Fascinating story on the discovery of umami and the role of glutamate and Escoffier in yumminess…
So here’s a question you don’t hear every day: How many tastes can a person taste?
There’s sweet, of course. Then sour. Then salty. And when the Greek philosopher Democritus took up the question several thousand years ago, he added bitter. So that makes four.
Democritus said (not because he did any experiments; being a philosopher, he thought for a living) that when you chew on your food and it crumbles into little bits, those bits eventually break into four basic shapes.
When something tastes sweet, he said, it is because the bits are “round and large in their atoms.” Salty is isosceles triangle bits on your tongue, Bitter is “spherical, smooth, scalene and small,” while sour is “large in its atoms, but rough, angular and not spherical.”
And that’s it, said Democritus. Everything we taste is some combination of those four ingredients.
And that made sense to Plato, and made sense to Aristotle, and pretty much ever since even modern scientists have said that’s the number: four.
When taste buds were discovered in the 19th century, tongue cells under a microscope looked like little keyholes into which bits of food might fit, and the idea persisted that there were four different keyhole shapes.
So four it is. Four it was.
And then, along came Auguste Escoffier.