On Culture, Caraway, and a Computer

One of the featured examples of innovation in Frans Johansson book The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation is the work of Marcus Samuelsson at Aquavit. Johansson explains the idea of Associative Barriers, the associations our brains naturally make between certain ideas. Some of these ideas are culturally bound. When we hear Italian Cuisine, our minds naturally call up associations with tomatoes, basil, mozzarella, and a whole host of associated flavors. These associations can hold us back from making new connections, as certain flavors just don’t seem to “go together”. Johansson suggests part of Samuelsson’s genius is low associative barriers, due to a multicultural upbringing and his travel around the world.

The recent press around the recipes generated by IBM’s Watson computer highlights another way to break down our associative barriers – work with a computer that has none. The chemical flavor compounds of thousands of foods were entered into the computer and then “pleasant” flavor combinations were programmed in as well. So many of the flavors we combine have more to do with how we think culturally than actually considering the flavors without context. In fact, different cultures approach flavor combinations quite differently (Check out this Flavor Map from Scientific American to explore this idea further). The computer approach starts with the input of a couple flavors and will generate a set of ingredients that would complement those flavors. The results can be sorted to choose more “surprising” combinations and one of those is the Belgian Bacon Pudding.

Bacon Pudding

We need to start by acknowledging this recipe can not be Great Lakes Cuisine, right? The entire point of the Watson experiment is to eliminate cultural references, or at least compose a dish that does not consider cultural references. Yet this recipe includes a few flavors which we see frequently in our Great Lakes Cuisine experimentation. It involves bacon fat washed buttermilk, and we’ve detailed the bacon fat washing process in our love of all that is smoky. Additionally, the recipe features the use of caraway, a staple of German cuisine which has faded in use in North America in recent years (interesting analysis of that trend here). I’ve always enjoyed caraway, but I’ve got a real soft spot for rye bread as well. I have cultural associations with caraway.

In brief, this is a buttermilk and egg pudding infused with bacon and mushroom powder. The fruit topping is a spiced compote of golden raisins, figs, orange juice, cumin, and caraway powder. The whole dish is topped with brown butter toasted almonds and graham cracker. Overall, it is a slight modification of the original recipe but true to the flavor combinations. The flavors may seem strange, but the immediate reaction upon taking the first bite is “Hey. this isn’t bad.” In fact, it’s pretty good. Imagine french toast made over a campfire in the same pan you just finished making the bacon in. It’s something like that. But the real key in our tasting – the accompaniment. We enjoyed a Fuel Cafe Stout from Lakefront Brewing which added a wonderful coffee flavor contrast to the bacon and eggs flavors of the dish. Together, we’d argue this dish rises to our standards for Great Lakes Cuisine.

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