COLLEGE STATION – Question: Who gets paid to sample steak? Work for only two hours a day, three days a week? Not come to work if they don’t want to? Never get fired?
Answer: The panelists who take part in projects for the sensory lab in Kleberg Center on the campus of Texas A&M University.
No, it’s not an Aggie joke, it’s for-real scientific projects with people who sample steak and other foods, get paid, don’t have to sign up for a particular project if they don’t want to and not have to worry about lay-offs.
Of course they have to go through a long qualification process and then up to 12 months of training – and the job is less than part-time and doesn’t pay enough to support a family. But hey! Free steak? Short work hours? Job security?
Talk about a dream job! Is it any wonder that panelists tend to stick around?
Mrs. Jack Inglis, for example, has been a panelist for 14 years and has participated in research projects on peanut butter, spinach, and – her first tasting – picante sauce, which they checked for shelf life, she said. And – even better – “we did some ice cream,” she added.
What got her started as a trained panelist for the sensory lab? “I was looking for something interesting to do part-time. I don’t like taking jobs away from young people, and no young person wanted this job!” she laughed.
Flora Gray laughed with her, and explained that she became a panelist about 12 years ago “mainly to get out of the house!”
She said she has enjoyed tasting chicken products because “we do so much steak, it was nice to taste something different.”
Too much steak? How can that be? The panelists agreed that after years – sometimes decades – of tasting steak in all its various forms and flavors, they yearn for something different.
Ostrich meat was “sort of interesting,” Mrs. Gray said, but confessed what she’s really looking for is research that involves tasting chocolate…
Ron Runyon is a relative newcomer with four years on the panel. He signed up, he said, because he thought it would “make a nice break from my work. I’m a minister with Central Christian Church in Bryan.” And luckily for him, “they (panelists) don’t do weekends,” he laughed.
He did admit he was sorry to have missed the ice cream sampling Mrs. Inglis remembered.
Hisayo Mason, with five years of service as a panelist at the sensory lab, explained when steak is tasted, each sample involves two pieces of meat, which the panelists then rate for such things as juiciness, tenderness, connective tissue amount, overall flavor intensity and off-flavor characteristics.
Two pieces of meat? That doesn’t sound like much.
No, that’s two pieces of meat per sample, with something like 16 or 17 samples per day, explained Marvin Ouren, an 18-year veteran of the panel.
After that much sampling in that short amount of time, the tongue gets tired and the taste buds get numb, the panelists agreed.
“Ricotta and unsalted crackers are used between samples to clear the palette,” Ouren said, as is “water with no minerals in it,” – which he admitted is a whole different taste sensation. But a lot of little tastes add up to a lot, and “even ricotta wears off after about 12 samples.”
But weight watchers don’t need to worry, the panelists said. They are supposed to spit out their samples, not swallow them.
The panelists and the researchers do seem to have a lot of fun together – how could tasting a lot of steak be anything else? But don’t be fooled: A lot of serious research is being done in this light-hearted atmosphere.
While they are researching for taste, texture and tenderness, among other things, scientific tests are also being conducted. “They back us up during the test, mostly by mechanical means,” Ouren said, including tests for such attributes as color and tenderness.
That’s true, said Dr. Rhonda K. Miller, professor with the department of animal science and researcher with the sensory lab, but “they (panelists) are more reliable.”
And they don’t hesitate to express themselves and give specific reasons for their opinions. Ouren described a test he took part in years ago when he first joined the panel. “We did a two-week study … . It was terrible, and I couldn’t figure out what it was. Turned out it was antelope. They were trying to do antelope for the economically disadvantaged, (but) they couldn’t make antelope tasty. It’s too acidic; too gamey.”
Mrs. Gray nodded. “Some (samples) are not very tasty. They’re terrible in fact,” she whispered.
In the interest of science, “terrible” doesn’t qualify as a detailed-enough description, so panelists rate the items on such measurable attributes as texture, saltiness, tenderness, flavor and other factors, depending on what they are sampling at the time.
Because Texas A&M is one of only a few locations in the country that offer sensory labs, Miller said many other agencies and corporations take advantage of the services offered here – which is why the panelists have been involved in projects for so many different kinds of food products, such as peanut butter, tomato paste and even ice cream.
As for the panelists themselves, after all these years of service, what would they like to test?
“Anybody mention beer?” Ouren quipped.