It is often argued that taste has a minimal role in attraction, with other senses factoring in much more immediately. Sight draws us to somebody; scent and quality of voice help us make further judgements as to their attractiveness.
By the time we get to tasting, we have often made up our minds about whether or not we are attracted to another body. However, one cannot deny the seductive powers of a good meal or a perfect glass of wine, not to mention a kiss. When it comes to sensuality, savour is a thing.
Taste could be called the most intimate of the senses – to experience it one must penetrate the boundary of the mouth with a liquid or object. You can see, hear, smell another person and still maintain a relative distance, but to taste somebody you must get up close and personal.
Once, when I was in bed with a lover who had an extensive knowledge of neuroscience, I lay on his chest and asked:
What’s your best sense? – – What do you mean? he replied. – – Mine’s smell, I offered by way of example. – – It’s a false division, he said. It doesn’t work like that. They are far more interconnected than we think.
Taking him at his word, I kissed him and fell asleep.
It’s true, to a certain extent, that to write on individual senses as if they are discrete is to ignore scientific evidence discussing their interrelatedness. However, there is a poetry to these divisions and a cultural mythology which proves useful in understanding our sensual experience of the world. To discuss taste is to explore all of the senses, the cultural practice of eating, the differences between taste and flavour, anato-my and absence, all with the particulars of the sense as a singularity as a guide.
Savouring things is to make oneself vulnerable. The world forces us to hear, see and touch most of the time but we spend much of our lives not tasting. When we do open our mouths, it’s an occasion. We choose to taste by putting something inside of us exactly when we are ready for it. If tasting connotes this kind of agency, being forced to taste hints at violence. The play between violence and vulnerability, aggression and openness dominates the world of this sense. When thinking about the gustatory senses we must begin by asking basic questions: what is taste?
Taste and flavour work in tandem but we often elide them. Science writer Sarah Dowdey lays out their differences with aplomb. ‘Taste,’ she says, ‘is a chemical sense perceived by specialized receptor cells that make up taste buds’, while flavour is ‘a fusion of multiple senses. To perceive flavour, the brain interprets not only gustatory (taste) stimuli, but also olfactory (smell) stimuli and tactile and thermal sensations. With spicy food, the brain will even factor in pain as one aspect of flavour.’1
Flavour has its own set of divisions – sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami (savoury) and the recently discovered, ‘oleogustus’ or ‘fatty’. These flavours have personalities all their own which correspond to various states of romantic and erotic involvement. According to years of thought, we experience sweet and salty on the front of our tongues. They possess an immediate simplicity and seduce us by overtaking the tongue with a desire for more, and more, and more. Our tongue waters and our jaw falls slack. Sour, we tend to feel on the sides of the tongue primarily and it accompanies sweet in so many ways – think lemonade, think key lime pie, or whisky sour. Sour makes us pucker up and pull back, shaping the sphincter of the mouth into a tight ‘O’. It offers the equal and opposite reaction to the sloppiness of sweet.
Moving backwards we arrive at the flavour bitterness, historically thought to be experienced in the back of the mouth, buried between the molars, there to warn our ancient selves of potentially poisonous substances. That most intimate flavour comes from bracing coffee or hoppy beer. As Jennifer McLagan (author of Bitter: A Taste of the World’s Most Dangerous Flavour) stated in an interview, ‘we’re all programmed genetically to react negatively to bitter.’ She also notes that as we get older we get used to this aspect and even enjoy it.2 She points at coffee as the classic example of a bitter substance that we get used to because of the way it stimulates our nervous system. As you get older, she explains, ‘you’re prepared to […] deal with the bitterness for the benefits’.3 Perhaps we can characterize bitterness as the most adult flavour – the flavour of experience. Coffee provides the perfect proof of this ‘adult’ flavour: something that once seemed foreign and disgusting becomes a fetishized necessity and a source of pleasure over time. Indeed, our relationship to bitterness follows the trajectory of a child’s relationship to sexual acts as she grows up.
Umami, or ‘savouriness’, was discovered in the early 1900s by a man named Kikunae Ikeda, but not popularized until the early 2000s. Ikeda was cooking Japanese seaweed, he started researching it, isolated a tastant molecule that went with it and discovered that it had its own gustatory receptor.4 French scientists are discovering a new flavour related to the perception of savoury fats that they’ve named oleogustus, after the Latin for ‘fat taste’. The newness of these flavours feels like an as yet unrealized affair or the sensation of meeting a new person who you have yet to learn about; there is an excitement in attaching language to something that has existed for so long but that is only now being articulated. Umami and oleogustus lie on the frontiers of flavour – their unarticulated-ness lends them a sense of mystery, not to mention an exoticism which seduces one to enquire further into their nature.
