Michiana Chronicles: The Matter of Taste
When the world gets small, small things loom large. That’s how I explain my outsized worry that the coronavirus might steal my sense of taste, even though I know it can steal much more.
In this time when savoring food is one comfort we can still safely enjoy, losing one’s taste just seems so mean. I’ve listened with dread to friends’ stories of their Covid cases that begin with flavors going dead on their tongues, food suddenly tasting “like cardboard, or dust.” I make my empathy face, but I’m thinking, “Oh, don’t let this happen to meeeee.”
Why does taste matter so much? And why are we so bad at describing the sensation of tasting? Despite the glut of food writing and cooking shows, can you think of one that accurately captures the experience of ingredients dissolving into sensation on the tongue? Actor Stanley Tucci’s new food-focused memoir is titled Taste, and the pages are filled with Italian recipes and charming family stories that unfold in the kitchen. But taste? It’s more a love letter to the concept of taste, and why we miss it when we lose it. Even Marcel Proust, of the famous madeleine that sends him through the portal of memory, doesn’t describe the taste of the tea-soaked cookie; he just names the act of eating: “No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.” OK, ok, Marcel, but what were you tasting?
Anyone who’s watched a cooking show knows it’s embarrassing to see people take a bite and try to explain what’s actually happening in their mouths. They mug for the camera, closing their eyes, moaning variations on “Yum” or “Delicious!” Not helpful. Others resort to similes: a dish tastes like lemon, or berries, or, alas, “like chicken.” But what does that mean, exactly? Or we stack up metaphors, with referents that often have no business in our mouths. Wine might be grassy, oaky, or have the minerality of a wet stone. The zany Monty Python sketch about “fine Australian table wines” describes an unfortunate bottle with a “lingering after-burn,” and that does at least capture the pyrotechnics of taste. What’s happening on our taste buds is a combination of mouthfeel, aroma, acid levels, and the myriad physiological effects of ingredients hitting our taste buds. New York Times food columnist Tejal Rao gets closer, describing persimmons, for example, as having “juice so astringent, so tannic, so like your very first taste of wine, that your tongue pulls away involuntarily” (1.2.22).
The multi-lingual among us offer further clarity … or not. Friends tell me Spanish captures a range of starches as almidonado, which the French might describe as étouffe-chrétien, literally, food that could choke a Christian. German has herzhaft for foods that are heartily savory and separate words for shades of deliciousness that I won’t hazard here.* The cultural context looms large as we try to name what matters to us.
But for all our associative romanticizing about taste, it is fundamentally a neurological experience, as Covid’s damage reminds us. A recent NPR story featured a baker whose sense of taste and smell continue to misfire months after her initial infection, making pecans taste like apples, and favorite dishes taste like rotting trash. When our thousands of taste receptors work properly, they send messages of sweet, bitter, sour, umami, and salt flavors right to our primary gustatory cortex, so we seek out energy-rich sweetness or reject bitter toxins. Babies remind us how much our adult palate has been adjusted by repeated exposure and dulled by time when we enjoy their eye-squeezing shudders at first tastes of lemon or pickles.
And maybe provoking a tart response is the point of the hot-button film, Don’t Look Up, which includes a scene (and I promise this is not a spoiler) of characters savoring the flavors in a grocery-store meal. The diners search for words to describe the appeal of store-bought sweets, with a chemical edge that reminds them of childhood. The “bursting with flavor” cliché reminds us that we, too, are the products of an industrial hope of “better living through chemistry.” Yikes. And that might be just the Proustian moment we need right now, whether we have a taste for it, or not.
Music: Bon Iver, “Second Nature” (From 'Don’t Look Up')
* With thanks to my World Language Department colleagues for vocabulary help: Prof. Tammy Fong-Morgan, Prof. Anne Magnan-Park, and Prof. Jeff Luppes. I apologize for my pronunciation.