quantifying sensing

tonight, my daughter and i took in the lovely flavors of a new [to us] local thai joint. it was the kind of meal in which everything that sounded good was requested from the tiny kitchen, a few bites were taken from each dish, and everything else was packaged for days of delicious leftovers. my favorite kind of dining.

i paused at the menu cover with its spice guide, though, struck by the attempt to categorize sensing.


these days, i am a solid ‘mild+’ but for most of my life [pre-pregnancy, pregnancy changes everything], i consistently opted for the top tier. perhaps this was initially driven by a want for toughness [or to convince myself that i was ‘daring and brave’ or ‘willing to go all the way’], but i grew to crave the shock to my tongue, the heat in my belly, the flush in my cheeks, the exquisite cool of a plum wine pairing, the feeling of aliveness. i liked it. my request for panang curry, level 4 [milwaukee’s king and i was on a 1-4 numbered system at that time], was often double checked by staff before sending to the kitchen [you sure?], and again a few bites in [you okay?].

where i lingered, though, was not in the heat index of my own palette/desire. i am curious about the attempt to quantify experience. and i am left with questions, rather than answers. can we rationalize experience? can we count/chart/graph/generalize feeling? how much of sensory experience is linked to desire, as this chart indicates?

i am reminded of a meal that my daughter and i shared two years ago at another thai restaurant. her ‘no spice’ arrived covered in chili flakes. at first taste she was shocked. it was too much for me, even. but by the time our server returned to ask about our meals, my four-year-old had decided that it was still delicious, that she didn’t want to wait for another dish to be prepared. the server comped a creamy iced tea to cool things down a bit and apologized profusely, but there was no taking the meal from my girl. she desired that pad thai.

mild+ is my threshold, but that feels like more than ‘a tiny taste’ to be honest. my child prefers no spice, but when she is hungry enough, or the desire is strong enough, she will power through. also, the person preparing my meal may have a much higher or much lower heat preference/tolerance. how can a spice index possibly be agreed upon?


and so it comes down to desire then?

how willing? how bold? how daring?


part of me longs for rationalization, numbers, logic. but even measurements [a pinch, teaspoon, dollop] cannot function as communicative without also understanding the flavor of the pepper on its own, the temperature and timing of the cooking process, and the flavor interplay between other ingredients in a particular dish.

the scoville scale comes close, i think. measuring the heat units of capsaicin concentration is interesting lab work. it gives us winners and runners up in a race to cultivate the world’s hottest pepper. it affords bragging rights to the most heat-tolerant among us. it informs my own pepper plant selection each spring. however, even if i analyzed the capsaicin presence in a pepper at harvest, before cooking, and after it had mingled with other vegetables/oils/acids/sugars while simmering in my soup or sauce, i could not predict the experience of any one person who might have a taste. nor could one accurately articulate the experience to me. a scale cannot measure experience. language cannot capture it. it belongs to one.

but still we try [research, assessment, menus].

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