We experience food not just with our physical senses, but through our emotions, nostalgia, and cultural associations.

What are the fundamentals of the human element of flavor?

Have you ever tried to recreate a dish your mom or grandma used to make and even though you followed the recipe exactly, it just doesn’t live up to your expectation? That is the element of food.

Food can’t be separated from its human associations: the cultural connections or emotional elements that are evoked during an eating experience.

For recipes on this site, you’ll often see ‘Creator Notes’ which talk about some of the human elements of a recipe: a family dish, a holiday tradition, inspired by travel, a cuisine staple, a meal for a particular mood or setting.

Why does it matter?

One of the strongest influences on how we identify the flavor of food is through the emotional lens of being a human.

  • The nostalgia of a peanut butter & jelly sandwich can transport you back to your childhood.
  • A favorite family recipe has deep memories of certain people and spaces attached to it.
  • A poblano-con-queso taco might remind you of Mexico City, while a banh mi evokes images of traveling through Ho Chi Minh.

Furthermore, your mood on a specific day or the ambiance of a restaurant will change how you experience eating a dish. Because flavor is a perception that is formed inside your brain — and not just in your mouth — you can’t separate food from these human variables:

  • A cold beer tastes different on a hot day after a strenuous hike than it does in the middle of winter.
  • A galette eats differently on the patio of a Paris bistro than in the car, rushed to your next appointment.

How do we experience the human element of flavor?

We experience food not just with our physical senses, but through our emotions, which are affected by many variables: our upbringing and culture, our current age, our mood and cravings on a specific day, and all the other factors of flavor combined.

  • , , and elements of food are particularly intertwined with the human factor of the flavor equation.

Example foods

NOSTALGIC — Your grandmother’s Sunday pasta recipe, or funnel cakes at a fair

CULTURAL — Mass-produced corn tortillas vs. handmade fresh masa tortillas; the importance of heirloom corn and traditional technique in Central American cuisine

SURPRISING — The delight of cutting into a molten lava cake

SHOCKING — Trying Hákarl (Icelandic fermented shark meat) for the first time

LUXURY — Freshly shaved white truffles or a tin of caviar, a $5 vs. $50 bottle of wine

AMBIENT — A white-cloth restaurant steak at an anniversary dinner vs. on the grill at a summer BBQ

Eat With Your Emotions