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Sights of Taste

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Sights of Taste

By Carolina English.

Being a Visual Studies major has expanded the meanings I have assigned to the world, pushed the importance of multidimensional understanding, and provided a platform to join the two, separate passions I had been juggling: Art and Science. I have loved it. However, I also faced doubts and worries about my future that needed to be addressed. Although Visual Studies has provided two and a half truly fantastic years of unchartered territory, it is this exact unmapped possibility that gives me anxiety. It is new. It is not only a new field of study, but it is also a new field of work, research, and living. There is no “standard” path for me to follow. And although every college commencement speech may encourage us to follow Frost’s “road less traveled,” very few of us actually do so without turning back at least once, questioning ourselves. It is a scary thing being the explorer of your own life. I wanted to push this reality away. I had my list of grad schools that I guess I could have been happy with and I could maybe find some path at. Yet nothing was 100% foolproof. But during this summer’s assistantship, I realized that maybe my future with Visual Studies was much more of a tangible reality than I had previously acknowledged.

This summer I worked with Professor Orkan Telhan to help organize a system to visually assemble tastes. We kicked off the project with the molecular gastronomic technique of spherification: the culinary process of shaping a liquid taste into edible spheres. This process encapsulated specific tastes into gel-like pods. When someone places one of these pods in their month, they experience a burst of taste. It is the modern way of eliciting your taste buds' powers.

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    • Orkan Telhan (Assistant Professor of Fine Arts; Emerging Design Practices) and Carolina English (Visual Studies, C'16) at Charles Addams Hall, University of Pennsylvania.

Sodium Alginate is mixed with water and a specific taste. The solution is then dropped into Calcium Chloride, which reacts with Sodium Alginate, to create a gel-like membrane. In order to create a spherical structure, a round distribution tool, to transfer the Sodium Alginate solution into the Calcium Chloride bath, is required. The smaller the size, the smaller the pods. We tried out a variety of chemicals to create a visual reaction between two different pods. The goal was to make one of five different interactions: Membrane-Membrane, Membrane-Internal, Membrane-Environment, Diffused Content, and Membrane-less. These interactions were important because they categorized unique agencies between different chemicals (which would later become taste), which allowed us to predict what will occur if x pod comes in contact with y pod.

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    • Membrane-Internal Liquid Interaction. The red pods have encapsulated vinegar and the larger, yellow pod has encapsulated Baking Soda. The diffusion of the red, vinegar pods with the internal, yellow Baking Soda solution creates the bubbles seen. 

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    • Membrane-Membrane Interaction. The Baking Soda reacts with the Calcium Chloride to create this this thin white layer surrounding the pods (mostly likely bubbles) and the pods stick together – like they have been fused together. 

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    • Membrane-Environment Interaction. These pods are being held together, because they diffuse water and the surrounding oil repeals that water together and the pods go with it. 

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    • Membrane-Internal Liquid Interaction. Baking Soda encapsulated pods within a vinegar solution. The vinegar is absorbed and the baking soda diffuses out, creating a reaction within the membrane.  

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    • Membrane-Internal Liquid Interaction. Smaller pods are made separately and then placed in a larger pod before it is dropped into the Calcium Chloride. Once it is it placed in the calcium chloride, the larger pod gels around the smaller ones. 

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    • Membrane-Membrane Interaction. Honey pods are sticky in nature (especially when they are dry). They stick to the wall and tend to cluster together when dry (not the case when they are in water).

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    • Diffused Content Interaction. The diffused solutions of these pods mix together and get absorbed back into the pods.

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    • Membrane-less Interaction. These are Decanoic Acid encapsulated pods (Decanoic Acid reacts with a low pH water solution). The Decanoic Acid eventually splits from and dissolves from the pods, moving around the solution and creating a film on the surface.  

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    • Membrane-Internal Liquid Interaction. In this case, there are no smaller pods encapsulated within larger ones. Instead, it is just the internal liquid of one pod that is dissociating its own membrane. These are Baking Soda pods made with Calcium Chloride and the diffusion of Sodium Bicarbonate is reacting with the Calcium Chloride membrane, dissociating it. 

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We could use these predictions to visually interpret taste, in essence use taste like we do paint, and create principles of visual design on what makes “good” taste. For example, we could build an interface that is programmed to create the perfect tasting chocolate for one person. We could program this interface to dispense six bitter pods (let’s say they are blue), three sweet pods (let’s say they are red), four salty pods (green), two umami pods (purple), and no sour pods (which would have been yellow). The result of this interface would be a blue-green image with shadows of red. If, however, we add more sugar pods to adjust this taste, it also adjusts the image, making the end result red with shadows of blue-green. The image is a result of our preferred taste.

Molecular Gastronomy is not new, just like the principles of design are not new. These independent practices have been applied before. What is new however, is the fact that we are now bringing them together, defining these new interactions, giving them a name, and making a place for them. We are specifically creating conditions so new flavors and tastes can emerge from the described interactions. This is very much like my experience with Visual Studies. This summer helped me be at ease with carving out a new career path. The idea of the “road less traveled” is often hyperbolized as a trail completely untouched. A road is never without pockets of activity. Someone has been where you are at least once. It isn’t about starting from scratch or paving this unmarked terrain. It is about connecting to what is already out there in the world. This summer was frustrating at times. In the end I decided to test out most of the experiments on a random idea or whim. What I found out, however, was that each experiment led to a place that provided me with something tangible to work on. This assistantship taught me to be patient and to seek understanding by doing. We are all trying to bring everything together, make sense of it, and have a better, novel understanding of our surroundings. There will be many whims that lead to failures, success, and inspiration. We just have to collect them all, experiment, and go for it. 

Carolina English is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, majoring in Visual Studies and minoring in Cognitive Science. She is currently researching new ways of image making using edible chemistries with Professor Orkan Telhan of Penn Design. When she is not chemically cooking up tasty images, she is studying neurological ways to produce optical illusions and mental images, photographing random people in random places, and planning her next travel exploration.

Edited by Mariah Macias.