Interview to Mark Miodownik, from the Institute of Making
I went to UCL to catch up with Mark Miodownik, materials scientist and co-director of the Institute of Making: an interdisciplinary lab for probing, touching, and interrogating ‘stuff’.
Mark’s recent collaboration with artist Zoe Laughlin The Taste of Materials began by asking what the ‘spooniest spoon’ would be made of. We spoke about taste – in both senses of the term – and the speculative future of cutlery.
Mark Miodownik – It’s been a ten year journey and it’s been very exciting… you know when you’re a kid and you’ve asked for this thing, you’ve badgered your parents for this particular thing, and Christmas comes and you look under the tree and you are just — ahhh! And it is there. That’s how I feel.
Do you remember what the thing was back then, under the tree?
It was an action man. With gripping hands and eagle eyes, yes. And the blue underpants.
I remember the delight, you know the sheer joy. And it’s that continuing delight that The Institute of Making holds. It’s so versatile, like an action man.
[He hands me a small, heavy cube made of metal]
…The thing you notice as soon as you handle it is “wait a minute this feels cold”, and it’s a metal, so that’s what you expect but why? What makes metals feel cold and woods feel warm, what makes foams feel rough and plastics feel smooth? And that sparked a whole area of research for us, which is: how much of touch (or taste) is your physiology, in your mouth or fingers? And how much of it is in your brain, that is, what you expect? And how much of it is in the material itself? Trying to separate these things out has been a main research theme for us.
This seems to be at the heart of the Spoon Tasting project. We have seven spoons here, all the same shape and size but they’re made of different metals…
Can you tell what they are? Gold, silver, stainless steel, copper… zinc, chrome, tin.
These are electro-plated so they’re not different weights. For the blind taste-test you don’t want any difference in weight, because it’s known that the weight of cutlery will influence the taste of the food. People tend to think that food is better or higher quality if the cutlery is heavier. We used stainless steel as the ‘control spoon’ because that’s the one that most people are used to tasting. It does have a taste but it’s very slight. And we had no idea what was going to happen, which of course is the beauty of the experiment. We did have a hypothesis, that the chemical reactivity of the metals would influence things like bitterness or metallic-ness, or sweetness, which turned out to be correct… So we started to think “well could you make a meal in which, whilst the zinc spoon tastes incredibly bitter on its own in your mouth, it actually compliments the other flavours. One bit is edible and the other bit is inedible, what would that be like?”
And this became the basis for your tasting meal at Michelin star restaurant Quilon. There is certainly an interest in a scientific, almost alchemical approach to food in contemporary gastronomy. Heston Blumenthal was there wasn’t he?
Obviously those top chefs are always looking for something new. Actually, on the one hand some of this stuff is very very subtle, the flavours in your mouth, especially if you pair it with another strong flavour, then the spoon isn’t maybe as strong in terms of is influence. But then we’ve all been in the situation where you’ve eaten something acidic, like tomato soup, with a spoon made of silver, and you get a very strong twang in your mouth. So this meal had both subtle and very strong effects. We also did non-blind taste tests; now you can see that this is gold, you have cultural associations with that colour, and at the same time it also scores very highly in ‘taste’-taste. So you have taste-taste and ‘taste’-taste… anyway the point is, you’re not going to go to a restaurant blind unless you go to Dans le Noir, so ignoring colour is not a good thing. Given that gold came up as one of the sweet materials, we thought you could use a gold spoon to serve a delicious chocolate mousse, and maybe you could dial down the sweetness of the chocolate because the spoon would be compensating for it.
I love this idea of the extension of flavour out into the vehicle that is feeding you. This chain of extended sensation leading out from the very immediate space of the mouth into the rather detached form of the spoon, which is also a part of “flavour” and “taste”. I suppose there’s a lot of archaeological evidence about the materiality of spoons in different cultural and historical settings, for instance ceremonial spoons used for specific purposes…
You know people are often born and grow up with a silver spoon. And the burgeoning middle-class served food with silver cutlery on feast days, to show their wealth. And when stainless steel came in, although it was more inert and therefore a superior material in terms of taste, it actually ranked lower than silver. Even today. So that’s interesting, in that we basically have a hierarchy of historical value that overrides present day flavour in our mouths.
I’m a big fan of the Henry Wellcome collection, all these medical objects which hold a particular kind of power that is somehow conveyed through their materiality. They’re decorative, ritualistic, they’re terrifying… anything but neutral. And I feel like that’s something that you rarely encounter in today’s utility objects.
The bespoke is an interesting area, because again at some point in time we were sold modernism as a way forward. “Everyone should be allowed to have wine glasses in their house so long as they’re all the same!” You’re only ever going to be given two or three types and you have to choose between them. And actually when you go to second-hand shops, you see this enormous range of wine glasses, and you realize how uniform and regimented we’ve become. Almost as we’ve become increasingly obsessed with materiality as a culture, the more our objects have become uniform. It’s really bizarre… we haven’t individualized in the way we express ourselves through objects.
Yes, this individual claim to having them and to purchasing them, without taking any real interest in what they actually are… I hadn’t thought about the current trend for vintage china shops selling mismatched brickabrack as ‘postmodern’ before, but the tendency to personalize cups and saucers – rather than going for uniform sets – really is ‘post’ or alter-modern in this sense.
So then I think, when you look at the maker-culture that’s springing up, it’s not just that you might have something bespoke, but that you might actually make it. Why isn’t that possible? There might be a moment when you make your own fork. You can do this with furniture, there are bureaus like “Unto This Last” who work with CAD files that you can customize before CNC [computer numeric controlled] milling.
Can you 3D print different metals?
Yes you can.
You could custom-fit them to the mouth’s interior…
Why not? You’ve got a certain-sized mouth; you have a spoon that fits your mouth. If you like a particular shaped-spoon when you’re eating a particular type of soup – because it definitely affects the taste – why wouldn’t you spend as much time on that as with the seasoning? People spend ages on the seasoning, and then get any old spoon out, but that has a big effect, that spoon.