x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Brace yourself: it's time to reflect on the texture of food

The addition of braces on the teeth make life – and eating good food – difficult.

No more stale Swedish fish, beef jerky or tears of Chios. No more crusty heels of sourdough and definitely no more gum. The whole world, now divided into the few things I could chew and everything else, had obviously been made for people without braces. Glorious shards of caramelised sugar that decorated the griddle were now shrapnel. A lone potato chip was lodged perilously in the obstacle course of barbed wire and gluey silicone. Tissue damage, tender and rust-flavoured, fluttered inside my cheeks like lace curtains.

As a free-thinking adult, I’m unencumbered by the duality of freedom and oppression that comes with being, a choiceless and buck-toothed adolescent coerced into orthodontic headgear. No, I volunteered autonomously to have a steel trap placed on the inner and outer surfaces of my teeth, to readjust a badly offset bite that has me gnashing my molars into oblivion.

While poaching quince last month, it failed to take on the rosy hue I’m used to seeing, but I worried about cooking it any longer. Not even my inner child is interested in baby food. Then I got the braces, and after a week of soft foods, I rediscovered my food processor and the genius of a book called The Best Homemade Baby Food on the Planet.

There’s a lot more to soft foods than, well, softness. Food rheology is the study of how food moves and flows. The success of the entire diet industry rests on deliberate acts of self-deception. So while we might describe the body of full-fat milk, ice cream or Greek yogurt as rich or creamy in the mouth, the sensory characteristics that make those foods appealing are a much more complex equation. The non-fat alternatives to these products look different in the container, pour differently, yield differently to a spoon, swirl differently into coffee and cling differently to fruit, feel different against your lips, coat your teeth and tongue differently, leave a different coating in your mouth when you swallow, feel different in your throat and, of course, taste different.

Texture and mouthfeel aren’t synonymous. Think of texture as the way a creamy or crunchy nut butter feels when you spread it on toast and mouthfeel as the way it behaves while you’re chewing it, and how it lingers when you’re finished. Psychorheology is the study of how food feels in our mouths. What texture and mouthfeel have in common is that they’re both subjective experiences, measured by human perception, not laboratory devices. With or without braces, predicting how food will feel to eat is an intuitive science, not an exact one, despite the capacity of research equipment to mimic our senses.

Yesterday, while waiting to board a plane, I sipped on a brothy spoonful of soup floating with chicken the consistency of cat food. Unable to withstand the force of my geriatric lunch, the landmine in my mouth dismantled into the ultimate liability. The adhesive failed. Titanium braces dislodged from my teeth and took up residence, instead, in my oesophagus. I spent the evening in the emergency room trying to avoid a dangerous perforation.

Luckily, my travel companion was a total peach, but I don’t recommend swallowing metal as a bonding exercise. And since one of the prerequisites for mouthfeel is actually have a living, breathing mouth with which to feel, I had the braces removed today.

 

Nouf Al-Qasimi is an Emirati food analyst who cooks and writes in New Mexico