I’m convinced that we’re genetically predisposed to like caramel. By “caramel” I mean things that are caramelized – which includes all sorts of things, not least among them caramels.
I’ll start with caramels, because it just happens that I am finishing my small hoarded supply of Fauchon salted caramels. They’re as creamy and French as the name implies. I hoard in part because they’re so good I want them all. I also hoard them because after I did the euro-to-dollar math I realized that the little scrabble-tile-size squares cost more than I’d ever admit paying. They’re worth every penny. I may need one in just a minute…
So where did caramel start? Or, more to the point where did we humans become so enamored of a flavor?
Imagine if you will our ancient ancestors living in a cave. It was a nice cave and had all the modern conveniences – including newly-discovered fire. The fire gave light at night and warmth. Fire had not yet been applied to food.
One day a clumsy cave relative accidentally dropped a chunk of meat into the fire. Someone finally noticed when the aroma of cooked flesh filled the cave. Food was scarce, so they ate it, singe marks and all. MMM.
This might have been one of the first food trends. Soon meat cooked in fire was all the rage. Some people bucked the trend and liked meat raw, the way grandma made it. As time went by the cooked-meat eaters began to outnumber the raw food enthusiasts. This wasn’t apparent at the time, but I’m willing to go out on an evolutionary limb. Cooking kills a fair amount of bacteria and parasites. It also extends the shelf life of food. So the people who took a liking to cooked animal products were at least a tad healthier, lived longer, had more kids who lived longer etcetera…
Those early foodies were our ancestors. (Please feel free to fast track this theory to conform to your personal sense of history or religious belief or both. For example, it’s possible that only cooked-meat eaters survived on Noah’s arc, and all the raw foodies died of a meat-borne-illness during the flood.)
In matters more practical and closer to us today, we like slowly cooked onions (on steak or in onion soup) because we like the way they taste after we’ve caramelized their inherent sugars. We like cooked tomatoes for the same reason.
The grill marks on chicken, beef, or fish are also the result of caramelization (of the small amount of carbs within the meat or the large amount of carbs in the marinade). There’s a reason we don’t just steam or boil all our meat (or at least those of without a penchant for traditional English food). We like the taste of caramel. It’s in our bones, or our genes, or at least our handed-down recipes.
We like caramel (McDonald’s slightly sugared French Fries and all) because on some metaphysical level, it’s good for us.