Wednesday, September 30, 2009


Every culture has its own comfort foods; every family samples from that culture; everyone has his own personal favorites, connected to a million intimate family memories.

For me, comfort foods stem from a little finished basement in South Hackensack, New Jersey. Several folks had a claim to sovereignty over that space: for example my grandfather, Salvatore Gulino, who owned the house; my great-grandfather, Melchiorre Occhipinti, who presided as a kind of family elder statesman over everything we did.

A quick word about my great-grandfather, my “Nannu” — that’s not a misspelling of the Italian, by the way, it’s Sicilian dialect for “grandpa” [1] — or as he was known by my mother’s generation, “Pop.” My mom and her sisters were terrified of him; I mean, this man was a holy terror in his day. My great-uncle, Pete Occhipinti, told a story about facing down union organizers in Pop’s small factory [2]: Uncle Pete told me about how he was yelling at the union rep, trying to scare him off, and that the guy started to get real pale, looked worried. “I thought I was scaring him real good,” my uncle said. “Then I turned around, and saw Pop standing behind me with a big lead pipe in his hand.” The other story was about Pop throwing a guy through a window because he didn’t like the way the guy was dancing with my great-grandmother.

We Sicilians can be an intense people. Very few of us are as placid and pleasant as yours truly.

By the time I came ’round, though, Pop was this kindly, gentle 90-something who, whenever I came by, would give me a dollar bill and a 7-Up and set me to drawing pictures on the vine-covered back porch of his house, next door to my grandparents’.

Man oh man, is it good to be the first grandson in a Sicilian family. I recommend it highly. But I digress.

Arguably, that big, second-kitchen, one-family events center in the basement of my grandparents’ house belonged most of all to my grandmother, Margherita Gulino. If my grandfather Sam was the strength of the family, quiet and gentle and protective, my grandmother, his profoundly beloved “Marge,” was the emotional center. We read the opening to Corinthians 13 at her funeral — a rare reading for a funeral — because it was just, so, her:

If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have prophetic powers and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, enough to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions and hand over my body to be burnt but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient and kind. Love is not envious, boastful, arrogant or rude. Love does not insist on its own way. Love is not irritable or resentful. Love does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. Now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love [3].

Among many cherished memories, I remember, and try to emulate, my grandmother’s cooking. Variations on simple pasta are a mainstay in my house to this day [4]; I recently reproduced a promising, if not-quite-there, cauliflower pie; one of these days I’ll have to try to re-create her tomato-covered mackerel, which was amazing.

But if there’s one thing I remember most fondly of all, it was her ravioli. She’d make them from scratch, of course, rolling out a sheet of pasta dough, spooning out the cheese — her secret ingredient was a little sugar, and sometimes some cinnamon [5] — and then covering it with a second sheet, using a little tool I’ve got to get hold of to cut and crimp at the same time …

To this day, ravioli conjures up a flood of connected memories, partly because memory is so intrinsically linked to the sense of smell. I swear, if somebody exhumes the rotting carcass of Proust’s Madeleine passage one more frigging time, I’ll puke [6] — but the guy got it right nevertheless.

Today, however, we’re going to go a bit farther afield than the, in evolutionary retrospect, unsurprising idea that the structures in the brain that govern memory are connected to those that govern smell. We’re going to talk about the link between metabolic state and smell (as well as taste).

Submitted for your approval: Mssrs. Bronwen Martin & Co.’s review of connections between the metabolic hormones and the olfactory and gustatory systems.

I remember a lecture in a college endocrinology class, when the professor told us a harrowing story of a toddler with a fatal kidney dysfunction who would eat handfuls of salt. Somehow, the kid knew what he needed, even if it couldn’t save him … Then there are the women who become nauseated at the drop of a hat when they’re pregnant — maybe, their bodies are making them avoid any hint of toxin to protect the baby …

Well, today’s paper surveys what we know about how the body’s metabolic state modifies our sense of smell and taste to point us toward what we need.

Maybe the best-understood actor in this context is glucagon-like peptide 1, or GLP-1. It’s a key actor in the body’s system for sensing satiety — when your stomach says, “enough.” GLP-1 release by the intestines signals that the body has taken up a load of glucose, and that it’s time to ratchet up insulin production — which itself is a signal for cells to take up and store the sugar from the blood— and ratchet down glucagon, which has the opposite effects to insulin.

