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barbra-streisand

Feature photo Barbra Streisand, singer, New York, October 1, 1965

There’s a scene in Napoleon Dynamite involving Napoleon judging milk for an FFA competition.

“The defect in that one is bleach,” Napoleon observes. Later he remarks, “This tastes like the cow got into an onion patch.” The judge concurs again. “Yessssssss,” he hisses.

Much of movie-making involves some stretching of the truth. Being able to tell if a cow was in an onion patch by tasting its milk, however, is not one of these examples. Milk judging contests do happen. But what about a milk tasting at your favorite restaurant?

Taking this to a level many of us will never know—and that might be a good thing— The Lactivist: Nursing Out Loud blog touches upon how not only cow’s milk, but human milk is prone to such transparency. What was consumed while the milk was being produced makes its way into the milk. To the dismay of milk producers all over, this realization will never translate to a future of milk bars full of people swirling their milk, smelling the bouquet for onions or even honey, however appealing that might be.

Milk simply isn’t complex enough. Wine, on the other hand, is complicated. Along with coffee and what I’m sure are many other consumables, wine brims with chemical complexity. Smell leather in a wine? That’s not your imagination. You’re brain is literally detecting the same chemicals found in leather. Smell orange blossoms and you’re not in an orange grove in early spring while smelling your white wine? Oh, if it were only so.

The complexity in wine is so much so that we use the word “bouquet” to describe the way it smells. For many, however, wine smells like, well, wine. Sometimes berry aromas rise to the surface or perhaps chocolate or butter, but this is rare. The phenomenon of being open to suggestion doesn’t help matters either. But it does indicate that there’s something strange happening when the brain strains to identify a smell, that it’s quick to make real the suggestion of a label or from a friendly face. It’s one of the few experiences in which we are easily talked into sensing something. To be talked into seeing something is laughable. But smell?

Several years ago an experiment was conducted on London taxi drivers. The streets of London are known as being some of the most difficult to navigate in the world. Conversely, this would make its taxi drivers some of the best in the world. Using an fMRI, scientists studied the brains of these taxi drivers while taking part in a fictional day of work care of an outfitted Playstation2 game. The conclusion as published by the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America: “It seems that there is a capacity for local plastic change in the structure of the healthy adult human brain in response to environmental demands.” In other words, it would seem that the part of the brain responsible for navigation grew for these drivers not because they were born with an innate sense for direction and memory but because of the fares. Their jobs, it would seem, grew their brain.

Such is the case for wine tasting. With each sniff and swirl and sniff again, the brain grows a wee bit. Not only that, wine tasting is one of the few things we humans do involving both hemispheres of the brain. This helps to explain why there’s such colorful metaphor, says author of “Wine Tasting: A Professional Handbook,” Ronald S. Jackson, involved in wine writing. Our analytical side works in concert with our emotional side as we struggle to come up with the right word for what we’re sensing. Out of this relationship, some colorful language results. And with our sense of smell so closely linked with memory, this journey can be as complicated as the bouquet itself.

Patience, then, is key. While it is true some may be born with an innate ability to pick apart a bouquet like a school of piranha would to prey, most of us come to do so one sniff at a time. For this, I, for one, am so very thankful. And in the meantime, I’ll still smell my milk and wonder if it really is onion or bleach or alfalfa I’m tasting, at least until I add the chocolate.

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