Setting the Table to Make Food Taste Best

When I was just starting homemaking and planning my first dinner guest lists, all my stainless steel flatware came, used, from relatives. And I was satisfied. Then one day I pulled a pint of rich Häagen-Dazs from the freezer … and suddenly realized: I could taste the metal as much as the ice cream! Soon, I shopped for better utensils. With a cautious hand on my checkbook, I wondered: Would silverware be better? Goldware, even? That started me down a long road of exploration:

How we put food in our mouths has a dramatic effect on its taste. Each culture has a preference, established by generations. In Africa, people may eat with their fingers. In Asia, chopsticks are popular. In the West, it’s a knife, fork and spoon.

Since Africans may need to delicately pick apart meat and plants, fingers are natural. And for those in Asia, chopsticks are suitable to pick though dishes prepared in bite-sized pieces. In the West, we lay out a set of kitchen utensils for diners so they can manhandle juicy slabs of meat, soups, and ornery vegetables.

When we eat out, we go native. In Chinese restaurants we show off handling chopsticks. And the same in Thai restaurants? Wait. In Thailand they use knives and forks! But here’s an important clue: US customers still demand chopsticks — and they’re being perfectly reasonable! Set aside cultural mannerisms for a moment, and concentrate on how the material you eat with affects food taste.

Here’s a rundown of options:

Finger food. Enjoy a pizza, fried chicken or a sandwich? There’s a good reason: People prefer eating food with just a hint of familiar human scent. It’s natural. Go with it.

Stainless steel. Shiny, antiseptic, and dishwasher safe. But it also makes Rum Raisin ice cream taste like a chemical factory. And that’s not the only dish stainless steel has problems with!

Silverware and goldware are for display. There’s no taste improvement over steel.

Bamboo. Disposable restaurant chopsticks are unfinished and permeable, so their taste comes through. Thing is, you don’t want bamboo in everything you eat. (Painted chopsticks solve this problem, and they are hand-washable.)

Ceramic. Asians go straight to the chase, here. Ceramic chopsticks, spoons and bowls have no taste, which is perfect for hot dishes where there might be a chemical interaction. Glass is similar, making it excellent for thermos lining. Which brings us to an aside…

Paper. Coffee in a paper cup tastes like … paper. It may be inconvenient, but after a thoughtful taste test, you’ll avoid hot drinks in paper cups like the plague.

Plastic. Among the plastics, Lexan is a combination of strength and neutral taste. For ice cream, apart from eating a bar with your fingers, Lexan is the best. Since ceramic and glass flatware isn’t available, Lexan is a great alternative that won’t interact with your food.

You have choices, now. Though certain materials might make food taste better, often you don’t have a socially acceptable choice! Happily, a hand-eaten sandwich is socially acceptable. Alas, unlike Henry the VIII, you don’t have the very tasty option of digging through the main course with your fingers (And throwing bones over your shoulder!) So what to do? For the critical eater, especially for informal eating at home and in the office, keep a few pieces of the options available to you. Your dining will have a fine edge that nothing else can match!

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