While we have been exploring the different gustatory sensations with the model of the ‘taste map’ of the tongue, inspired by the work of Edwin Boring, the truth is that flavours can be felt not only in discrete places but also all over the surface of the tongue. As the gentleman on the podcast Stuff You Should Know articulated, ‘there is no dead space in the tongue’.5 Just like love, flavour knows no bounds.
Taste, unlike flavour, has an anatomy, and linguistic sensuality embeds itself in the etymology of that anatomy. Let’s begin with the taste bud, which can be broken down into sections. One of these sections are papillae, the small protuberances on your tongue. Papilla means nipple in Latin. Yes, your tongue is literally covered in nipples waiting to be stimulated by external forces.
Out of these papilla protrude microvilli, which are the ‘fingerlike projections that poke through an opening at the top of a taste bud called the taste pore’.6 Here we see the elision of language between senses where the anatomy of taste can only be described in terms of the instruments of touch – fingers. This sensual intersectionality rests most comfortably in the organ of the mouth, which in and of itself was built for breaking down boundaries. Saliva asserts its place in the erotics of taste by providing a natural lubricant which breaks down food and makes digestion easier. It bonds with tastant molecules in your saliva and sends a message to your brain that says ‘umami’ or ‘sour’. I can think of only one other self-lubricating organism…
As we progress from small to large in our taxonomy of taste we arrive at the mouth and tongue – the most visible site of taste. The orifice of the mouth encompasses both penetrating and receptive anatomy. The tongue is an outward moving member while the throat is an inward moving one. The tongue reaches, extends, protrudes while the throat envelops, swallows and receives. The physical androgyny of the mouth eroticizes it and the tasting that happens within it. Consider also, the gestural language of sticking out one’s tongue – its aggression and confrontational sensuality. Remember the Rolling Stones’ tongue – its reference to overt adult sexuality – or even more recently the outpouring of attention paid to Miley Cyrus’s tongue. These gustatory organs literally protrude into the world of cultural taste, asserting their place in the conversation.
Scientists have recently discovered that we have taste buds not only in our mouths but also in our lungs and guts.7 While they are interpreting this fact as a potential clue for a cure for obesity, we can also look at it as a proliferation of sensuality which we had previously believed to be confined to one specific area. Taste can now be described as a full-body sensation, one taking place in the mind, mouth and gut. This discovery lends new meaning to the phrase ‘gut feelings’, and asks us to re-contextualize taste as a less localized sensation.
Somebody once said to me, I only eat people I love.
His words sent a shiver down my spine due to the delicious impossibility they proposed. To eat somebody would be to kill them yet the desire to consume them in their entirety remains. When it comes to sexual intimacy, how close we come to doing just that – whether it’s sweat, saliva, tears, ejaculate – we consume these fluids that our lovers excrete, as if they were metonyms for the person’s corpus itself. Taste promises the impossible; to taste another, we must in a way, begin to eat them which results in an eventual frustration or lack of fulfilment. What is sexier than desire indefinitely deferred?8
As author Sidney Mintz argues, ‘In the case of mammalian behaviour generally, sexual and food-seeking behaviour are usually easy to distinguish: sexual activity is periodic, seasonal, hormonally regulated. Not, however, in the case of the human species; for human beings (and like hunger), sexuality is sempiternal.’9 Our desire to fill our cravings and satisfy our libidos follows no seasonal pattern; rather it unfolds mysteriously across time and sets us apart from other mammals. We continue to hear and see like our predecessors, yet tasting speaks of modernity.
Taste possesses a sophistication but will rarely save us from immediate danger in a way that hearing does, or give us an advantage in battle – such as sight – or help us navigate a dark night (think of touch). It is instead a sense that we get to employ once we are comfortable, one whose pleasures unfold once some ease has been established. While it does help us avoid danger – often if something is extremely bitter it’s poisonous – it’s more likely something we enjoy once convenience has enveloped us. Much like intimacy, taste can be enjoyed with time.
While aphrodisiacs have long been debunked as a scientific myth10 the ritual of sharing a meal with a loved one remains intact. One watches the other’s reaction to food, the way their mouth wraps around a spoon or the shape of their lips on the rim of a glass. One might even be so bold as to offer a taste of one’s own dish for the discernment of another’s palate. This mutual sharing of food and flavour builds intimacy while alluding to other acts of mutual pleasure that could be in store.
