Why do some foods taste absolutely AWESOME on playa? (a theory)

(I originally posted this to our camp mailing list, but I figured that the wider population of the internet may also be interested)

A couple of things prompted me thinking about this, and I shared my thoughts with Leah tonight and she’s been thinking the same kind of things.

We’ve observed that some food on playa is absolutely THE BEST THING EVER to enter our mouth holes while some things are a bit more meh than they should be. Basically,  we’re theorising that human taste buds change at Burning Man when compared to the default world.

A while ago we saw Heston Blumenthal trying to fix airline food, where he conducted an experiment where at sea level and then in a compartment that was pressurized to the altitude of a plane he had different concentrations of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami to taste.

So, let’s look at the differences in altitude and humidity between home,
playa and an airplane:


Home: within a few hundred ft of sealevel.
Black Rock Desert: 3,907ft (from wikipedia)
Airplane cabin: 6,000ft (Boeing 787) to 6,900ft (Boeing 767) (or much closer to sea level if you’ve got a private jet)


Home: 40-80% (inside/outside my house right now)
Airplane: 12-15%
Burning Man: 24% (average for August), low teens during the day (10-15% midday to midnight)

The result of the altitude and humidity for airplanes was:

  • threshold for tasting sweet is increased
    (i.e. need more sweetness to taste it)
  • threshold for tasting sour decreased
    (i.e. more sensitive to sour)
  • threshold for tasting bitter decreased
    (i.e. more sensitive to bitter)
  • threshold for tasting salt is increased
    (i.e. you need more salt)
  • umami was unchanged

This would explain why I always add salt to airplane food, why at one
point corn chips with vegemite was the best thing ever on playa and why
there’s this odd bacon obsession amongst so many.

This also explains why there may be a preference for less hoppy beers on
playa (or, if you’re me, a desire to try some insanely hopped ones to
see if I can notice an intensity increase).

Also, it’s one of the few places I can stomach US sodas (HFCS being
instant diabetes, but ginger ale on playa/in a plane is kinda nice).

One suggestion (and Heston tried this on flights) is nasal
douching… and I’m actually pretty keen to clean out the nose before
eating on playa because as we all know, playa up your nose is a fact of

I’d be pretty interested to conduct some experiments both in normal
conditions and on playa with various concentrations of sweet, sour,
bitter, salty and umami and note down at what concentrations the flavor
is noticed.

I’m thinking:

  • sweet – sugar
  • sour – lemon juice? (store bought so it should be consistent)
  • bitter – not sure here, all i can think of is hops or Bitters
  • salty – salt :)
  • umami – liquid smoke?

Although it may require some experimentation to find what the minimum
concentrations are. Once we’ve worked these out, should be able to do
tasting and take notes when not on playa and then recreate it all on
playa and compare results.


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