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Why Eating Should Be More Like Sex

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I lost my virginity in the dark.

Probably not unlike other teenagers in the eighties, my prior exposure to sex had been a combination of Judy Blume novels and John Hughes movies. I was equally tantalized and terrified at the prospect. Never in a million years would I have thought that people had sex with the lights on.

At that phase of my life, I knew just as little about getting pleasure from food. I ate from vending machines and drive-thrus, and sped through family meals. I'd then rush off to more important things than family togetherness and the communal savoring of food.

I'm sure at some point in school I learned that the way we experience the world is through our senses. But the connection was never made to eating or sexual relations, although both activities are base, primal urges that we have trouble repressing, even when we want to. But today our species is assured continuation in the short term, and we have control of our reproduction (at least under the current administration) so much of our copulation is strictly for entertainment. The same can be said for eating. We don't have to scrounge for nourishment like our cavemen ancestors did. In fact, we eat more calories in one meal than many humans eat over the course of a day. Much of the time, we're eating for entertainment. So why don't we recognize that each one of our senses is stimulated in the course of each activity? If we did, we'd get a lot more pleasure out of both.

Sex is, of course, a tactile experience. Yet our enjoyment of it comes from the combination of visual, sound, smell and taste inputs. If you have trouble imagining how our eyes impact our sensuality, all you have to do is consider that porn accounts for 30% of all internet traffic. We use visual images to stimulate ourselves. Having sex in the dark employs only 80% of our sensory apparatus. Maybe that's why my earliest experiences were so unsatisfying.

We similarly stimulate ourselves with food. After watching a gorgeous, natural light-kissed cookbook video eight times in one day, I realized my behavior was veering dangerously close to a food porn addiction. You cookbook readers out there hanging your heads in shame know exactly what I'm talking about. Yet we also cheat ourselves with food. We eat while watching TV, which is somewhat worse than eating in the dark (which I've done and write about in my book) because it occupies the brain as well as the eyes. True food appreciation requires undistracted use of the brain in addition to all five of the senses.

Just last week Charles Spence's lab at Oxford University published results of their latest research on how sound affects our experience of food. He proved that the same food tastes vastly different when vastly different music plays in the background. I'm waiting for restaurateurs to learn this and more appropriately pair the food and music they serve to their customers. As Spence's research has proven, the wrong music can literally leave a bitter taste in your mouth. If you think this doesn't happen with sex, it's only because you never made out with Jimbo Redwine in the 8th grade with Run-DMC playing in the background.

When I'm giving book talks, I often get asked questions about taste oddities. There's the predicable question about why urine smells weird after eating asparagus. And the inevitable debate over cilantro: love it or hate it? But my favorite question is when someone dances delicately around the topic before getting to the point, which is the smell or taste of her partner. This shouldn't be so embarrassing to us. Our sense of smell is one of the ways we choose partners, according to much research on the subject. So, my first response is that if your partner smells wrong, he probably is (for you). And my second response is that if your partner tastes wrong, you could always employee the artichoke trick. Unfortunately, not all of us experience the effect wherein everything that follows the choke tastes as sweet as sugar.

Oddities aside, I advocate treating mealtime like you'd treat a much-anticipated intimate encounter. After all, eating is the only multi-sensory experience you can enjoy three times a day, every day, in private or in public without worry. Give eating your full attention. Turn off the TV and radio, put down the book or magazine, and don't answer the phone if it rings. Life will wait. Hot food deserves respect. And it deserves the attention of all of your senses.

Take your meal in visually, noticing the contours and topography of your food. Listen to what it's telling you with its signature sound. Smell it ortho-nasally (by sniffing it through your nostrils) before you take a bite. Once you put it in your mouth, chew slowly, breathe, and notice the slightly different smell you experience retro-nasally (from inside your mouth up and back through your nose). Then, try to detect which of the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami are present. Pay attention to texture contrast, and how the food feels as you chew. Listen to the melody while it's in your mouth. Swallow only when you've gotten the full pleasure out of each bite.

And most importantly, with regard to any and all activities, if it doesn't taste delicious, don't swallow.

Barb Stuckey is the author of Taste What You're Missing: The Passionate Eater's Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good [Free Press, $26.00].