Aspen Times Weekly: Sixth Sense

by Amanda Rae
Fried shrimp
Getty Images/iStockphoto | iStockphoto


Oleogustus, the newly discovered sixth taste (of fat), may not be synonymous with the creamy, luscious mouthfeel we understand as fatty goodness, but it’s found in these decadent treats all the same:

• French dip sandwich at White House Tavern

• Pork belly with polenta at Meat & Cheese

• Fried Oreos at the Meatball Shack

• Cheese bread at Caribou Club

• Hot Bertha at Grateful Deli

• JS Burger at Justice Snow’s

• Doughnuts at the Popcorn Wagon

• Kouign-amann at Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop

• Porterhouse and Tomahawk cuts at Steakhouse No. 316

• Ice cream at Victoria’s Espresso Wine Bar

• Aspen Crud at J-Bar

• Slices at New York Pizza

IT HAPPENS EVERY YEAR as the days turn shorter and nights turn colder: Crowds thin throughout town, shops trim hours or shutter entirely, and Belly Up entices folks with a series of free shows. Those who love to eat—but who might not dine out much between the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen and the JAS Labor Day Experience — embrace locals’ discounts and seasonal specials at area restaurants with open arms and forks ready.

I mark the change of seasons with three food milestones. First is the quiet return of fried chicken specials. A beloved tradition now many years old, the classic Southern dish reappears on a couple of local menus at respectable prices. Little Annie’s starts slingin’ fried chicken again any day now, offering a honkin’ plate of extra-crispy bird with mashed taters, gravy, corn on the cob, and a house-made biscuit every Wednesday for about 16 bucks. Rustique Bistro owner Rob Ittner has his kitchen on a countdown to September 10, when it fires a Thursday-only fried chicken special: 3 courses, including a plate of finger-lickin’-good stuff, for $26. Sign up for Rustique’s email updates, because the fried fowl will be gone in a flash.

A second sign of fall, food-wise, is the reintroduction of prix-fixe bar menus at tony haunts around town, including Rustique, Campo de Fiori, Pinion’s, L’Hostaria, and Casa Tua, among others. Unlike in the spring, many Aspen restaurants coast through autumn and into winter with reduced hours instead of closing the kitchen entirely in favor of offseason travel. The next two or three months offer ample opportunity to slide up to a bar on a mellow evening and sample, sample, sample.

To me, the unofficial kickoff to good eats during shoulder season is always the Aspen Mac and Cheese Fest, which takes over Restaurant Row on Hopkins Avenue next Saturday, September 12. (The event also marks the day I first “met” this town, on the sunny afternoon of September 10, 2012. What an introduction, huh?) Word on the street is that only a handful of restaurants will participate in the fifth annual event—unlike the few dozen of years’ past—but at least one new competitor is sure to up the ante during the happy, cheesy free-for-all.

Heartier dishes on nightly bar menus (Jimmy’s lamb Bolognese is an early favorite), crispy fried chicken specials, ooey-gooey mac and cheese fêted with a celebration all its own — what do these glorious foods have in common? Rich, decadent, delicious FAT.

As is turns out, fat may be the elusive sixth taste, joining the other straightforward designations (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami) that define taste sensation. Researchers at Purdue University call is oleogustus (a combination of Latin root words for “oily” and “taste”), and evidence from the first published study of 102 participants with plugged noses and open mouths shows that fatty acids found in triglycerides impart their own unique chemical signature during chewing, distinguishable by two specific receptors on the human tongue. Et voilà: the distinct flavor of fat.

Immediately when I read this news, my mind scrolls through favorite fatty foods in Ute City: The French dip sandwich at White House Tavern. Pork belly with polenta and Mike’s Hot Honey at Meat & Cheese. Fried Oreos at the Meatball Shack, ohmygosh. The insanely addictive cheese bread at Caribou Club. Grateful Deli’s Hot Bertha — try it! The much-maligned $10 burger at Justice Snow’s — easily split with a friend — along with a pile of waffle-cut sweet potato fries. Doughnuts at the Popcorn Wagon just across the street. A few steps down the Hyman Mall: Limited-edition Kouign-amann (a caramelized French croissant of sorts) at Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop, available every morning until sold out, which is guaranteed to happen by noon. Onion rings that arrive stacked dramatically on a steak knife at Steakhouse No. 316, a fried foil to the epic 24-ounce prime Porterhouse or 30-ounce Tomahawk cut when featured as the “daily chop.” John Beatty’s homemade ice cream at Victoria’s Espresso Wine Bar or the J-Bar’s legendary Aspen Crud milkshake. And the supremely satisfying 2 a.m. snack of champions: a cheesy slice scarfed standing up at the side bar at New York Pizza. (See Fat City Food, opposite page.)

However, the Purdue scientists were careful to note that the actual taste of fat should not be confused with the creamy, luscious sensation of fat, otherwise known as mouthfeel. Texture, they clarify, is a feeling created by triglycerides, the most common source of fat in the human diet, and not related to flavor; taste is revealed through chemical stimuli — the fatty acids that comprise triglycerides. Too many fatty acids create a disgusting flavor — think oxidized olive oil.

“Fatty taste itself is not pleasant,” says study author Richard D. Mattes, professor of nutrition science and director of Purdue’s Ingestive Behavior Research Center. “When concentrations of fatty acids are high in a food it is typically rejected, as would be the case when a food is rancid. In this instance, the fat taste sensation is a warning to not eat the item. At the same time, low concentrations of fatty acids in food may add to their appeal just like unpleasant bitter chemicals can enhance the pleasantness of foods like chocolate, coffee and wine.”

As scientists say, more research is needed before oleogustus is universally accepted as the true sixth taste. Meanwhile, Mattes and cohorts are analyzing data culled from more than a thousand participants in “The Fatty Acid Study,” which explores the genetics of fat-tasting ability, at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science’s Genetics of Taste Lab. The first crowd-sourced, citizen-scientist-driven study of its kind wrapped recently, but that’s OK, considering how Purdue researchers conclude that fatty acids do not translate to our perception of fatty goodness. Instead, another, perhaps more pleasant, experience awaits: The “SweetTasting Study” opens free to the public in Denver on Nov. 6, 2015.

Amanda Rae is embarking on another food crawl soon for an upcoming column. Where do you find your favorite chicken wings?

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