The Aesthetic Experience of Dinning: Coffee tastes smoother in a blue mug, and other strange truths

The dinning experience is an aesthetic experience.

There are individual tastes, and there is often a background of habits and history, of preferences played out, that decides what things we go after and what things we avoid. Growing up in a vegetarian kitchen from my early teens on I got the chance to experience a diet that to a conventional meat and potatoes American palate of the 1970’s might have seemed quite exotic. And I learned to enjoy most things I was served. Still can’t stand brussel sprouts, though…..

In a sense, taste is in the mouth of the diner. You can’t make universal claims on taste because there will always be persons who disagree. As amazing as it seems, not everyone actually likes strawberry ice cream. Preposterous, I know!

But whether one person likes the taste or not, prefers other things, we’d probably like to say that the thing itself tastes like it tastes, and people merely disagree whether they like it. A banana doesn’t taste like motor oil to one person and sharp cheese to the next. We like to say that a banana tastes like a banana, maybe not in the precise same way, but close enough. There is a range of banana taste that we can all relate to. Liking or disliking it is more personal.

This assurance of similar experiences allows cooks to assemble recipes of things that seem to go well together. They can anticipate the eater’s reaction to a certain extent because its not all random or entirely relative. If you like fish you may like it cooked this way. If you like beets you might like them prepared like this…. Combining foods is not random chance. Tomatoes and eggplant have this flavor. Fennel and artichokes have this flavor. Chocolate and raspberry have this flavor. Barbecue sauce and potato crisps have this flavor. In other words, the prevalence of food combinations is not an accident. And each person must navigate them according to their own histories and preferences.

But there are deeper perspectives on this, and some scientists and psychologists are wondering whether taste is simply the food itself or something more than that. And research has proved the question to be quite instructive. It has found that the food itself is merely one component of the eating experience, and that what we perceive as taste is in fact influenced by everything from the cutlery we use, the tableware we eat from, the color it has, and even the weight of both utensils and dishes. Fascinating!

Here is a discussion by Maria Godoy from an NPR Story on Weekend Edition that was published in an NPR ‘The Salt” blog post:

Which spoonful of yogurt looks the tastiest? Studies show people tend to eat less when their dishes are in sharp color-contrast to their food.

Which spoonful of yogurt looks the tastiest? Studies show people tend to eat less when their dishes are in sharp color-contrast to their food.

Being “born with a silver spoon in your mouth” has long been known to have advantages. Apparently, eating off a silver spoon also has its perks — it seems to make your food taste better.

That’s the word from a group of researchers who’ve been studying how cutlery, dishes and other inedible accoutrements to a meal can alter our perceptions of taste. Their latest work, published in the journal Flavour, looks at how spoons, knives and other utensils we put in our mouths can provide their own kind of “mental seasoning” for a meal.

“Some of my wine-drinking colleagues would have me believe that flavor is really out there on the bottle, in the glass or on the plate,” says Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. “But I think it is much more something that we … understand better through looking at what’s happening inside the brain, and not just the mouth of the person eating or drinking.”

Alterations in taste perceptions aren’t necessarily the result of the cutlery itself, he says, but of the mental associations we bring to a meal. “Silver spoons and other silver cutlery, I’m guessing, are more commonly associated with high-quality food in our prior eating experiences,” Spence says.

In recent years, psychologists have found that the color and shape of plates and other dishes can have an impact on the eating experience. Studies have found, for example, that people tend to eat less when their dishes are in sharp color-contrast to their food, that the color of a mug can alter a drinker’s perception of how sweet and aromatic hot cocoa is, and that drinks can seem more thirst-quenching when consumed from a glass with a “cold” color like blue.

So why study cutlery? For starters, there wasn’t any real scientific literature on the topic, Spence tells Linda Wertheimer on Weekend Edition Sunday.

Or, as he put it to The Salt, cutlery is “one of the few things we stick in our mouth that others have stuck in their mouths. So it’s a peculiar thing.”

Among Spence’s findings so far:

  • People will rate the very same yogurt 15 percent tastier and more expensive when sampled with a silver spoon rather than a plastic spoon or a lighter (by weight) option.
  • Combining a heavier bowl with a heavier spoon will tend to make yogurt taste better.
  • Plastic packaging or plate ware that’s more rounded will tend to emphasize sweetness.
  • Angular plates tend to bring out the bitterness in food, which works well for dishes like dark chocolate or coffee-based desserts, Spence says.
  • People will rate cheeses as tasting saltier when eaten off a knife, compared to a toothpick, spoon or fork.
  • In general, foods tend to be perceived as more enjoyable when eaten off heavier plates and with heavier cutlery – perhaps because heft is equated with expense.

Such research isn’t merely academic, Spence says. Food companies use these kinds of studies to inform how they package their products. And in a world where modernist chefs already pay lots of attention to how foods are arranged visually on the plate, cutlery, he suggests, presents a new frontier for fine dining.

Spence has already teamed up with some of the world’s top modernist chefs, using their restaurants as real-world settings to test findings from the lab. Working with Ferran Adria, the culinary superstar behind Barcelona’s now-shuttered elBulli, Spence tells us, he learned that strawberry mousse tastes “10 percent sweeter and 15 percent more flavorful on a white plate than on a black plate.”

And this summer, Spence says, he’ll explore how ridged spoons impact the dining experience at The Fat Duck, the restaurant run by British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal. A previous collaboration between the two resulted in The Sound of the Sea, in which diners eat oysters while listening to an iPod playing the sounds of crashing waves. It’s become a signature dish on Fat Duck’s tasting menu.

“Maybe in a year or two,” Spence tells The Salt, “we will have signature cutlery associated with this chef or that.”


Think of it like this: The food or drink is but one of several ingredients in how something tastes. Just as individual food ingredients can be ‘hidden’ or disguised by blending them with other overpowering tastes, its all a game of influence and contexts. We see objects better and less well depending on the setting, how well it is lit, and whether there are other things obstructing our view. Context and influence.

And just as a black light makes certain objects more visible, it turns out that an orange colored mug will make hot chocolate taste better, and a red color will make the same food taste hotter. A pink can will make sodas taste sweeter, and, as further described by Jesus Diaz, “strawberry mousse tastes more intense and sweet in a white plate as opposed to a black one…. Coffee is affected too; a brown packaging makes its taste stronger and more aromatic, while red makes it less strong and yellow or blue make it smoother.” (Take note of that last bit, all you potters out there!)

Strange beautiful, this world we live in! Not nearly as straightforward and simple as we might like to think.

Peace all!

Make beauty real!


About Carter Gillies

I am an active potter and sometime pottery instructor who is fascinated by the philosophical side of making pots, teaching these skills, and issues of the artistic life in general. I seem to have a lot to say on this blog, but I don't insist that I'm right. I'm always trying to figure stuff out, and part of that involves admitting that I am almost always wrong in important ways. If you are up for it, please help me out by steering my thoughts in new and interesting directions. I always appreciate the challenge of learning what other people think.
This entry was posted in Art, Arts education, Beauty, Ceramics, Creative industry, Creativity, metacognition, Pottery. Bookmark the permalink.

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