Turns out that GLP-1 is also produced in the taste cells of the tongue, and in the glomerular layer of the olfactory bulb that receives signals from the smell-sensing neurons in the olfactory epithelium. More interesting, GLP has the ability to shift the sense of taste, reducing sensitivity to sweetness and increasing sensitivity to umami, that meaty “fifth flavor” [7] that Westerners didn’t know about until relatively recently, because, well, we’re barbarians. That’s right, the same hormone that tells the body that we have enough sugar on board makes us hanker less for sweets [8]. Its role in smell isn’t as clear, but we know it’s there.

Martin’s crew talk about a number of hormonal actors: for example cholecystokinin, another intestinal signal that encourages digestion of fat and proteins, somehow affects social memory. Neuropeptide Y, a potent natural appetite stimulant/sedative with effects not unlike a good Thai stick, is a major affector of smell as well, encouraging the generation of new olfactory neurons — a process necessary for long-term reprogramming of the nose’s sensitivity to various smells.

Most topical, perhaps, was the mention of leptin, a hormone produced in fatty tissues and whose absence has recently been linked to obesity. Mice who have mutations that make them unable to produce leptin have increased preference for sweets (and also swell up like balloons). Harder to fit into the picture, but as provocative as it is interesting, is the fact that high serum leptin levels are associated with superior odor-discrimination ability in men — but low capacity for odor discrimination by women.

At one level, these connections are almost predictable: of course there are direct links between the body’s systems for digesting food and those that help us find, make us want, to eat more — and what to eat. Of course problems with maintaining healthy body weight are going to involve breakdowns in these signals. Hell, they haven’t even completely nailed all these connections down yet, but it seems a safe bet that, somehow, it will all connect up eventually.

But a step back, and the mind reels with the delicate intricacy of the signals and counter-signals. Everything is connected; from the simple quorum-sensing molecules that bacteria use to communicate with each other nature has developed a rich, complex dance of molecules and electric impulses that make it all work.


One more food/connections story about, or rather from, the basement on Leuning Street: it’s from a day when Heather was a brand-new girlfriend, come down to meet my family maybe for the first time. My aunt Dorothy was still alive, and my aunt Barbara and my mother were still talking to each other. The discussion came down to braciola, a southern Italian specialty of flank steak, pounded flat, and rolled up with spices and pine nuts in tomato sauce — if you do it right, there’s a hard-boiled egg in the center. But not everybody does it right [8].

My aunt Dee was trying to remind my mother of a neighbor they’d had, decades before. “He lived in that brick house,” Aunt Dee said, and I wondered, from the way she’d said it, if the house even existed any more. Certainly, it wasn’t spurring any memories for Mom.

Dee thought for a moment, then brightened, and said, holding up a fork, “He choked to death on a braciola string.”

That did it: Mom had it now; everybody nodded, and went back to the meal.

[1] Note that many folks believe that Sicilian deserves status as a language in its own right, separate from Italian.
[2] What can I say: we were rare, for the period, Italian-American Republicans. I actually worked in that building one summer, for a machine shop that was leasing it from Uncle Pete. I’ll have to post on it sometime, but let’s just say if it hadn’t been for who my uncle was they’d have fired my clumbsy ass.
[3] Say what you want about Paul; I defy you to argue he didn’t get this one right.
[4] I consider myself no slouch. Maybe my best dish is cacciatore, which I admit I tinkered with for years to duplicate not my grandmother’s recipe, but
Michelle’s Restaurant’s, in Garfield, which now seems to have become a banquet hall. Not the same thing; you really can’t go home.
[5] I know it sounds a bit weird. But it works.
[6] Which I just did. Blaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaugh.
[7] Add it to sour, salty, sweet, and bitter, the four “classical” flavors. Everything else in flavor comes from the aroma, not the actual taste.
[8] Until I looked up the Wikipedia entry, I didn’t know the name braciola was a misnomer common to Italian-Americans. How ’bout that.


BPL said...

This article might be seen by some as rambling; I see it as having a wide scope. It reminds me of the best science essays of people like Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould. I'm sorry you can't get these essays printed in some national vanue, rather than just on a blog.

BPL said...

Venue. I meant venue.


Got to rest.