Accounting For Taste

by Daniel Cotton

Peter studied the menu with an intensity you wouldn't normally associate with the task. A bemused look resided on his brow. Precisely the kind of look, in fact, that you'd associate with someone who's just come to the end of a jigsaw puzzle, only to discover the last piece doesn’t fit.

"Ready, order?" asked Kim the Chinese waiter; a young man with the impatient look of a student that would, perhaps, much rather be working on his 4th year computer studies assignment.

Peter looked up. "Do you have one with the flavour designations?" he asked, whilst gesturing toward the plastic -covered-cardboard booklet with the rather iconic picture of a duck, and the words 'Blue Swan Chinese Resteraunt' emblazoned in times new roman on the front cover.

"No flavour designations," replied the waiter in an accent that could only have been for the benefit of customers, "detract from, experience."

"Ok, well ah... you see, I'm a 36, plus or minus 10, 22 tolerance 5..."

"Just pick something please Peter," broke in Carrie who had been sitting opposite, quite patiently (she thought) the whole time. Eventually though the motif of green dragons and dragon lanterns against brick walls and red carpet could hold her attention no longer. "Look, I'll have the Sweet and Sour Chicken," she said decisively. Peter re-opened his menu and focussed his gaze down on it. The waiter tapped his pencil, rubber side down, on his writing pad. Peter sighted a dish he remembered eating at the Golden Tiger when he was in Sydney recently and, flustered, quickly ordered it. "I'll-have-the-Peking-Duck."


"A bottle of the house white," said Carrie, just as her boyfriend had begun to reach for the menu again.

"Thankyou, ready ten minute," said the waiter nodding his head slightly as he took down the order and turned to walk in the direction of the kitchen.

"That's what you ordered last week, in Sydney, isn't it?" accused Carrie as soon as she thought the employees of the Blue Swan were out of earshot.

"Flavour designations are listed for a reason," he replied, not bothering with the formality of actually answering the question. "There are six flavour receptors on the tongue. One for sweetness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness, umami (or savouriness) and one for free fatty acids. What we like to eat and drink, what tastes good to us, is governed by the size and spacing of the taste buds in each of the six categories..."

Behind Carrie's left shoulder their waiter was gesticulating toward them whilst speaking with the Chef in Chinese, and Peter found himself distracted. Carrie took the opportunity to interject. "It's boring knowing exactly what you're getting all the time, trying something new is exciting." She twirled a finger through her newly curled and coloured hair; she'd thought the chest-nut tint would match the trim on her emerald green dress: she hoped Peter would notice. So far he hadn't. "The sizes of the taste buds,” he continued, “act as filters for the molecules in the consumable. It doesn't take much effort to run the standard test and add the result to the menu,” before he added parenthetically, “Pocket food chromatographs are relatively cheap.”

At the third table across, another waiter turned makeshift - minstrel began singing "Appy Bert Day" to the tune of a badly beaten violin. The young couple seated there seemed appreciative if a little confused – celebrating, as they were, their first anniversary.

"I'm sorry, did you say something?" enquired Peter.

Carrie sighed. "How was the Lab today?"


Twenty minutes of monologue about bacteria and micro-biology later; interjected only by Carrie asking if Peter noticed anything different about her – and him resorting again to his jigsaw puzzle look; and just as they were finishing off the last of the house white; Kim returned with two plates of food. He placed the two meals neatly in front of his customers, being careful to cover the one small stain on the white tablecloth – it had appeared when Carrie took her serviette – as he did so. "Dinner, served," he said bowing his head again.

Peter looked at his food. "This isn't Peking Duck," he said. "It's a Swan... and it's Blue!"

“Customer, not always get what order, but always get what want,” grinned the waiter.

Carrie gave Peter a look that said 'Don't you make a scene,' in that way that only girlfriends and parents seem capable of, and Peter relented. "It's fine, thankyou," he said, resigned.

"More Drink?" enquired the waiter, removing the empty bottle from the table.

Carrie, smiling, indicated that the water would be fine. The violin playing minstrel started up playing ‘Appy Bert Day’ again. This time for an elderly gentleman, who, less confused, simply switched off his hearing aid, and began clapping along completely out of time.

Peter dabbed the ‘duck’ with his fork; and then, because Carrie seemed to be enjoying her chicken, placed a piece of the inexplicably blue bird in his mouth and was surprised to find it actually tasted pretty good. Better than good – it was, actually, the best damn duck-swan-birdwhatever he’d ever tasted! It was as if a Supernova explosion had taken place in his mouth and the gravity of the black-hole thus formed had sucked every flavour imaginable (and then some) into this tiny infinitely-dense sensory-well that was once his mouth.

“THIS IS FANTASTIC!!!” he said to Carrie with his mouth still half full, his eyes and cheeks puffed out in sympathy. “Try this, you’ll love it!”

In response, she only raised an eyebrow.


Later that evening, long after Carrie and Peter had left and the restaurant had closed, and he’d finished wiping down the tables, Kim entered the kitchen. “Hey Mike, where are ya?” he yelled.

“I’m in the back room,” came the reply from the Head Chef.

Kim opened the door to the little room. “Have you snagged why the thing doesn’t take with the duck yet?” asked the waiter, “That guy tonight was ready to storm out when I served him up the swan… Lucky the girlfriend stared him down.”

“They usually do.” Mike paused before looking up from the array of beakers, test-tubes, condensers and chemicals he’d been studying. “Something to do with the oil from their backs I think, it won’t allow the product to hydrate properly. And of course without hydration I can’t get the taste buds to expand.” He held a test tube up to the light with his thumb and fore-finger then flicked it with the other hand. “You remember what happened last time I served the Duck. That guy started turning blue, almost called the cops… can’t have the cops here,” he said matter-of-factly before flicking the test tube again. Two layers of clear liquid, one more viscous than the other, seemed to fuse briefly before separating again. “I’ve got an idea, but I’ll need you to run another computer simulation this week. The chirality of this thing could be a problem, I’m afraid the left-hander might induce some unwanted physio-chemical effects.”

Kim smiled. “No problem,” he replied, “My COMP4110 assignment isn’t due until Friday and this lab work is much more interesting.”

Copyright © 2009 Daniel Cotton.
First published in our Infinitas Newsletter, March 2009.

This page last updated 20th July 2009.