Pesto Chango

In the 1990s, ESPN developed the X Games, an Olympics-like competition around so-called “extreme sports” such as skateboarding, mountain biking, snowmobile racing, and snowboarding. In 2008, a then-20-year-old snowboarder named Kevin Pearce took two silvers and a bronze in the X Games. A year later, he’d capture his fourth X Games medal, another silver. But before the year was out, Pearce’s career was over. On December 31, 2009, Pearce suffered a traumatic brain injury during a practice run on the half-pipe, falling into a coma for six days. He had to re-learn how to speak and walk.

But he didn’t have to learn to like pesto. That came by itself.




Pictured above is some of his pesto. The image comes from his Instagram account and was taken on April 21, 2012, less than two and a half years after the accident. Pearce’s caption on the image explains: “I fell in love with pesto after my Traumatic Brain injury. How weird is that.” That sentiment is consistent with some of Pearce’s other social media comments — tweets from September 2010January 2011, and June 2011, all show his love of the green food. Another tweet from October 2010 specifically notes that pesto is Pearce’s “new favorite food since [he] woke from the coma” and this photo from 2011 shows him in the kitchen cooking up a batch from fresh-grown basil. A profile of the snowboarder’s life post-accident in Outside magazine explicitly noted that “he’s become obsessed with basil pesto.”

What’s going on here? The brain does strange things when functioning typically, and any brain injury can cause even stranger things, of course. But a newfound affinity for high-end foods may be a specific phenomenon. A July 2011 article in Smithsonian about Pearce’s sudden love of basil-based sauce notes that “when a certain part of the right hemisphere of the brain is damaged by trauma, stroke or tumors,” some people develop something called “Gourmand syndrome” — an otherwise unexplained and previously untapped love of high-end foods. It isn’t just Pearce, either. In 1997, a pair of Swiss neuroscientists observed a group of 36 people with post-trauma interest in gourmet foods. As recounted in their subsequent paper, the areas of the brains injured in 34 of the 36 cases were located in the same general region. In the researchers’ view, it is likely that such an injury can therefore lead to a “preoccupation with food and a preference for fine eating,” even if the injured person never had such a palate beforehand.

In Pearce’s case, whether he has Gourmand syndrome is speculative; to date, there are no reports that he’s been part of such a study. Maybe there’s another cause — maybe the pesto is simply wonderful, and he was too busy snowboarding to notice it before. If you want to test it for yourself, feel free — here’s his family’s recipe.

Bonus Fact: After eating pesto you may have a metallic aftertaste in your mouth. It’s not typical but it happens on occasion, and even has a name — “pine mouth syndrome.” The phenomenon comes from the pine nuts in the sauce (and the pine nuts needn’t be in pesto in order for it to happen), and can last for as long as two weeksAccording to the FDA, the effect “significantly decreases appetite and enjoyment of food” (which makes sense because everything tastes like metal). The good news is that pine mouth syndrome goes away on its own. The bad news is that there’s no other treatment for it other than waiting, in large part because we still don’t know what species of pine nut causes it.

From the ArchivesMiracle Berries: Fruit that make other things taste dramatically differently.

RelatedIn case you’d like to grow your own basil.