If you've ever had a stellar starter of expertly minced steak tartare that has paved the way for an entirely mediocre main course of limp, flavorless fish, you'll know that your bouche can, in fact, become too amused.
Jacob Lahne, an assistant professor at Drexler University, recently lead a study that found that a good appetizer can ruin the rest of your dinner.
The study asked participants to rate how much they enjoyed a main course of pasta with garlic and oil after being given one of two bruschetta appetizers. The "good" appetizer sounds like a standard menu item from your typical suburban trattoria: a tomato topping with balsamic vinegar and lemon zest, plus extra virgin oil and fresh basil. The mediocre appetizer was more like a bad in-flight meal, using blended oil and dried basil instead.
The participants all judged the good starter as better than the mediocre one—no surprises there. But people who received the better bruschetta didn't like their pasta, while the people who ate the crappy app did.
The study authors suggest that "the very nature of the appetite-whetting first dish sways the consumer to compare it with the subsequent courses, to the latter's potential detriment."
Sure, that may be true. But let's take this all with a grain of hand-harvested geothermic salt: How do we know that the pasta dish tasted good in the first place? That is to say, if you serve a man a slice of Nutraloaf and follow it with, say, a Colombian military MRE, he might like the main course better simply because it's the lesser of two evils. But if you give him a plate of pâté de campagne before serving a dry chunk of chicken, he's maybe more likely to enjoy his first course more.
For his part, Lahne appears to be aware of this. "It's always worth remembering that our experiences are contextual—that is, what we like and don't like, or taste and don't taste, is not objective, but related to the environment, our state of mind, and many other variables," the researcher said in a press release. "If you have a fantastic appetizer and then the main seems lackluster, that could be because of this type of contrast effect. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have fantastic appetizers!"
Also, make sure your pasta is on point.