Yummy Sounds: When Is It Best to Just Shut Up and Eat?

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I recently had the chance to share a dinner of two freshly caught fish with a group of old friends, an occasion that also allowed me to reflect on all the funny sounds folks make when they're enjoying their food.

In contrast to the slurping, panting and chewing associated with careless eating, the soundscape of blissful eating includes clicks, clucks, purrs, hums and moans so intense they wouldn't be considered fit for polite company if the noisemaker wasn't armed with a knife and fork.

Which led me to wonder: Are all joyful sounds acceptable at table? A few chefs at the forefront of new cooking -- including The Fat Duck's Heston Blumenthal, who's so intrigued by the food-sound connection that he famously served an iPod with a seafood dish -- believe listening to oneself chewing can enhance the dining experience. But what about listening to somebody else?

Most audible responses to edible pleasure are probably involuntary: I once judged a cooking competition with a fellow writer who reflexively "mmm"'d when tasting, a tic that misled a few of the less talented contestants into thinking their entries were successful. While I couldn't find any research on the topic of human eating noises, I did come across a fair number of chimpanzee studies citing specific sounds apes make when devouring bananas. I'm guessing they're not just being tactful.

My reactions to incredibly good food tend to be inaudible - I'll pull my shoulders to my ears, shake my head, close my eyes, pound the table - although I do take a sharp intake of breath when I encounter extremely promising menu items. I doubt that habit annoys my dining partners, but perhaps they are being tactful.

Are there sounds you make when eating? And are there any eating-related vocalizations that you'd rather not hear?

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