The most unexpected things can enhance—or ruin—our dining experience. Consider, for instance, Denis Martin’s modernist restaurant in Switzerland, where on the center of each table sits a ceramic cow perched on a can. Diners invariably pick it up to peer underneath. That’s when the “moo” sounds begin. Soon, all of the diners are laughing at the bovine chorus. Not only does the joke lift their mood, it makes their meals taste better.
These are the sorts of delightful stops Charles Spence makes in this investigation into the science behind all things gustatory. Gastrophysics: The New Science of Eating is not the dry, cold compilation of scientific facts about food you might expect from the book’s title. Yes, Spence, the head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory at the University of Oxford provides all the information readers could want on how the sight, sound, taste and even shape of the foods we eat affects our appetite. Yet, this entertaining book is less a series of science findings than a humorously hosted tour through some of the world’s most fascinating dining rooms. In Spence’s hands, science loses none of its precision, but is delivered with welcome human warmth.
Spence explains why people react badly to wrong-colored food (blue steak is nobody’s favorite), how music affects our drink purchases (French music means French wine), and how the atmosphere changes our dining experience (the scent of moss in the air is relaxing). In each of these instances, and many more drawn from a lifetime of experience, the co-author of The Perfect Meal and frequent feature writer provides quotations, asides, jokes and illustrations that add depth to his observations. Like the food he describes, Spence’s words offer a rich sensory experience for the reader.