Illustration by Adam Waito

The Bone-Sucking, Dopamine-Spiking History of Secret Menus

We've come a long way from cauldrons full of duck heads to 'animal-style' In-N-Out burgers.

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Oct 9 2018, 3:30pm

Illustration by Adam Waito

“Surprise food” doesn’t necessarily sound all that appetizing, evoking memories of graying cafeteria “mystery meat” of unknown origin. This holds especially true today, when many of us are culinary micro-managers, seeking out the precise source of every morsel we eat (much to the delight of the Portlandia writers, who spoofed this tendency to a T). We look up any restaurant we plan to visit on Yelp and Instagram before even walking through the door; we have laundry lists of foods we avoid–gluten, dairy, refined sugar–and we even avoid eating altogether at times, in the case of intermittent-fasting proponents.

But in the past, surprise and mystery was a sought-out element of the dining experience.

In 19th-century Paris, l’Azar de la Fourchette provided a culinary lottery for Paris’s poor. For five centimes, visitors were given the right to dip a long fork into a bubbling cauldron of fat and broth and pull out an object. Better options could include a calf's foot, a goose neck, or a sheep's stomach, but for many, the endeavor resulted merely in a sad piece of stewed cartilage, a bone lacking marrow, or an unplucked duck’s head, according to Félix Mornand’s La Vie de Paris. But somehow, folks kept paying for the right to wield the fourchette, like a culinary lottery one constantly hoped to win.

Betty Smith details a slightly more appetizing version of the same idea in her A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, when protagonist Francie explains the attraction of putting her pennies toward the mystery bags at the penny candy store. Francie watches in anticipation as her “once-in-awhile girl friend” buys one and extracts “a few pieces of stale candy” and a coarse cambric handkerchief.

“She debated again whether to spend a penny on a prize bag,” writes Smith. “It was nice to be surprised even if you couldn’t eat the candy. But she reasoned she had been surprised by being with Maudie when she made her purchase and that was almost as good.”

An "animal-style" burger and fries from In-N-Out Burger, which are not listed on the menu. Photo via Flickr user m01229

Tania Luna, a psychology researcher and co-author of the book Surprise: Embrace the Unpredictable and Engineer the Unexpected, finds the desire to put one’s pennies towards the mere chance that a culinary experience might turn out unsurprising, especially given the economic status of these examples.

“Research shows that humans are prone to loss aversion,” she explains. “When we have plenty or feel like we are winning, we avoid risking loss. When we have little or feel we are losing, we are far more likely to take risks (like betting that the penny candy bag will have candy I like).”

Surprise, Luna posits in her book, brings people pleasure, an idea proven by researchers from Emory University. In their experiment, the researchers squirted water and fruit juice into participants’ mouths; the reward passageways in the participants’ brains responded more positively when they received squirts of sweet juice at random intervals rather than at predictable ones.

"Giving up control with food (while still feeling relatively safe) gives our brains comfort and those bursts of dopamine we long for when life gets predictable."

“The region lights up like a Christmas tree on the MRI,” said Dr. Read Montague, an associate professor of neuroscience at Baylor, of the study. “That suggests people are designed to crave the unexpected.”

Splinter News calls this a “novelty bias,” noting that our brains are hardwired to enjoy new experiences more than ones we’re used to.

“When new stimuli are involved, our brain releases more dopamine, once again giving us a shot of pleasure,” writes the outlet. “Surprise, by definition, feeds off our love for the unexpected.”

And, as it turns out, this concept is not relegated to diners of the past. For some, consuming mystery food feels adventurous, even if the surprise is bad. BuzzFeed is a champion of creating food videos that invite participants to blind taste different food items, only identifying the foods once they have already partaken. Others throw mystery food parties or attend restaurants where one eats in the dark, to add an element of surprise to their dining experience.

“The customer is also implying that they know enough about the chef (and maybe even have a personal relationship with the chef) that they are willing to trust them to please and impress them... That is part of showing off one's cultural capital, of course, along with showing off one's wealth, since omakase and other similar dining can be expensive."

One of the most pervasive of these culinary “surprises” is undoubtedly the tasting menu, where the diner implicitly trusts the chef, or what's known in Japan as omakase, where trust is explicit in the name.

“Whether a Japanese sushi chef or any other chef that offers this sort of deal, the customer is deferring to the chef's expertise and artistry,” explains David Beriss, President of the Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition and Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology and Sociology at the University of New Orleans.

Sashimi omakase, or chef's choice. Photo: Getty Images/Pamela Lao

But for Beriss, this sort of surprise-seeking is distinct from that of the 19th- and 20th-century poor.

“The customer is also implying that they know enough about the chef (and maybe even have a personal relationship with the chef) that they are willing to trust them to please and impress them,” he explains. “That is part of showing off one's cultural capital, of course, along with showing off one's wealth, since omakase and other similar dining can be expensive (and sometimes you don't even know in advance how expensive, so you have to be able to handle whatever occurs).”

Luna agrees. “When you have means, you have options. A lot of options,” she explains. “This leads to choice paralysis and, paradoxically, less satisfaction with whatever choice you do make.”

Deferring to a chef can not only remove the pressure of making a choice, but also adds a touch of excitement to the mundane.

“People of means often lead safe, routine lives,” says Luna. “Our brains crave safety and control but also variety and excitement. We call this the Surprise Seesaw. Giving up control with food (while still feeling relatively safe) gives our brains comfort and those bursts of dopamine we long for when life gets predictable.”

So the next time you bicker with your significant other over who has to choose the restaurant, you can cite science as an excuse for your indecision.