NonSense: In Good Taste
Chambers Dictionary, Citation 2: Taste: judgment, discrimination, discernment, tastefulness.
Neatly ordered on the tongue, we have taste buds to discern the flavours of sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami (literally meaning ‘savoury taste’ in Japanese). Our mouths are our comfort, our saviour and our poison-tester all in one. You would think that dulling even one taste receptor should be bad news, but our neatly ordered taste buds are actually not as adept at tasting as you might think…
After all, when you’re down with a rotten cold and a blocked nose, doesn’t food become bland? 400 nasal glands contribute to our ability to taste, so obstructing our sense of smell renders our sense of taste hopeless. In fact, smell makes up so much of taste that it is sometimes able to override our sense of taste entirely. Take mango, strawberry and melon, for example. These sweet fruits we know and love all contain as much acidity as a slice of lemon to protect them from scavenging birds and critters. This downright deception of our taste buds is a caused by the floral smell emitted by the fruit. Our brains expect sweetness and so trick us into believing we’re tasting exactly that.
And our tongues are not just tricked by nature—food companies have also found a way to capitalise on our innate gullibility. Our umami taste buds respond to the addictive food enhancement agent MSG, prevalent in salty snacks and Chinese takeaways, the same way that they respond to natural cooked meat and broth. Once again, we’re bamboozled into thinking we’re eating the real deal, and our taste buds prod us to eat (and buy) more.
Now taste can trick us, but we can also trick taste! If you eat your usual food in an unusual way, it tends to taste better. Studies show that popcorn tastes even tastier when eaten with chopsticks rather than with our hands. You are forced to concentrate on the food and the activity of eating, which allows for a more intense sensory experience. Some restaurants go the extra mile to induce this sort of culinary concentration: London eatery Dans Le Noir is famous for submerging its diners in pitch darkness as they feast, served by visually impaired waiters. This restaurant even goes so far as to keep its menus a secret from the diners, so they have no choice but to identify their food by taste and touch as they grope around in the darkness for their meal.
Food historian and founder of AVM Curiosities, Tasha Marks, is fascinated by the relationship between food and the activity of eating and has made it her lifelong hobby. AVM Curiosities once even hosted an event at the Barbican called ‘The Poetry of Toast’, which took “something everyday” and made it “something performative”. Just by nibbling on a piece of toast in an artistic space, the eater becomes a performer, and that casual piece of toast becomes a strange and tasty piece of art.
In fact, taste and sight have always been incredibly connected through the aesthetics of food. Most notably, carrots have been cultivated to be a cheery orange colour from their less desirable original purple, white, and yellow ancestors (although today, these multi-coloured carrots are making a comeback at trendy organic farmers’ markets). Colourful vegetables with Instagram-worthy vibrancy are very hip, especially if they were locally produced and simply prepared. Even conventionally “ugly” produce have their place on food blogs and in supermarkets, celebrated for their organic imperfections and environmental consciousness. What with nature and fresh greens being so decidedly au courant these days, it’s pretty doubtful that you’d see zany 1970s culinary classics such as tuna and Jell-O pie or Watergate salad (whose ingredients include: pistachio pudding, canned pineapple, whipped topping, and marshmallows) on your Instagram feeds. Strangely, however, prawn cocktail is back in style, albeit with a dash of irony, having spent most of its life “see-sawing from the height of fashion to the laughably passé”, according to food journalist Nigel Slater. Although beware, fashion has a way of coming full circle, we’ve already seen tassels, fringing and bell-bottoms back on shelves, who says Watergate salad isn’t next?
Our taste buds can’t have radically changed in the last 50 years, but our stylistic tastes have. Even the lightest of meals carry the weight of social connotations: tofu is liberal, avocado toast is millennial, cranberry juice is feminine. Is it really so necessary to place food groups into social categories? I say we fight back against this classification! Put vanilla in your vindaloo, eat edible flowers with your yogurt and punch anyone in the face that calls you a pansy for it. Let’s do as the great Goethe bade us and imagine a world of taste without taste. “One must ask children and birds how cherries and strawberries taste” – it’s a good a place as any to start.