birdman eating

What does it mean to taste something?

Posted in essay by birdmaneating on January 23, 2009
Tags: , , ,

coffee1Ever notice how hard it is to taste something, really taste it? If you don’t get it on the first or second bite, well — it’s like trying to catch up to a paper napkin on a windy sidewalk. Impossible.

Take coffee, the first thing you taste every day. There’s only a brief moment when you can actually taste it, taste it with focused attention, I mean. After the Krups machine has let out its final wheeze, and the last spurt of water has settled onto the black slurry of grounds. After that, when the coffee’s in your mug, and you’re alone in the kitchen, there’s a second when you get the aroma: malty, caramel-sweet, with a whiff of tar from the roaster.

In that first sip the taste is as clear as the tinkling of wind chimes: bark-like richness, near-metallic acidity, bitterness as reviving as the smell of morning out the front door. With your nose in the mug, hands wrapped around it for warmth, you get it.

But by the third sip it’s gone. You’re still drinking hot liquid, but the taste is now muddy. Maybe you’re distracted by thoughts of checking on your husband, that he hasn’t fallen back asleep to the hum of NPR on snooze. Or discovering that the cat’s been sick on the carpet. Maybe you’ve started to look at the paper. You’re still sipping from the mug, but the coffee’s taste is now as vague as your reflection in a fogged mirror. It’s just bitter.

Pour yourself a fresh cup but it’s hopeless: No amount of concentration can help you squeegee away the desensitizing fog. Any nuance, all subtlety — they’re just gone.

That phenomenon — the way the sense of taste becomes numb after a brief moment of attention — that phenomenon is something that people who write about wine know only too well. “During the first moments of tasting a wine, you will form distinct impressions about its taste and bouquet,” observes food writer Richard Olney. “But these impressions are bound to be transitory, and even a wine expert may find it difficult to remember them for long.” Thus the usefulness of tasting logs, notebooks where you can jot down associations after the first or second sips from your glass, in comments as spontaneous and unfiltered as the observations of a Zen roshi. Supple. Nutty. Moldy. Flabby

Harold McGee, who writes about the science of food, hints at the intricate choreography of sensations that even a tiny sip of something sets off. Taste buds clock salts, sugars, acids, savory amino acids and bitter alkaloids, but it’s the sense of smell that allows for subtlety. “Nearly all food aromas are composites of many different molecules,” McGee writes. “In the case of vegetables, herbs and spices, the number may be a dozen or two, while fruits typically emit several hundred volatile molecules. Usually just a handful create the dominant element of an aroma, while the others supply background, supporting, enriching notes.”

Reading McGee, you get the feeling that the act of tasting, of sorting through those volatile molecules, requires so much attention, such an extraordinary effort of focus, that it’s impossible to sustain it after an initial spurt of energy. Your senses simply can’t maintain the effort.

That inevitable fading of focused attention has its own poignancy. It was the elusiveness of taste that sparked a literary and esthetic revolution last century. Marcel Proust used taste as a turnstile into his six-novel epic of memory exploration, Remembrance of Things Past. The narrator slurps bit of cake crumbled into a spoonful of herb tea. The first taste conjures the house he knew as a child springing up about him, and sparks over 2,000 pages of reflection. The late cookbook author James Beard used Proust’s famous moment with cake and tea as inspiration for his own 1964 memoir, Delights and Prejudices. “When Proust recollected the precise taste sensation of the little scalloped madeleine cakes served at tea by his aunt,” Beard wrote, “it led him into his monumental remembrance of things past. When I recollect the taste sensations of my childhood, they lead me to more cakes, more tastes.”

Well, Beard cast a huge shadow—literally.

But that so-called Proustian moment: it’s the feeling you get standing in Safeway, when “Billy Jean” kicks on over the PA. Suddenly you’re no longer squinting to read the cost-per-ounce of Special K Red Berries. Suddenly you’re in the dark, on the bench seat of a Chevy Nova, lost in the aroma of Herbal Essence shampoo in the hair of a girl you used to date. When you used to date girls.

Pure magic, but fragile. “I drink a second mouthful,” Proust writes, “in which I find nothing more than in the first, a third, which gives me rather less than the second. It is time to stop; the potion is losing its magic.” Taste is a balloon you can’t tie closed: The more you handle it the quicker it collapses. But in the collapsing, there’s the possibility of poetry.

Imagine that, in the murky light just past dawn, when the newspaper guy’s battered car is stop-starting down the street, and there’s the thwack of newspapers on front steps. When the Krups machine is pulsing its trickle of coffee into the carafe, and the cat is moving sinuously against your calf, your senses are all converging into something with more or less the charge of poetry.

Drink it in — you won’t be able to make it last.   —John Birdsall


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