More about Taste…the sense

We are what we eat

The physical experience of tasting is the most immediate and primal of senses because whatever we put in our mouths becomes us. It is the initial step in absorbing the living things with which we nourish ourselves, consuming the vitality of other life forms so that we may live. “We are what we eat”, as Victor Lindlahr put it in 1942, or as Brillat-Savarin said in the Physiologie du Goût, “Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es” (Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are). It is the very first sense that is active in babies as they explore the world by sticking everything in their mouths, to ‘test’ them, which linguistically, is the same origin as ‘taste’.

Tasting is a primal act

So taste is primal, direct and very much linked to our survival, but also, and thankfully, to pleasure. Nothing goes as far as a delicious food or wine in providing an immediate sense of well-being and satisfaction. But our choices as omnivores have lead us down some pretty dark paths and today we more often feed upon dead foods that we are deceived into thinking are tasty because they have been chemically treated with taste enhancers, sugars, extra salt and fat. The taste of real, living foods and wines on the other hand is unmistakeable because of the vitality they contain. Our palates are awakened and our senses tingle. We can practically feel the life-giving forces that are there to nourish us.

Living versus dead foods

Feeding on dead foods, foods that lack any real sustenance or nourishment but are filling and taste enhanced to disguise their true nature is the single greatest contributor to the dramatic decline in health we have seen in the Western world over this past century. But even though fast-food agro-business has gained the upper hand around the world, there is a growing movement based in authenticity, locally grown, seasonal, healthy and tasty naturally grown organic and biodynamic foods that is also a return to real tastes. Along with this there is a shift from the isolated, on the run, eating alone paradigm of fast food consumption to a slow, collectively shared experience of eating and tasting.

A shared experience

The shared experience of taste is also among the most primal of human experiences and affects us both emotionally and physically. Our first taste memories are often beacons for us throughout our lives, calling us back to remind us of those moments of delight that form our palates and tastes that we savour forever. Shared nourishment is enlivening, exhilarating and one of the purest forms of pleasure. Dinner parties, family feasts, religious celebrations, food rituals and simple picnics and barbecues bind us to one another on an affective and subtly spiritual level that creates unity and fosters understanding while building community. The French term for friend is ‘copain’ or ‘copine’ – one with whom one shares bread. Even bad food can taste good in the right company, and at social functions we tend to eat things that we wouldn’t dream of eating normally, and sometimes suffer the consequences later. We also tend to overeat and over-drink in company, primarily to prolong this sense of shared pleasure.

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The language of taste

But taste is ineffable, complex, subtle, personal, intimate and often taken for granted. In general, we are rather amateurish in trying to describe tastes and woefully limited – “this tastes good, yummy, delicious”, or “this tastes bad, awful, disgusting”…the range of language we have for describing smells, which is of course very closely tied to taste, is much richer and more varied.

We struggle to describe tastes because they are often complex and subtle. Comparative tastings are particularly demonstrative of this as our taste buds are asked to identify the differences between two things that may strike us initially as very similar. Even when diligently concentrating on analysing the supposed differences we may come up short or find one just a little sweeter, or a little saltier, or a little thicker. We have all accepted the challenge of trying to identify a particular spice or element used in a dish at one time or another and may find ourselves struggling while someone else immediately pops up with the answer. Though we can all taste, some are more versed in the vocabulary and range of tastes than others, and like any language, this can be learned and developed.

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Taste is personal

Taste is also very personal. We may collectively agree on what tastes good, but there is an infinite variety in degrees of appreciation and ability to taste. Sharing a dish that everyone enjoys does not automatically mean that everyone enjoys it or can taste it to the same degree. Often this enjoyment is the direct result of conviviality and the taste experience passes almost unnoticed as a fleeting and gratifying pleasure, but not a memorable ‘taste’ experience.

Taste is intimate

There is a great deal of intimacy involved in tasting because we are, even when sharing a meal, each tasting independently of one another. We are alone with our palates even in a crowd. The experience we are living is for us alone and the process of chewing and swallowing (eating) is, after kissing and coitus, perhaps the most intimate act of all because we become one with whatever we eat. Kissing on the other hand is unquestionably the most comprehensive way of ‘knowing’ someone because we go directly into their mouths where all that they have tasted is reflected in the taste of their saliva, the sweetness of their lips and the softness of their tongue. We are at a certain level ‘testing’ them to learn things we couldn’t possibly know otherwise. Whether these things register consciously, identifiably and rationally is another question. The experience of tasting someone falls just short of the next stage, which would be to eat them, which is of course something of a taboo in most parts of the world. But devouring a lover’s skin with kisses is a way of tasting them, of consuming them. And do we not use the language of food to describe, affectionately, those we love? Sweetheart, honey, cupcake, sugarplum, cookie, muffin, pumpkin, honeybunch, munchkin, sugarpie, sweetie pie…

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Health and taste

Tasting requires a certain state of health and physical fitness. When the senses are in tune, we are well rested, in good health, undistracted and our appetites keen, taste experiences can be acute and vivid. When we’re tired and distracted, we hardly notice whether we’ve eaten or not and often consume things blindly. This disconnect from what we are eating leads to a breakdown in the connection between food and health. The Ayurvedic term ‘Sattva’ describes the healing and therapeutic effect of real food on the body, which is celebrated by the pleasures of taste.

Taste is a need and taste is wisdom

Our need to feed, to be nourished, to eat so we can live, makes taste a need as well. We taste as the first step to selecting what is beneficial or harmful to eat. We taste so we can ‘know’ if something is good or bad, so taste. By extension, we must go through the experience of ‘testing’ things in order to know about them. As the theologian Matthew Fox says, wisdom is taste. “Wisdom is always taste – in both Latin and Hebrew, the word for wisdom comes from the word for taste – so it’s something to taste, not something to theorize about. “Taste and see that God is good,” the psalm says; and that’s wisdom: tasting life. No one can do it for us. The mystical tradition is very much a Sophia tradition. It is about tasting and trusting experience, before institution or dogma.”