But why stop at seven? If seven layers is delicious, just think how incredible a 14-layer dip would be. Twice as delicious, surely? Imagine the gastronomic heaven of a 20-layer dip. Fifty layers? Well, you’d be eating that with an unshiftable, throbbing erection!
Trailblazing renegades have done it, venturing beyond the famed seven. Robust Recipes have an 11-layer dip integrating corn and a few extra vegetables. Just A Pinch gets to 12 layers by repeating a few. Amy’s New Kitchen also gets to 12 by throwing a bunch of meat in and counting hot sauce as its own layer. Tasty Recipes have a 47-layer dip that’s basically just a giant bucket of food but definitely has a je ne sais quoi to it.
Of course, a tortilla chip has limits. The people making the 47-layer one in a vessel the size of a washing machine drum at least knew they were being stupid. Dipping a chip into that would involve putting your whole forearm in — less “casually having some dip,” more “practicing being a vet.”
A standard, barely-curled chip measures about seven centimeters from the top of the triangle to the center of the base. Assuming you’re holding it between your finger and thumb at the top, that leaves you with around five centimeters of dip depth.
Seven layers in that space allows for a decent amount of each one — an average of seven millimeters each. Once the numbers get too silly, each layer would be so thin that it would barely be worth it. One millimeter of refried beans? One millimeter of cheese? Absolutely fucking unacceptable.
Leaving aside the actual dippability of it, can the human mouth actually enjoy that many flavors at once?
There must be a point at which more is no longer more, where however delicious each individual layer might be, they all blur into one another. The law of diminishing returns has to kick in at some point. Plus, after a while, surely it becomes a bit like a kid mixing paints — the gastronomic equivalent of a nasty, shitty brown? The food version of noise?
When does that happen though? Is there a limit to how many flavors we can experience at once?
“There are six basic flavors,” says David L. Katz, a doctor and neuroscientist who has written extensively on how flavors interact with the brain. “These are sweet, sour, salty, savory, bitter and umami. There are some arguments for others, but these are the core six. They activate different receptors, and each get a differential reception in the brain, so all can be perceived at once.”
However, he points out, there is a difference between your brain biologically perceiving these differences and you tasting them and picking up on all the variety. “Consider what the average consumer can ‘taste’ in wine, and what an elite sommelier can taste,” he says. “The basic physiologic reactions and ‘biology’ of perception are the same in both cases, but the ability to process that consciously, and translate it into a vivid experience, differ markedly.”
There’s also a difference between flavors working together to complement one another, and everything smooshing into nastiness. “I don’t think the number of ingredients is a reliable indicator of the final, sensory experience,” Katz continues. “Consider, for instance, a great Indian dish with many blended herbs and spices. Lots of ingredients, but harmonious. The experience might be more of a muddy brown when flavors and ingredients are inelegantly combined.”
Forty-seven musical instruments playing at the same time might sound great if they’re an orchestra, and will probably sound pretty shitty if they’re all doing their own thing.
The traditional seven-layer dip is pretty much a shopping list of the primary components of Tex-Mex — flavors proven to work beautifully together. That can certainly be added to, but by the time you’re hitting 20 or so, unless you’re repeating yourself, you’re likely to be going off-piste enough (sardines! jelly! flour!) that it would start to at least brush upon inelegance.
Maybe seven is enough — high enough that it feels like a party in your mouth, low enough that you get a decent amount of every component. High enough to be exciting, low enough to not get completely stupid. It’s the world’s favorite number, after all. If it’s good enough for days of the week, deadly sins, wonders of the world, samurai, brides for brothers and the magnificent, it should be enough for a Dorito, too.