Back roads, blind tasting and staring into the black hole
When I was a kid, my mom occasionally toted me to blind taste tests where we would be paid for our opinions. I remember trying different unmarked hot dogs as a child and giving my opinion on which one tasted best. Even as a child, I was never short on opinions, though I was short. One evening the power in the building extinguished and I could hear a woman let out a blood-curdling cry of, my baby! When the lights went back on, the person behind the scream emerged as a sheepish mother and her seven-year old son red of embarrassment. Years later, my mom and I tell that story of sampling hot dogs punctuated with a blackout and bone-chilling scream and break out into laughter. While working at the tea company, I attended a professional tasting training where they had brought in an expert to teach us the roles of the different parts of our palates and how to better describe what we taste.
All of my previous tasting experiences served me well on a Tuesday morning in a wooden folding seat, a tray of capped plastic ramekins on my lap. In the brightly lit room, Jack Bishop began giving us instructions on how we would conduct the audience portion of the blind taste test before Chris Kimball emerged onto the set. The setting was inside the white house in Rupert, Vermont where Cook’s Country by America’s Test Kitchen is filmed. After two weeks of filming, this Tuesday was the final day of what I imagine must have been something like a professional boot camp. A work trip took me to the beautiful backdrop of back roads where the leaves were just beginning to crisp up with color, and into that studio audience folding chair. I had been to America’s Test Kitchen before and happily revisited it during my brief stint in Brookline before heading north.
On this day our task was simple: three kinds of corn chips – three kinds of salted butter – three kinds of Creole seasoning. A professional tasting panel had already tasted the samples waiting before us and our opinions would provide an extra set of data along with Chris Kimball’s blind taste test of the same samples, from which to determine the recommended brand. An assistant passed out our tasting sheets where we would mark our answers and rate taste, color, and texture. I eyed the corn chips like it might have been a noon-day showdown. The colors all differed and so white corn took on yellow corn took on blue. It was no contest really. Even without salsa, only one chip emerged as the victor with a rippled bubbly exterior, solid crunch, and corny flavor. On to the butter, this round definitely perplexed us more. Who eats butter out of hand? And yet some spread it on saltines and I tried to dip my knife into it for a more pure unadulterated tasting. This time two butters competed almost head-to-head, but one came out the winner with its creamy consistency, slight salt, and a sweetness that had almost floral notes in it. I’m pretty sure a few of us were imagining dabbing a pat of that butter on warm sourdough bread. Last up, the Creole seasoning ended up polarizing our group. And, Bishop pointed out that it might make sense depending on where people were coming from. I immediately determined my winner after a quick heat developed in my mouth from the seasoning sprinkled on white rice. If I closed my eyes, I could envision homemade gumbo or etoufee with this necessary ingredient. Results were tallied.
One of the cameramen came out and moved us in our row so the view from the camera was just right. Out came Chris Kimball onto the set as the director yelled, action! Bishop and Kimball began their repartee as Kimball tackled the corn chip first, tasting all three options and agreeing with the audience, as he did with the butter, and Creole seasoning. Watching the two of them naturally gab in front of the camera (all told, I think there were five in the room), I’m reminded of how much I admire anyone willing to be on television. Kimball let his comments roll without reserve as he crunched one chip, then another, then back to the first batch. You can tell he’s been doing this for a while—he worked the camera (and crowd, let it be known) fluidly and with panache.
Being on camera isn’t something I aspire to do. Years ago, after a tradeshow elicited an opportunity for the tea company, I flew out to New York to tape a handful of videos on tea for a popular website. I had written the scripts—all verbiage and content I regularly shared at food festivals with visitors to our booth. I felt comfortable and confident with what I had written and practiced a few times in an empty conference room at the office, in front of a colleague, as well as in front of a mirror. I arrived the night before the taping so my body could acclimate to the time change and I could rest. My nails had been freshly lacquered. I sported a new choppy hairdo. My closet had been reduced to one acceptable dress. Manhattan on mute—muffled taxi cabs and street sounds kept me grounded.
Nothing could prepare me for what awaited. The camera trained on your face is a humbling prospect. It gives nothing to you—there are no eyes sparked with life that lift and smile, no eyebrows to crest up with surprise or furrow with skepticism. Instead you focus on a gaping glass eye that is all-seeing and unforgiving. I can’t tell you how many times I flubbed my words on that first video—words that I had written and essentially had to abandon in favor of keeping a steady rhythm and not pausing awkwardly searching for my next phrases. The director and content producer for the website were stellar—they kept me cool every time I grew flustered. By the end of the day, and after five videos, we had found our pace, and I had rediscovered my sense of humor. After that day of harrowing work, I felt no fear in front of the camera where I could ad-lib. Still, watching how Kimball and Bishop could nail their bits in one take or at most two—it was fascinating to watch how they would edit their remarks from one take to the next. I left the Cook’s Country house that day wiser for the corn chip, salted butter, and Creole seasoning, but wiser too from seeing people in their element getting their work done with grace.