Not long ago, She She asked me if I’d read a piece in The New Yorker about Grant Achatz, the chef of Alinea in Chicago. Achatz developed cancer in his mouth and tongue, and underwent radical radiology and chemotherapy in the hope that he could save his tongue, in the hope that at some point, the cells and sense and smell abilities killed in the treatment would grow back. It’s a fascinating character study, but it’s also a rumination on (and excuse for, as so many New Yorker pieces are) the meaning of, the nature of the sense of taste. What comes out of the article is an exploration of how cerebral the sense of taste and its inseparable attendant, smell can be– because it both evokes old memories, good and bad, and can create new ones, by their ability to overwhelm.
Think of it: when you have something truly astounding tasting, what do you do? Shush your dining companion? Close your eyes? Inhale, strongly, while holding the food in your mouth? Who doesn’t remember the first taste of ice cream (or cake, or chocolate, or lobster thermidor?) It’s the taste, the feel that comes first, but following after, like papparzzi to a star, are the memories– maybe you ate that first frosty bowl while sitting at the kitchen table on a June afternoon, with the back door open. A breeze was blowing in, the cicadas were whining intermittently, and someone was running a garden sprinkler, tick-tick-tick-whirr. The breeze carried the green pong of fresh-cut grass and other growing things, damp earth, heat. Someone was starting charcoals for a barbecue down the street with gasoline starter. All from a bowl of frozen eggs, sugar, cream, maybe some fruit or nuts or (vanilla) seeds or (coffee or cocoa) beans to flavor. The taste and smell of the food burns all the other memories into place– in the CD disk of your brain, that place and time and feeling is etched, entourage to the celebrity taste, unless some stronger experience comes along to scratch and mar the memory, or write over it entirely.
For me, it’s the smell of hamburger grease, the only meat we could frequently afford growing up. I love a good cheeseburger, but only in certain contexts– at a restaurant, in a backyard, at a McDonald’s or Burger King. Cooked inside the four walls of home, with no “we are out and therefore this is a treat” background noise to help me interpret the taste, a burger smells greasy and poor. The memories jangle with each other in different contexts, affecting my ability to just taste the meat in my mouth.
But food is love, too. Food made with love, meant to evoke a mutually-cherished moment, or a story told by a stranger of times long past. Food can bring back the good things of the past, but it can also create and freeze the new moments– like the first (and only) time I made milk-braised pork on the Better Half’s birthday. Sitting at our tiny kitchen table on a hot June day, in a hot back kitchen, with us melting in the heat and the hot meat melting in our mouths and him knowing that I loved him? It was something I’ve never felt before and haven’t, in quite the same way since, but it’s there, on a shelf in my memory pantry, still fresh.
The article also evoked for me the feelings I’ve been letting marinate in the back of my brain about food and cooking. Anyone who’s read Michael Pollan’s articles on the industrial food complex (take your pick– his NYT pieces, his books The Omnivore’s Dilemma or In Defense of Food) can’t help but wonder what strange beings we are. We overthink our food, processing it to within an inch of its life, eliminating the nutrients and flavors they gained outside in the sun and the rain, and then we add them back in, chemicalized, to trick ourselves into thinking we are eating the real thing, the thing we destroyed in the name of science, or shelf-stability. Stabilized fats and flour enhancers to lend mouthfeel and substance. Artificial flavors and seasonings to mimic the plants, the scents, the savor the real items lend and meld. It all reinforced my feeling– simpler is better. Every once in a while, a complex, layered sauce or dish is wonderful to experience– but a simple steak, well-steamed broccoli, a baked potato, some butter and fresh-ground pepper? Those flavors never get old, never confuse us and leave us yearning for something less challenging, less weird, less sense-confusing. Some things are meant to be savored, then and there. The attempt to stop time, to preserve it beyond the right moment, is a uniquely human endeavor. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
The other aspect of the article was the idea of taste. Can you taste something even if, physically, you can’t? The answer, to me, is a hedged yes. Achatz talked about having an idea in his head of what his creations would taste like, long before they were brought to life, and during a time when he had to rely on his sous chefs to realize his ideas, when his senses were impaired by the illness and the treatment. But the imagination is fueled by something, and that something is past experience. You can’t have taste without the information of the basic sensory elements. You can’t make new compounds without knowing the atomic particles from which they are formed, to make an analogy. But I do think that some people’s imaginations, idealizations of flavors, are stronger than others. I can read a recipe, and know what it will “taste” like. Not enough salt, or, it will need some acid to balance, I can know. I can acid-test a book at the store, flipping through. If three different recipes past my mental “mmm” test, it comes home with me. I knew this even before I was a more practiced, and therefore better, cook. The sense was there before my practice refined my ability to apply it– but the sense of things, the refinements of knowing, improves the more new things I try, the more recipes I read, the more I share in others’ ideas of good food. It’s why I am a voracious reader of food magazines and cookbooks and food literature. Well-written travel prose about sights and smells, the journey of the senses in a strange place, with a different sun and a different wind on your back work, too. Those pieces, plates, places, describe for me things I can imagine, seek out, try in my mind before I find the real thing and compare it to my imagination. In a well-written piece? It’s as close as you can get to the real thing, until the real thing comes along.