Intense heat from peppers is very painful, and usually we reject painful things. But yet we like negative stimulation in the case of horror films, or rollercoasters…so we embrace these things that are a little aversive in contexts in which we can control them.
Benign Masochism Research
Dan was also kind enough to provide me with some research papers on this subject, and although we don’t have time to do a full literature review, I thought I’d pull out some of the main themes for you.
Glad to be sad and other examples of benign masochism (Published in Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 8, No. 4, July 2013, pp. 439-447)
In a 2013 summary paper, Paul Rozin and colleagues were able to pull out some general trends associated with benign masochism across a wide variety of human activities. For example, watching very scary or sad movies, the taste of strong alcohol, bitterness, or capsaicin, disgusting jokes, thrill rides, and even the “hurts so good” physical pain of an intense massage.
A couple findings that I found really interesting from this research were that A.) people tend to enjoy their physiological reactions to negative experiences, and B.) people most enjoy levels of discomfort that are juuuust on the tolerable side of uncomfortable. This second fact, to me, could have huge implications on how we can think about the role of spice in a Bloody Mary.
Gustatory pleasure and pain. The offset of acute physical pain enhances responsiveness to taste. (Published in Appetite 72, 2014, 150-155)
Another paper by Bastian and colleagues summarizes three different studies conducted to explore the relationship between physical pain and flavor perception. They discovered three significant findings:
FIrst, physical pain is linked to greater enjoyment of a flavor. So in essence, participants were split into “pain” and “no pain” conditions and then asked to eat a chocolate flavored biscuit. Those in the pain condition rated their liking of the biscuit as significantly higher.
Next, the researchers found that physical pain increases perceived intensity of tastes. So, same kind of “pain” and “no pain” conditions, and the participants in the pain group rated sweet, sour, salty, and bitter tastes as more intense than the people in the no pain condition.
Finally, they demonstrated that pain made people more sensitive to the presence of a flavor by demonstrating that participants in a pain condition were much more likely to correctly identify a flavor extract at lower concentrations than those in a non-pain condition.
In short, pain makes us enjoy flavors more, experience them more intensely, and identify them with great sensitivity. So I think the logical takeaway here is that if you want people to enjoy eating at your restaurant or drinking at your cocktail bar just that little bit more, you need to hire a spanking sommelier who can go around and inflict just the right amount of pain on your guests. It would be kind of a 21st century update to the professional foot ticklers employed by the court of Catherine the Great.
I’m not kidding about that one. Look it up.
Spicing Up the Bloody Mary Cocktail
If there’s anything that this research demonstrates, it’s that we don’t want THAT much spice in our Bloody Marys. It sends us back to a word that some more experienced home bartenders take for granted: balance. But this isn’t just about modulating sweet and sour, like in a daiquiri. We’ve got pretty much every possible flavor bouncing around in the Bloody Mary, and somehow, we’re supposed to bring them all into harmony. This task is further complicated by the fact that in most recipes, you’re going to have multiple sources of spice, acid, and umami.
So in the perfect Bloody Mary, we want spice, but not too much. And the kicker is that the definition of what constitutes “too much” is going to vary from person to person, creating not only a flavor problem, but also a language problem. Thinking back to our benign masochism research, is there a world in which everyone could have the perfect level of spice for their palate? Is there a way to bring each individual riiiight to the edge of discomfort, but not cross the line?
But I do think there are ways to present Bloody Marys on a cocktail menu in a way that comes close. The key, it would seem, is to give people options.’
Finding the Right “Spice Neighborhood” for You
Think about other situations where there’s an objective flavor fact that you need to communicate to people. My go-to example here is the doneness of a burger or a piece of meat, which can be communicated using a number (i.e. internal temperature) or a trade term (like “medium rare”). When I, as a patron, say “medium rare,” you, as a chef, know exactly how to prepare that food to give me exactly what I want.
A simpler example could simply be the little chili pepper scores next to different dishes on a Thai menu, for example. No chilis means mild, and the more chilis you add on, the spicier it gets. This may be a slightly blunter instrument than temperature-correlated doneness, but it still helps get people into the right neighborhood where they want to be.
Manipulating Options and Garnishes
So if you were to ask me how I’d try to give people their perfect Bloody Mary if I ran a cocktail bar, here’s what I’d do.