Simple rituals may make our food taste better.

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 25, 2013 - 2:22 PM

Little everyday habits, such as twisting an Oreo apart or popping the cork on a bottle of Champagne, can enhance our enjoyment of food.

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Photo: JOEL KOYAMA • jkoyama@startribune.com,

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Is an Oreo cookie better when pulled apart?

The answer might be yes, but not because a separated cookie has more flavor.

Those who prefer the lift-and-lick method might not know it, but they’re performing a ritual. Same with people who peel an apple from left to right, fold a piece of pizza in half before they eat it, or tap a soda can before opening it.

These small, simple acts make food taste better. Even carrots.

That reflects the findings of a study by researchers from the University of Minnesota and Harvard on how rituals affect food.

In tests that paired rituals with specific foods, study participants reported that “the flavor tasted more pungent, and people took longer to eat the foods, a sign of savoring,” said lead researcher Kathleen Vohs, a professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management. “They rated the experience as better, and were willing to pay more to do it again.”

Rituals, acts typically repeated in the same manner, are used on special occasions and in ceremonies (sacred and profane) to heighten the experience and to connect us to one another and to the past. A food-related ritual can be anything from popping a Champagne cork to serving the Thanksgiving cranberries in great-grandmother’s cut-glass bowl.

“They get ingrained in our psyches,” said Mark Blegen, chair of St. Catherine University’s Department of Nutrition and Exercise Sciences, “and because of those rituals, we outsource our decisionmaking to the environment and just eat.”

Today’s laboratory: millions of groaning dinner tables around the country. The ritual: carving the turkey, which might evoke Norman Rockwellian warm-and-fuzzy feelings, but, said sensory scientist Marcia Pelchat, also will kick-start a physical reaction.

“That smell of the turkey being carved is a very potent trigger for food craving,” said Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Pennsylvania. “You’re watching while it’s carved, and you can’t eat it. That is likely to stimulate desire and then enjoyment and appreciation.”

Most often, mealtime rituals are more subtle, but no less effective.

At Minneapolis’ posh La Belle Vie, general manager/co-owner Bill Summerville coaches his crew on, well, everything: from wearing crisp attire to the right amount of attentiveness, the choreography of greeting guests and escorting them to a table, even posture.

“Everything we do — how we stand, how we move — has an effect on our guests,” Summerville said. “It might be conscious or subconscious. [Customers] probably don’t lock in and say the table is aligned just right, but it registers.”

While he was hesitant to say that these little touches make the food taste better, Summerville insisted that “you can’t have one without the others — the food, the service, the atmosphere, the small things that make the experience better, they all add up.”

Expectations and cues

Vohs’ research was a bit more plebian.

She had noticed one of her own rituals — putting just a pinch of sugar into her espresso, tasting, then adding more until she has used half the packet. But it was a different kind of beverage that gave her the idea to study the way ritual affects how we eat.

“I was having friends over for a small party,” she said, “and I opened a wine bottle with a screw cap and made a little sour face, because it just felt so flat, so unceremonial. Then I turned to my friends and wondered if the wine would ever taste good given that it was missing the whole romance of opening the cork.”

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