Thursday, February 21, 2013

A Matter of Taste

No, this isn’t about my mystery novel. Well, okay, maybe it is, a little. I’m currently working on the second in a planned series of mysteries involving the five senses. Taste is the sense in the first book (A Matter of Taste), and smell in the second (Such a Smell of Sulfur).

I’ve often thought about the importance of the five senses to us human beings, and occasionally play the “which sense would I give up if I had to?” game with myself. My decision is always the same: it would be taste that I’d forgo.

What?! I know many of you are thinking. But food and cooking are central to your life, Leslie! True.

But think about it. Without sight, my life would be completely altered. I wouldn’t be able to read cautionary signs,

or important directions:

I’d no longer be able to get around on my own (at age 56, learning to navigate blind would be far harder than for a youngster), and going on the internet would be a whole brave new world. And most important, perhaps, I wouldn’t be able to see this wonderful, amazing, beautiful world we live in any more. I’m an extremely visual person, and can’t even imagine forgoing the sight of things like this,

the aurora borealis in Fairbanks, AK

or this:

lava heart

So sight would be last of my list of the senses to give up.

As for hearing, well, imagine going through life unable to carry on a simple conversation as you’ve been used to doing all your life; unable to hear the sound of rain on the leaves outside your window as you lie snug in bed; having to give up music for the rest of your life:

yours truly performing with the Cabrillo Chorus at Carnegie Hall
(sure glad there weren't any flies flyin' about) 

I don’t think so.

Touch or feeling is primarily a getting-along-in-life issue for me. Sure, it would be hard giving up the pleasurable aspects one has via the sense of touch, but more importantly, all of a sudden simple tasks such as buttoning a shirt, picking up a fork, typing at a keyboard, would be exceedingly difficult. Not to mention that you wouldn’t know when things were burning hot, or notice when you have a pain or an injury—life would become quite dangerous for you without this important sense.

So that leaves smell and taste. They’re connected, of course. Or at least smell is integral to the sense of taste: You can smell without taste, but can’t fully taste without smell. For the past few days my sense of smell has been nil, the result of a nasty sinus infection. Yesterday, as I ate a piece of reheated left-over pizza, I was fascinated by the sensation. I couldn’t smell at all, but I was still able to discern which ingredients were which, by their texture and appearance of course, but also by the sensation on my tongue: The pineapple was distinctly sweet and slightly tart; the chicken and sauce were salty; and the hot sauce I’d liberally applied was spicy.

But it wasn’t that they tasted sweet, tart, salty or spicy; I just registered in my brain that those were the sensations, without really tasting them as we normally think of the word “tasting” to mean. It’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it. (I suppose you could try holding your nose while you eat, to mimic the sensation.)

Some years back I lost my sense of smell completely for several months after a similar bout of sinusitis. It was a terrifying experience, as I was afraid it would never return. I sought the aid of an ENT, who informed me, “Yep. Sometimes when the nerve endings are damaged they regenerate, but sometimes they don’t. Only time will tell.”

What would I do, I wondered with angst, if I could never taste a Béarnaise sauce again, or a glass of Pinot Noir? What if I could never cook again, since you can’t properly cook (other than baking) if you can’t taste as you go?

Not only this, but I suffered an acute bout of...what. Shame? Because so much of my life is premised on food and cooking, it was embarrassing to suddenly have lost the sense of smell. Whenever I shared a meal with someone, I had to decide whether to admit my plight and suffer their pity and then discomfort at being able to enjoy their meal when I couldn’t, or whether to simply pretend that nothing was amiss. I often chose the latter. And when I cooked, I’d have Robin taste things and tell me if the dish needed more salt, or sugar, or wine, or other seasonings. She does not enjoy cooking, but was a great sport about it all.

I was lucky, and my sense of smell eventually returned, but not completely. I’ve noticed since that time that my ability to taste—which use to be so sharp that I could identify most ingredients and seasonings in dishes—has diminished a notch or two. I’m not complaining, though; I was so grateful to have it return it all.

But to get back to the original point: Why would I forgo taste before the sense of smell? Well, smell exists without taste: You don’t need taste to smell the aroma of a fine wine or baking bread, the tang of the ocean, or the sweetness of freshly-mown grass. And the sense of smell lets you know if something is burning, or your sewer is backing up—useful abilities, indeed.

But taste is just taste—the sensations experienced on your tongue. Without it I’d still be able to smell the food, and appreciate its texture and appearance. And unlike the other four senses, taste affects only two activities—eating and drinking.

So there’s my reasoning. But mind you, I’m glad it’s just a game, because I sure would hate to loose my sense of taste. And for the record, you’ll be glad to know—though not nearly as glad as I am—that my sense of smell is already starting to return after this last episode of sinusitis, and I’m confident that it will soon return to normal. Praise the lard!

So which of the senses would you forgo if you had to give one up?


  1. I never mind tasting your food, so there is no "good sport" about it. I don't like to cook, yes, but to taste and share an opinion, I am happy to do it anytime, sweetie.

    Anyway, to the larger question, if I could somehow lose the sense of smell and still be able to taste, that would certainly be the one I would give up. But since that can't really happen, I suppose taste, but maybe touch. I will think on it some more.

  2. Hearing, because mine is going anyway! -n