Thursday, October 08, 2009

Lovecraft, Sugar, and Salt.

Those of us who are totally immersed and insanely absorbed into the trivia of HPL's life know he liked syrupy sweet coffee. Who knows if a writer's five senses affect or influence writing? I don't recall that Lovecraft ever wrote about coffee or sugar in his fiction, but his friends sure recalled his "caffe lovecraftia".

A letter to the editor of Chemical and Engineering News of 7 September 2009 discusses saltiness, sweetness, and taste bud receptors. I'll minimize the science-speak and say that both the size of the sodium chloride crystals (salt) and dilution amount highly influenced how the taste buds reacted to the solution.

I immediately thought of how my grandparents salted their watermelon to make it taste sweeter. It actually did work. As a chemist I wondered if the salt exploded the cell walls and released the fructose in an explosion of taste. Then later, I learned that salt (on the tongue) is a de-bitterizing agent. Small additions of salt make a bitter item less bitter. For instance adding it to broccoli, carrots, or tomato juice lessens the tartness and ascerbic taste of vegetables. Have you ever seen anyone salt the living daylights out of their food? (Grab the high blood pressure pills! But that's not the subject at hand.)

Very dilute concentrations of salt do not taste salty at all. They taste sweet. The sweetness sets of taste-buds which are scattered somewhat randomly over the surface of the tongue, and are referred to by the technobabblish term T1R2-T1R3. As the sensors on the taste bud activate, the dilute saltiness washes over and does not signal "saltiness" but douse mimic "sweetness".

I propose that Lovecraft used enormous amounts of sugar in his coffee as a response to the bitterness of the coffee available. Somewhere along the line, he developed a taste for coffee, but his impoverishment and availability of coffee in the restaurants he patronized forced him into using dreggishly bitter coffee. His antidote was not to get immune to the taste but probably to camouflage it with sugar – his only available antidote.

I'm become a bit of a wimp when it comes to coffee. I don't use sugar myself, and use artificial sweeteners. If you have never used an artificial sweetener, it comes as a shock. It has a repugnant aftertaste, but after a month of so, the tongue trains the brain to ignore the aftertaste and only recognize the sweetness. Now, sugary cokes (actually corn syrup fructose in the US) taste sweet and sticky to me, while artificial sweeteners taste sweet and light.

In addition, I only like fresh coffee. So at home, I grab it after it stops dripping, and remove it from the burner. If it gets cold, I microwave it, but the oils don't have a chance to break down. Again, it tastes sweeter to me when fresh.

One can imagine the late 1920's cafeteria. The coffee would bake into a syrup on slow moving days. They probably used very little chicory, and as the depression deepened into the 1930's, the coffee became cheaper, weaker, and probably the grounds were reused a few times to stretch it out?

OK, enough about Mr. Lovecraft and coffee for the time being. :)

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