Tasting Poetry

Tasting Poetry

Gwynn Scheltema

Taste is an involving sense, an immediate sense, a memory triggering sense, and because it revolves around something we all do—eat—we can use it in our writing to connect viscerally with the reader.

Everything Ruth talked about in last week’s post about taste applies to poetry as much as it does to fiction, so in this post, I’m going to share with you how some poets have used food and meals and the rituals around food to draw the reader into their poems.

Trigger emotions

We all have tastes we like and those we don’t: comfort tastes, bad tastes, tastes that make us fearful, tastes that remind us of childhood. Each of these has emotions attached: joy, fear, disgust, nostalgia, longing… The simple detail of food can concentrate the emotion in a poem.

In these two examples, notice the difference in emotions. “Edible Child” is full of love and gentleness; The excerpt from “Feast Days” is lonely and sad. Both draw on our knowledge of the foods mentioned and the state of that food. In the first poem, the tastes are good and sweet and fresh, like the child. In the second, the food is rotting and unappetizing.

by Elisabeth Rowe

Sleeping child
I bend to breathe your
melon-scented infant skin,
I taste the soft bloom
on your plum-skin arms,
tickle my nose on the hairs
of your gooseberry legs,
nibble your fillet toes.

Edible child
once upon a time
I heard my mother’s hunger:

I love you so much
I could eat you all up.

Excerpt from FEAST DAYS
Annie Dillard

The apples in the cellar
are black, and dying inside their skins.
They pray all night in their bins,
but nobody listens;
they will be neither food nor trees.

Outside the norm

General opinion is often a fickle thing. People who don’t follow the norms tend to be noticed, sometimes mistrusted, or pitied or disliked: eating meat raw, dumpster diving or dumping a full plate of food. Images of baking apple pie or cooking Sunday roast point to family and security and love—unless you create a tension by turning that expectation on its head.

Toi Derricotte

Sitting on the stool at the mirror,
she applied a peachy foundation that seemed to hold her down, to trap her;
as if we never would have noticed what flew among us unless it was
weighted and bound in its mask.

Maxine Kumin

After the funeral I pick
forty pounds of plums from your tree…
…stand at midnight…
putting some raveled things
unsaid between us into the boiling pot
of cloves, cinnamon, sugar:

Loves’s royal colour
The burst purple fruit bob up.

The sensory and the sensual

Ah yes! The senses and sex, an inevitable pairing. The hot and the cold.

By Gwynn Scheltema

I want to dip you in honey
all stem and skin and juice
I want to press your flesh to my lips
feel you break in my mouth
like sun through rain

William Carlos Williams 

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold


Excerpt from I’M MEXICAN
J Arceo

I’m Mexican.

No, I’m not spicy. Or feisty. Or exotic.

I’m just not bland.

Because my culture is too rich.
Because my hips give in to the beats of a drum.
And my tongue rolls with passion.
Because I come from vibrant colours
And full skirts.
And intricate patterns in my gene pool…

…Because I come from women with rifles and food that
excites you. And the very hands that harvest the land,
hold the very hearts that harvested me.


Li-Young Lee

In the steamer is the trout   
seasoned with slivers of ginger,
two sprigs of green onion, and sesame oil.   
We shall eat it with rice for lunch,   
brothers, sister, my mother who will   
taste the sweetest meat of the head,   
holding it between her fingers   
deftly, the way my father did   
weeks ago.

Jonathan Swift

Gently stir and blow the fire,
Lay the mutton down to roast,
Dress it quickly, I desire,
In the dripping put a toast,
That I hunger may remove —
Mutton is the meat I love.
On the dresser see it lie;
Oh, the charming white and red;
Finer meat ne’er met the eye,
On the sweetest grass it fed:
Let the jack go swiftly round,
Let me have it nice and brown’d.
On the table spread the cloth,
Let the knives be sharp and clean,
Pickles get and salad both,
Let them each be fresh and green.
With small beer, good ale and wine,
Oh ye gods! how I shall dine.

Last Word

And to end, here is a fun poem calling you to action:

by Eve Merriam

Don’t be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that

may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.

You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.

For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.

Writing with Taste

Writing with Taste

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.