Even our food is structured by metaphors: techniques of cognitive mapping in the kitchen

Did you know that a metaphor is responsible for chocolate truffles?  This confection is conceptually anchored in the structural architecture of the mushroom! I'm writing a paper on metaphors and food design for a culinary linguistics conference and I dug this gem up from my old defunct food blog Kitchen Cognition. I'll post the finished abstract before the conference, but in the meantime, enjoy this recipe.

best truffle recipe ever

I can't tell if I like truffles (the mushroom) better than I like truffles (the chocolate), but one thing is for sure, truffles of any kind offer a guilty pleasure. From the perspective of cognitive science, both types of truffles are related to each other, perhaps not on the Linnaean taxonomy, but certainly from a metaphorical position. Look at these facts:

Take the features of the Mushroom:

  • Relative Rarity

  • Decadent and Dark Earthiness

  • Lumpy & Dirty

  • Expensive

...and metaphorically translate them into Chocolate:

  • Relative Rarity (of good truffles - i.e., not Lindor or Trader Joe's)

  • Dark Chocolate Decadence

  • Lumpy & Dusted with a fine cocoa powder

  • Expensive

The idea is to get a sweet version of the savory kind, find a translatable equivalent from the  language of savory to the language of sweet.  Both the mushroom and the chocolate share these two characteristics:

  1. They are both Expensive, where: a) Cost correlates with Quality and b) Cost correlates with Rarity

  2. They are both Dirty, (one is dirty with soil, the other is dirty with cocoa powder)

I have been making truffles by hand for a little over a decade and at first I followed a recipe (I think it was from when Ruth Reichl was at Gourmet, but I can't remember), but over time this recipe has kind of evolved to the point that I feel that I can call it my own.

Here is my process:

Typically I take about a pound of a rich dark chocolate (try a slave-free chocolate from this list), shave it, melt it in a double boiler, concurrently bring about a cup of heavy whipping cream just to a boil (without scalding), remove it from the flame and fold the chocolate into the cream.  At this point I might add something special (i.e. dark rum, cayenne, or marmalade) and set it aside to cool.  This is the ganache for the truffle filling.  Once it is cool I scoop it into small marble-sized balls using a melon spoon, place them in my freezer and leave the door open (I use the freezer as part of my extended working space and it is easier than opening and closing the door).  I have on hand a deep bowl with an non-dutched cocoa powder (something French is nice).  I bring about 10 ounces of a different grade of chocolate to melting point (temper it if you know how) and one at a time roll the frozen ganache balls in the melted chocolate, gingerly dropping them into the bowl of cocoa powder and quickly swirling the truffle around in the powder.  If you do this right the powder covers the entire truffle and evens out the coating of tempered chocolate.  Remove it from the powder with a plastic spoon and return it to the chilled freezer to let it set up.  Keeping them any longer than a week diminishes their quality.

Looking at the dusting of the truffle with cocoa we can see how the dirt environment of the mushroom acts as a containing boundary...

Now that I've shared my recipe I want to address the metaphor.  The idea about the metaphorical transfer that takes place is that concepts from one domain are mapped onto referents in another domain; in this case: the mushroom domain maps to the chocolate domain.  Interestingly, like many metaphors, this directionality is a one-way mapping, in other words, it might be hard to map concepts from the chocolate truffle back onto the mushroom truffle.  But this is not impossible, for instance, say that someone begins to wrap their truffle mushrooms in a foil bon-bon wrapper to add a touch of novelty by mimicking a chocolate truffle presentation - then this behavior would be a feedback mapping of the metaphor.  That said, no truffle vendor in their right mind would cheapen the mushroom with that kind of kitsch, and no sensible market customer would buy a wrapped truffle they could not see.  So practically, it is probably safe to say that the metaphor only goes one direction.

Looking at the dusting of the truffle with cocoa we can see how the dirt environment of the mushroom acts as a containing boundary, in fact, the irregular shape of the mushroom comes from the fact that it grows underground and the pressure of the soil forms and shapes the mushroom, the soil embodies a force schema of restraint and acts as a container.  Likewise, the swirling of the truffle in the cocoa powder shapes the truffle and envelopes the chocolate truffle in a skin of powder (another container).

To wrap things up, think about this super simplified rendering of the metaphor:

Can you think of any other types of food that could be mapped using a similarly simple template?

note: this post appeared on my defunct food blog Kitchen Cognition on January 23, 2013