Edible dirt is a thing. It is what it sounds like: food disguised as dirt. Pioneered and developed by Michel Bras in the late ’70s and eventually served at his eponymous restaurant, the original dirt was a mix of dried black olives, crumbed brioche, and tomato powder. In 1992, he famously served a plate of vegetarian crudités in what looked like a slice of vegetable garden, inspiring chefs for decades to come. René Redzepi, Daniel Patterson, James Syhabout, David Kinch, and Jeremy Fox have all played dirty. What each chef’s “dirt” is made of varies: it could be coffee and cardamom, hazelnuts soaked in beet juice, roasted parsnip, or chicory and dehydrated potato.
The fun, if you’re into this sort of thing, is in the act of deception. Your eyes tell you it’s dirt (yuck), but your brain tells you that you’re in a fancy restaurant, so this must be some tasty faux dirt (which your tongue subsequently confirms). This act is less about taste than about the pleasure we derive from being deceived.
We attend a magic show, not because we long to see a rabbit pulled out of a top hat, but because of the pleasurable feelings of awe and wonder at how it was pulled off, of how the stranger got away with tricking us. We enjoy having the wool pulled over our eyes, as long as we come to the wool-pull willingly. We particularly love hearing about others who had the wool pulled over their eyes. I know this because I recently published a book about forgery. The media loves art forgers, who are most often depicted as lovable rapscallions (rather than proper criminals) who dupe only the wealthy, dupe-deserving elite. We love to read about how the victims were fooled, reveling in the cleverness, skill, and sleight-of-hand of the forgers.
Wealthy ancient Romans delighted in things that were not as they appeared. Emperor Nero’s banquet room featured a ceiling that rotated in imitation of the motion of the celestial bodies, or with hidden panels that could be withdrawn to shower guests with flower petals. He liked to hide gems in one’s dinner, which was a great treat, as long as you didn’t bite down too hard. In Satyricon, Petronius tells us of a feast thrown by Trimalchio, where guests were served “A hare done up with wings to look like Pegasus, a wild sow with its pregnant belly full of live thrushes, quinces bristling thorns so they looked like sea urchins, and roast pork sculpted into the shapes of fish, song birds, and a goose.” In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, famous artists, including Flemish master Jan van Eyck, were tasked with designing elaborate banquet centerpieces, like pies with living birds trapped inside. Whether or not the guests would want to eat a cake that living birds had recently occupied, no doubt scared out of their wits and likely pooping ferociously, is another matter. The pleasure was in the deception.
In the scientific journal, Neutron, C. Daniel Salzman of Columbia University published a study on aversion and pleasure. He wrote, “Both pleasant and averse stimuli can elicit arousal and attention, and their salience and intensity increases when they occur by surprise.” His study confirms what may already be obvious: our brains are wired to be more intensely attentive and aroused if something pleasurable surprises us. By contrast, if we are surprised by disliking something, it is also a more memorable and potent experience than if we are pretty sure we’ll dislike something ahead of time: “That looks like poo, pretty sure it tastes like it, too” versus “Hey, that looks like chocolate, I think I’ll have a bi…oh…god…”
All of this action takes place in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes the emotional results of sensory stimuli and prepares the response. Salzman and his colleagues revealed that “different neuronal populations may subserve two sorts of processes mediated by the amygdala: those activated by surprising reinforcements of both valences—such as enhanced arousal and attention—and those that are valence-specific, such as fear.” So there are two distinct slots for information, one for happy surprises and one for negative ones.
In the standard restaurant scenario, you think about a nice steak, so you order it. You see it coming and then eat it, and have your fantasy fulfilled. Everyone is on the same page, expecting the steak to taste like what we have come to associate with steak. But wily chefs, from the age of Nero to Noma, harness the power of surprise pleasures, not fulfilling expectations but reversing them in a positive way. Make delicious what looks or sounds unpleasant, or downright inedible.
No chef is more at the fore of how neurology meets eating than the Fat Duck’s Heston Blumenthal, who consulted psychologists about menu fonts (he told The Daily Telegraph that “Using a spikey font on the menu for an acidic dish heightens the taste—it really makes a difference”). He made a splash with “meat fruit,” a 14th century recipe that places a liver terrine in spherical form, embowered by mandarin jelly, so it looks like a mandarin orange. It takes three chefs five hours each to prepare, but has been the most-photographed hit of his restaurant, Dinner, and the delight is worth the effort. There’s also his flight of “breakfast cereals,” presented in miniature, single-portion pseudo cereal boxes of the sort found at hotel buffets, but which feature dried parsnips.
Deceptive dishes are different from those that defy expectation with whimsy or artistry. Some of Blumenthal’s experiments are more about stimulation than surprise: “Sounds of the Sea,” for instance, in which you eat sand and seafood while listening to waves crash on headphones. Or consider the famous eggs benedict dish at wd~50, which pleased because it tasted like a very good eggs benedict but looked like art. Whimsy is meant to draw a smile from the diner, whereas amygdala-tripping deception is about inverting expectations to provoke awe—experience-enhancing extras versus illusionist’s stagecraft.
The appeal of the deceptionist chef is not unlike that of the master forger. Art forgers create handmade works that appear to be one thing and yet are another. They exhibit skill, wit, and wile, and fool people who, in theory, should know better. But unlike forgers, who deceive and unlawfully defraud, deceptionist chefs invite diners to be voluntarily fooled. They are culinary magicians, whom we pay not just to fill our bellies, but tickle our amygdalas, to entertain, dazzle, and trick.