In my family, we have a saying: “Taste this and tell me if I like it.” True, it’s a silly expression, one that denies the intimate, personal nature of taste. You and I may take a forkful from the same slice of birthday cake, but my experience of the icing dissolving on my tongue will be entirely my own. We may concur that the dessert is delicious.
But agreement ends with our consensus to use the same adjective. Yum, we both exclaim. Beyond that, we can’t really know what makes the taste so delightful to the other. I might decide it’s the crunch of the rainbowed sprinkles. You might determine it’s the crumbling lightness of the cake’s buttery interior. We would both be right.
No one else can tell us what we like. We must learn our tastes for ourselves.
And yet, I once broke up with a man because he preferred vanilla ice cream to chocolate. Unforgivable, I thought. We were sitting at a small metal table, each of us leaning away from the other, so that our spines pressed against the heart-shaped backs of our chairs. If I could, I would have eaten a whole gallon of rocky road, right there in that ice cream parlor. I would have said, “I have tasted this and I am telling you, you like it.” That’s how certain I was of the unanimous appeal of chocolate.
Of course, I made some pretense for breaking things off. I folded my paper napkin and, with some finality, placed it next to the glass bowl scraped clean of ice cream. I even said, “It’s not you. It’s me.” But it was him. If his taste in dessert could be so wrong, then what other failures in his judgment might I soon discover? The French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu would have said I doubted the man’s discernment, that I secretly believed this minor disagreement revealed deeper incompatibilities, that we were divided by social class, culture, education—distinctions that could not be overcome. We clearly loved different things. I couldn’t commit to someone who favored what my tastebuds told me was pale and bland.
Our bodies can only understand the tastes they take in with the assistance of our interpretative, meaning-making minds.
In his book Food Philosophy: An Introduction, scholar David M. Kaplan points to the challenge of understanding our sense of taste. The way we engage with food—as I learned from my ex-boyfriend—is wildly subjective. At the same time, as Kaplan says, “we can often agree about taste properties in food (whether something is sweet, salty, or spicy), which seems to suggest taste is objective, or at least found in objects, not only in our minds.” In fact, the tastes our minds perceive begin in our bodies. And our bodies can only understand the tastes they take in with the assistance of our interpretative, meaning-making minds.
Of the five senses, taste is the one that requires of us the most active participation. Throughout the day, smells enter our noses without our permission. We often see and hear what we would prefer to avoid. We are constantly touched without noticing the contact: the air against our skin, the floor against the soles of our feet, the steering wheel against our palms.
Once we move beyond infancy, we begin to make decisions about the foods we are offered. Our parents no longer place spoonsful of mush or little Os of dry cereal in our open mouths. Instead, we choose whether to taste something or not. With each new taste, we discover a little more about what we love or loathe, where our families come from, what they believe.
We learn about recent memory and ancestral trauma. We learn about national identity. As the Frenchman Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes in The Physiology of Taste, his gastronomic tour de force of 1825, “Tell me what you eat, and I shall tell you what you are.” Tastes enter our bodies. We digest them. We are what we eat, because the things we consume become part of our cells, the movement of our thoughts, even what we perceive as the beautiful.
But to slice through the mysteries of taste—how it works on or in us—it’s not enough to address our experience of the sense in lyric terms: the dry tannins of a red grape, the unexpected salt in a piece of licorice shaped like an ancient coin, the foggy intersection of fruit and acid in a glass of apple cider vinegar. We must also speak about the science of taste. We must talk about biology, ecology, and biochemistry.
We are what we eat, because the things we consume become part of our cells, the movement of our thoughts, even what we perceive as the beautiful.
When studied under a microscope, the surface of the tongue looks geological, a craggy landscape we might wander in our dreams. Even standing in front of the mirror and sticking out our tongues, we can see thousands of tiny bumps there known as papillae, which are often described as nipple-like. Papillae come in different sizes and shapes, resembling mushrooms, domes, folds, or cones. In The Flavor Equation: The Science of Great Cooking Explained in More Than 100 Essential Recipes, food writer and scientist Nik Sharma writes that every “papilla contains a collection of taste buds which in turn contain the taste pore, through which taste cells and nerves sense the different tastes in our foods.”
As our teeth tear and crush bites of food, our saliva begins the process of dissolving what we eat. Sharma explains that “taste molecules, or tastants, then travel through the pores of the taste buds, where they meet the taste receptors on the microvilli.” Different receptors are designed to sense and respond to each of the five known tastes: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami. Almost instantaneously, “the taste molecule binds with the receptor,” a signal sprinting toward the brain, so that we can identify which tastes we have consumed, the rapid, breathless delivery of the message almost inseparable from the act of eating itself. Amazing that a process this complex—I read Sharma’s explanation dozens of times before I understood it—should happen so quickly, faster than the time between bite and swallow.
Sharma urges us to forget the lessons of high school biology:
Taste buds containing taste receptor cells not only line the tongue surface but also coat the soft palate, the throat, and, to a lesser extent, the epiglottis and esophagus. Taste receptors are also present in the gut and lungs, where they act as sensors that can regulate our appetites and help protect us from harmful substances.
Contrary to what most of us were once taught, we don’t taste the salty only on the tips of our tongues. The sour is not merely located along the edges. The map of the tongue is more complicated than we might have previously imagined; to taste is to use our entire selves in the ingestion and digestion of food.
Diane Ackerman explains in A Natural History of the Senses that “we normally chew about a hundred times a minute. But if we let something linger in our mouth, feel its texture, smell its bouquet, roll it around on the tongue, then chew it slowly so that we can hear its echoes, what we’re really doing is savoring it, using several senses in a gustatory free-for-all.”
