, but the setup is generally painless. The keyboard is battery-powered and has to be recharged with a USB connector, but we already do that with most other bluetooth devices.

Also, because the keyboard doesn't have the full weight of a laptop or one-piece keyboard, there is the tiniest bit of give in the frame that causes the keys to require a slightly firmer stroke than you ordinarily use in typing.

Two-finger typists won't notice the difference, and even touch typists need to apply nowhere near as much force as we used to use with manual typewriters, where the firmness of our fingerstrokes determined how sharp and clear the letter-images formed on the paper. And when you compare it with the labor and frustration, the concentration required and the inevitable errors from using the tiny virtual keyboard on the phone or tablet, I doubt anyone will consider the Lapworks Amigo to be anything but a vast improvement.

So if you regularly type extensive text into your tablet or smartphone, you may want to consider keeping the Lapworks Amigo at hand.

Folded, it really does fit in your pocket, but it's on the heavy side (it does contain batteries, and there's a lot of plastic in that full-stroke keyboard); I think of it more as something to pull out on the plane, when my only computer is a tablet or smartphone and I need to write a long email. So if the Amigo keyboard is in my carry-on, not my pocket, I'm content. (If I weren't so manly, I'd keep it in my purse when traveling.)

The keyboard comes with its own short charging cable, and it also has two stands. The one for tablets is obvious, but the one for smartphones is really hard to figure out. When I thought I had it set up right -- it stood up, after all -- I found that a vertically-oriented smartphone kept sliding down with nothing to catch it.

However, I then turned it over and flipped out an additional extension that allowed me to set a smartphone on it sideways -- which makes sense, if you're entering text, because you can work with a longer line of type.

There were no instructions that were worth anything. There was a little folded paper called "Directions for use," and it had an unlabeled diagram that could have been the keyboard, but was instead that inscrutable smartphone stand. It had two pictures -- one folded, and the other partially unfolded, but in that incorrect upside down position that does not work.

And here are the words accompanying the two pictures -- the only words associated with the diagrams: "1. Bracket don't be opened up" and "2. Bracket has opened up."

Yeah, thanks.

Amused at the incoherency of those "directions," I read the rest of the brochure. Here are some pertinent quotations:

"1. Turn on Bluetooth auto function of computer or insert Bluetooth adapter, the taskbar will appear the mark of Bluetooth."

"2. Double lick the mark of Bluetooth, you will see the devices of Bluetooth."

Yeah, I love it when I get to not just lick, but double lick the screen on my smartphone.

Using the word "lick" instead of "tap" conjures up a whole new set of images. Can you imagine seeing people hold their phones up to their faces so they can lick the icons and controls? It has as much romantic potential in movies as lighting up a cigarette used to have -- I can picture a sexy actor or actress looking over the top of their phone as they sensually lick it while winking at their would-be lover.

But the instructions get so much better:

"3. Lick 'add' function, see 'add Bluetooth devices guide', choose 'my device has Set and already, you can found out'. Turn on the key of Bluetooth and choose the match key. The Bluetooth are flickering and entire into match condition, now lick the Next step."

I can just imagine my parents setting this up. Or anybody who is not so computer-aware that they know what these instructions must mean.

I do know that if you wait to have your device offer as a menu choice, "my device has Set and already, you can found out," you're going to be waiting a long time.

"Choose 'don't use password' and lick the next step." Is it possible that the writer of these instructions once learned "click" as a mouse instruction, and then forgot the "c"? We have all kinds of instructions that say to "click on" this or that menu choice, and computer users are expected to know that this means to move the arrow on the screen by using the mouse, and then press the mouse button.

But how do you get from "click the icon" to "lick the icon"?

This misuse of English is so delicious that I think I'm in love. I want to use "lick" now for all my computer interactions.

But the keyboard is well designed and made. And if you know how to install any Bluetooth device on your phone or tablet, this will be a no-brainer.


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