Ruth E. Walker
In today’s dive into one of the five senses, this one is more complicated than I’d given thought to. I’ll try to be tasteful, but truly our mouths hold both the good, the bad and, well, the ugly. Understanding how the sense of taste works can help you with developing your stories and your characters. But first, let’s take a quick trip over the tongue.
Number five is magical
Just as there are five basic senses (sight, sound, touch, smell and taste) there are five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. That last one, umami, was new to me and science had only identified it during the 1980s. It’s a Japanese word meaning “a pleasant savory taste.” Most often associated with meats, umami helps us recognize amino acids. Elements of umami are found in broths and gravies, cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes and soya sauce.
Most of us know our bodies have taste receptors on our tongue. There are plenty of places to research about those receptors if you want a deeper dive. For example, did you know that those receptors, or taste buds, are also located on our palate, our cheeks, the upper part of our esophagus? As food travels from the tip of the tongue and to the back of our throats, we are tasting. So even if the tongue is damaged, we are still able to taste.
That looks yummy!
Unlike sight, taste is based on chemical reactions in our body. But is it just the flavour of things that make up taste? My dear friend and colleague, Gwynn, says “We eat with our eyes” and I agree. A gorgeous plate arranged with brilliant colours and diverse textures (leafy salads, ripe berries, tomatoes, rainbow peppers) is far more appetizing than a bowl of gluey grey mash (think 9-days-old porridge here.) But you just have to take a big bite out of a slender red chili pepper to understand your eyes aren’t the only factor (even as they water from the extreme heat of that bite.)
Imagine a world without flavours. Where bland is the norm and spices are heresy. Or where nourishment is delivered through injection, directly into the stomach or handed out in pill form, ingested ten times a day. Where liquid arrives through osmosis, taken in only when the body is immersed in water.
Some of this is the stuff of science fiction and some of it, like tube feeding, is a reality of some people. And others have lost the ability to taste through a brain disfunction or injury. Remember that as you develop your plots and your characters: the world is not simply as you know it.
Add more spice
We also eat with our nose. How about when you have a stuffed-up nose from a cold? We seem to lose some of our sense of taste. But we don’t really; we lose the ability to smell and that sense works in partnership with our tastebuds. Inhale the aroma first and then we taste the deliciousness. Without smell, taste loses a lot of its punch.
If everything in your stories is mint chewing gum, apple pie and roast beef, you might want to switch things up a bit. Or completely upend the ordinary with some extraordinary.
Remember Harry Potter and those Every Flavour Jelly Beans? From cotton candy to spinach to soap to vomit. OMG – that caught our attention. And the attention of marketing geniuses – you can order that delicious (?) every-flavour candy through Amazon. Of course.
Challenge the recipe of ordinary
Let’s not forget that taste is a matter of, well, taste. Individual taste from culture and experience. And, of course, environmental and physical effects. I didn’t like the pervasive smell of curry in our old apartment building as a teenager. But oh boy, do I love it now. Some of my family and friends cannot tolerate dairy. And some are pescatarian, some are vegetarian and some are vegan. Diets – and therefore, taste – can be a matter of choice or a matter of health, or both.
So what about your characters? Can a meat lover learn to leave it all behind and delight in soy burgers? Does a vegetarian “cheat” in secret? Tastes in food can create complex situations and complicated people.
Taste can form an important part of character arc. Stereotypes and bigotry can melt away when the power of new flavours and foods is unstoppable. The novels Chocolat and The Hundred Foot Journey are delightful explorations of how the gulf between cultures and beliefs can be filled in with a range of life-changing tastes.
And, of course, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, we learn that only the child who is “honest and kind and brave and true” is able to win the ultimate prize.
Writerly taste test
Our world is full of explosive and amazing flavours. If you want to make sure your readers are experiencing a diverse palate of taste, considering expanding your own horizons. And, in these days of limited indoor dining options, you can help support local restaurants through takeout.
If your Chinese food go-to is standard fare: chicken balls and chow mein, check out the specialty items. What about trying Korean, Moroccan, Indonesian, Thai? Have you tasted shawarma? Greek dolmades? Scared to try sushi? C’mon writer, step outside the flavour box and dip your tongue into tastes you’ve never tried.
The internet is awash in recipes you can engage your taste buds with. Notice how your body reacts to the different tastes. And notice what other senses kick in. As we’ve often pointed out — our senses work together to give us a full body experience. Reflect that in your writing.
Try fun experiments: put a pinch of salt on one side of your tongue and a pinch of sugar on the opposite side. Pay attention to your response. Then rinse your mouth with water and put a pinch of salt and sugar together and see how your taste buds react. Is sugar dominant or is salt?
If you stay aware of the importance of the power of taste, you can apply that knowledge to stories and the characters within them. And that is a big plus for your readers.