It’s difficult to partition off one sense from the others. The body is not an old house, one room holding our sense of taste, smell located in a closet down the hall, sound upstairs, sight stored in the attic, and touch in the basement. If we contain any kind of architecture, then we are open floor plans where the senses intermingle, communicating with one another across the space.
No one else can tell us what we like. We must learn our tastes for ourselves.
“To taste fully is to live fully,” asserts Kate Christensen in her memoir, Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites. “And to live fully is be awake and responsive to complexities and truths—good and terrible, overwhelming and minuscule. To eat passionately is to allow the world in; there can be no hiding or sublimation when you’re chewing a mouthful of food so good it makes you swoon.”
Here Christensen is speaking about the wide menu of emotions that we bring to the act of tasting. It’s a reminder that taste is a sentimental experience as well as a physical and intellectual one, working as much on our feelings as on our bodies and minds.
And according to applied ecologist Rob Dunn and medical anthropologist Monica Sanchez, the entire course of human evolution has been shaped by our pursuit of the delectable. In Delicious: The Evolution of Flavor and How It Made Us Human, they argue that our development as human beings “is a story of flavor and deliciousness, and the story of flavor and deliciousness is a story of physics, chemistry, neuroscience, psychology, farming, art, ecology, and evolution.”
In the process of seeking out pleasurable tastes, human beings created new tools, new means of preparing and preserving foods, and even new cultural practices. “We discern and choose through flavors,” they explain, “but we also search, research, and learn by tasting, and are uniquely suited to doing so together with others of our species, whether around a fire or at a table. We sit together and we make sense of the world one bite at a time.”
What’s most important about the thesis of Delicious is the way in which Dunn and Sanchez connect the human impulse to survive with the development of our preference for certain tastes. They explain that taste receptors for the sweet, salty, and umami “evolved to point animals, through deliciousness, to what otherwise might be missing from their diet.” Highly caloric, nutrient-dense foods became enticing to us.
Conversely, taste receptors for the sour and bitter “also serve the opposite purpose; they can point animals away from danger. They do so through feelings of displeasure.” Our ancestors sampled something that made them grimace with revulsion—a strange berry in the forest, a dark crust of fungus—and they spat the offensive morsel onto the ground, their taste receptors having just sent life-saving messages to the brain. Pleasure is a reward, and displeasure a penalty, each response linked, respectively, to the benefits or hazards of specific foods.
Taste is a sentimental experience as well as a physical and intellectual one, working as much on our feelings as on our bodies and minds.
In their book Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste, biophysicist Ole G. Mouritsen and chef Klavs Styrbæck discuss the most intriguing (and most recently discovered) of the five known tastes. Umami, which is derived from the Japanese word umai, meaning delicious, is the taste defined by our ability to recognize the presence of salts known as glutamates in foods.
Umami was first identified as a taste in 1908 by chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who studied the molecular structure of the ingredients used to make dashi, the rich, flavorful broth that is so central to Japanese cuisine. By analyzing kombu, “a species of kelp” that is to dashi as the bay leaf is to chicken stock, Ikeda was able to isolate a “salt of an organic acid, glutamic acid,” which is one of “twenty amino acids that living organisms use to build proteins.” The salt Ikeda identified was MSG or monosodium glutamate. All glutamates elicit the taste of umami in foods, “but MSG is especially effective because it interacts with another important salt in our diet—table salt.”
Mouritsen and Styrbæck explain that Ikeda immediately recognized the “technological and commercial potentials” of glutamates as flavor enhancers that could be mass-produced and that could be “combined with other ingredients” to increase the nutritional value of food products. But Ikeda’s discoveries not only led to the development of the “world’s largest multinational industrial enterprises,” his introduction of the word umami into our global vocabulary has also changed how many of us speak about and understand the very foods we eat.
“The discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a star,” Brillat-Savarin proclaims many decades before Ikeda coins the term umami. Taste can offer us numerous insights about ourselves, we who are guided both by sensation and sentiment. In Aimee Bender’s novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, the protagonist develops the uncomfortable gift of being able to detect the emotions of the person who has prepared the dish: “I could absolutely taste the chocolate, but in drifts and traces, in an unfurling, or an opening, it seemed that my mouth was also filling with the taste of smallness, the sensation of shrinking, of upset, tasting a distance I somehow knew was connected to my mother.”
In the freshly baked lemon cake, Rose Edelstein can taste her mother’s terrible loneliness. But consider what Dunn and Sanchez say about the long human history of communal meals: “For many thousands of years, fireside gatherings were where our ancestors shared stories. It was around fires, with food in hand, that our ancestors communicated their knowledge and understanding. It was in such gatherings that truth could be sorted from falsehoods.” Given that the sharing of food has long served as an occasion for honest dialogue, the conceit of Bender’s novel doesn’t seem that fantastical.
Eating together has always been an opportunity to access our own feelings and those of others. I have known every emotion at the table. I have worried about my sick dog while sitting before a bowl of soup made cold by my worrying. I have wept into my gloppy oatmeal as news of an election played on the television in the living room. And I have welcomed Shabbat by tearing into a braided loaf of bread, the egg of the dough crumbling on my tongue, as the night arrives and I wish for a better week to come, honey mixed with the salt of days.
Adapted from Taste: A Book of Small Bites by Jehanne Dubrow. Copyright © 2022. Reprinted with permission from Columbia University Press.