Delicious: The Evolution of Flavor and How It Made Us Human is a fascinating and insightful exploration into how flavor has shaped the diet and history of humans. Authors Rob Dunn and Monica Sanchez dive into the topic with equal parts humor, anecdotes grounded in worldwide travel, and scientific research conveyed in easily digestible chapters.
Publisher Princeton University Press touts the exploratory nature of the book’s authors: “They consider the role that flavor may have played in the invention of the first tools, the extinction of giant mammals, the evolution of the world’s most delicious and fatty fruits, the creation of beer, and our own sociality.”
Foodies, chefs, brewers, and anyone deeply interested in flavor will glean useful tidbits from the book. Delicious unpacks theories, such as researcher Richard Wrangham’s flavor-seeker hypothesis, that can help us better understand how we taste food and drink and why we seek it out. The book examines differences in human and chimpanzee taste receptors of humans. These differences might account for how and where our ancient ancestors sought out food on the basis of its flavor at its height.
Other topics touch on how cooking enhanced flavor and simply made food more delicious. Wrangham “argues that the proximate reason that our ancestors began to use fire was because cooked food is delicious, or at least more delicious than raw food.”
Chapter six of the book references how fifteen compounds in hops trigger at least one of three bitter taste receptors. The hoppy aromas evolved as a plant’s self-defense mechanism to warn of the presence of toxins. Plants attempted to ward off animals that might eat them. However, humans have learned to gather hops, spices, and other plant matter with defensive chemicals and warning aromas and incorporate them in food and drink. As such, the authors ask why humans ignored these defenses and began to seek out, use, and enjoy spiced foods.
With regard to beer, hops were first used to kill bacteria that would spoil beer. However, the flavor of hops wasn’t originally appealing to many. Now hops are less of an anti-bacterial measure in modern brewing and used more for the sake of sensory pleasure. The authors note that over time “some beer drinkers learned to associate hops with pleasure.”
Elsewhere, the authors note that “fermentation frees up calories” that our ancestors would have spent cutting, pounding, and chewing food to make it easier to digest. Certainly in the case of beer, humans can more easily and efficiently intake calories than, say, chewing on raw grain like a cow. More relevant, we drink beer because the flavors taste good and the alcohol can facilitate socialization and a sense of wellbeing.