After my first taste test, I found myself on a mailing list to invite participants to upcoming tests. I halfheartedly attempted to sign up for a testing of lunchmeat, but I wasn’t chosen for that study–perhaps my lack of interest showed through in my pre-test. (“How often do you eat lunchmeat?” “NEVER.”)
But happily I was invited to join a chocolate test. This one was radically different from my first experience, starting with the staging: rather than perching on stools in a kitchen lab or studio, we were seated at tables of shiny dark wood in the university’s lounge, replete with a bar and soft, warm lighting. I wonder how instrumental this location was to the test, which asked not only for taste descriptors and whether we liked each sample, but for a sense the chocolate’s relative value. A bar of chocolate in a plain wrapper rested on each table: we were told firmly not to eat or touch the bars, but to consider them a reference point for the questions for each sample which asked whether we’d pay X amount for a bar of that size.
For each round, we were given a small square of chocolate to consider. We could indicate whether we liked it or not, whether or not we thought it worth the designated amount, and which of two pages of adjectives described the chocolate. There was also a place for notes, which I made use of, discovering that I found most of the chocolates too buttery and rich (I prefer dark and bitter) but that I’d be willing to cook or bake with a bar if the price was right.
The chocolate was not particularly to my liking, and some my responses were cavalier, but I noticed that I felt a little anxious during this procedure. Two pages of taste descriptors gave some options that you’d expect–is the chocolate creamy? salty? does it taste of caramel or hazelnut? Is it soft or does it have a bite?–as well as some surprising but reasonable options (is it rancid or oily? Is there a bitter aftertaste?). There were also a number of options that I couldn’t taste in any of the samples, or wasn’t sure how to detect: vanilla tones, woody notes. I felt a little like some people might when they feel they must “learn” wine; I wondered if my palate was dull or uneducated in the finer notes of chocolate. Should I be tasting woodsiness? Is that an acceptable complexity in chocolate?
I felt even more awkward when I stood up to leave, and I saw half-gnawed squares of chocolate in the dishes at many other tables. During each round I had popped the entire square in my mouth, letting it melt on my tongue and unfold its layers and aftertastes as it would. I had come in late, so it’s possible that I’d missed instructions or recommendations to nibble and abandon the samples, but in the absence of that information I felt that I had somehow been greedy or uncouth.
I left the lounge with $10 in cash for my trouble, a slight sickness of stomach from the dairy-rich chocolates, and a mind busy with class- and propriety-related implications of this eating and tasting.