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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
"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
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.