Nothing left to say to your family over Zoom? Try a taste test

Illustration for article titled Nothing left to say to your family over Zoom? Try a taste test
Graphic: Libby McGuire

Every family has its odd pastime. And most of us don’t realize how odd it is until we start comparing notes with our friends. In my family, our odd pastime was turning treats into taste tests. A family taste test for us was an event.

Here’s how it worked: Say neighbors or relatives had given us a small box of assorted chocolates or Eastern European jellies, or my parents bought some vintage candies after they’d seen a program about them on the Food Network. We’d would cover up the part of the box that said which flavors were included. Then we’d break out a sturdy knife and cut each chocolate into four pieces. The winner of the latest round of our current favorite board or card game would pick the next treat we’d taste. We’d sample, compare, guess the flavor, discuss our favorites. We drew it out, like a fancy wine tasting.

At the time, I thought that was just what families did with treats. However, my husband recently pointed out that as an adult with kids of my own, my impulse has always been to make everyone try things together and talk about them, whether it’s a box of pastel-colored macarons or a tray of different types of cheese.

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It’s true that I don’t have to activity-fy everything that we eat, but his observation did get me thinking about the weeks after the holidays this year. Winter at home is likely to be hard on a lot of folks: COVID-19 is expected to continue to surge before the vaccinations can fully curb it, and many of us will be stuck inside. Why not take the sweets that so many people FedExed to each other this winter and turn them into a game? Why not drink that mixed six-pack of beer like a fancy connoisseur instead of one at a time during TV viewing?

Here’s a how-to guide for turning the foods you want to eat anyway into a fancy home taste test. It’s inexpensive, it doesn’t take much prep, and it makes your day a little brighter when a lot of the days have a tendency to feel the same.

Pick your item and identify what’s fun about it

When the food you pick looks the same, like an assortment of chocolates, you can focus on getting the flavor right in a guessing game, but if you’re sampling, say, bits of hot pepper, maybe you want to put them in order of their Scoville units. If your taste test has a purpose (wedding cake options?) you can rank the samples according to tastiness.

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Make a score card

Yes, you can absolutely do a taste test without typing up the questions and the options and printing them out, but doing so makes the activity feel more “real.” Elementary- and middle-school-age kids will be more likely to commit to it, too, so all your samples won’t disappear in one sweeping handful.

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Schedule a time or tie it to an achievement

Did your family get a bunch of cookies for the holidays but didn’t want them to disappear all at once? Maybe every time a kid finishes a virtual learning unit or project, they get to pick which cookie from the freezer the family tastes next. If you want to have a bigger taste test, make it a scheduled event on a Friday night or on a temperate day when you can see a friend or two outdoors.

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Don’t rush it

One thing that is easy to do is to let competitiveness or actual stomach rumblings take over the fun and rush things along. Instead, try to put on the sommelier’s stylings and savor everything: What do you notice when you eat slowly and with family or roommates that you don’t notice otherwise?

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Can’t do it in person? Make it a gift.

If you’re at a loss for a January birthday or a cute long-distance Valentine, send a small treat sampler to your friends, family members, or significant other, and specify a time that you’ll open them and try them together on a video call. Video calls are partially fatiguing these days: many of us feel we’ve run out of things to say when days are almost all spent quietly doing work or school and we’re “talked out.” The taste test can become the topic, which is almost as valuable as getting a new sweet or savory taste.

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I think the conversation element is really what makes homemade taste tests such a nice, flexible activity this winter. Giving a group of family or friends a particular thing to talk about, something that doesn’t require committing to the same book or TV show, is a much-needed distraction, more than a big fancy dessert. I’m a real sugar lover myself, but during our family taste tests, I never much minded getting the smallest sliver of a particular treat because I knew that there were more tiny bits of sweetness to try and discuss.

If you try a taste test or have done one before, let us know what worked in the comments!

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