Taste has a sordid history when it comes to sensuality as well. Articles about the anxiety of how one’s privates ‘should’ taste fill the internet and magazines and the minds of anybody on the lookout for a sexual partner.11 Furthermore, flavour, like attraction, remains subjective. Whereas we see well or generally agree on good smells and bad smells, taste remains a very personal art. We readily accept when a person loves grilled cheese and another hates it or when one person eats spicy food, morning, noon and night, whereas another prefers white bread. As humans, we approach this sense without a universal rubric of good and bad as we do with other senses. Rather, we allow it to exist in personal terms and arrange itself along cultural lines. Even the saying, ‘it’s a matter of taste’, makes room for the subjective nature of human experience. This embedded individuality of taste affirms it as a sense which accounts for myriad attractions and proclivities we feel as humans. Returning to Sarah Dowdey, she concludes, ‘Testing sensation is also a subjective science.’
Though taste remains subjective, we must also discuss its very real extremes. Not all tasters are created equal. Super-tasters are individuals who possess more taste buds. In the 1930s a man named Arthur Fox from DuPont was pouring some PTC – an organic compound – into a beaker, and it suddenly became a cloud and started shooting all over the room. His partner thought it was extremely bitter but Fox couldn’t sense anything. The experience led him to start putting this compound on the tongues of his friends and family.12 He found there was no rhyme or reason to who had an intense reaction to the substance, which indicated the sensitivity was a genetic trait. The phenomenon became so pronounced that organizations used it to determine paternity in legal cases. The term ‘super-taster’ was coined later by Dr Bartoshuk at Yale, and proliferated. To experience any kind of extreme sensitivity indicates danger. A super-taster might be compared to an especially inexperienced lover who must be treated with care and a clear articulation of boundaries; or to a relationship with an individual who has a fragile emotional life and experiences themselves as highly permeable to the world. To be a super-taster is both gift and burden. On a scientific level, super-tasters eat fewer fatty and sugary foods because they crave them less but they may also eat fewer green vegetables, which makes them prone to certain kinds of cancers. Sensitivity in taste, as in emotion, must be managed with care.
The decline of taste marks its other extreme, which we all may experience eventually. Over 200,000 people visit a doctor every year for problems with smell or taste.13 One could compare such a loss to that of sexual or emotional appetite. When we lose our taste, we shed our appetite; we appear the same to others as before, but we know something is different, as we go about our business, meeting people, having conversations and attending appointments. The heartbroken person appears alive and well but they live without pleasure. The loss of taste provides an apt metaphor for the sensation of heartbreak: a series of engagements unfold in front of you but you attend them in emotional absence without joy or pleasure. One eats spaghetti bolognese but cannot experience its ‘tomato-ness’ and Parmesan saltiness, or one sucks on an orange without feeling the nasal tingle formerly induced by citrus. As with heartbreak, nostalgia and melancholy settle in to the palate and the mind.
But even for those who have lost a physical sense of taste, an aesthetic one remains. Cultural taste and the sensation of it overlap. Don’t we choose our long-term lovers and lives in part because of both? We are drawn to somebody perhaps initially due to their looks or smell or the way their hands feel on our flesh, but perhaps taste (in both senses of the word) makes us stay. A shared aesthetic, a delight in the familiar flavour of their bodies in our mouths or a desire to share with them meal after meal in laughter and quiet, transforms attraction into commitment.
Taste can be figured as the sensual and intellectual glue of a relationship. We stay with people for long periods of time because we can talk to them or because they can feed us, or both. As cultural philosopher Pierre Bourdieu noted, sharing food remains the ‘oldest and deepest experience’ and one whose descriptive language translates to discussions of aesthetic ‘taste’: ‘[E]ven the purest pleasures, those most purified of any sense of corporeality…contain an element which, as in the “crudest” pleasures of the tastes of food, the archetype of all taste, refers back to the oldest and deepest experiences,’ he writes. The ritual of eating in combination with an ability to share a cultural language or shared sense of ‘taste’, for the rituals of daily life, keeps people together over time.
Taste may not be the first sense to draw us to another but it is the one that keeps us coming back to each other’s mouths and minds.
1. Dowdey, Sarah. ‘How Taste Works.’ HowStuffWorks.com, 24 Oct. 2007. Web. 21 Oct. 2015.
2. NPR. ‘From coffee to chicory to beer, “bitter” flavour can be addictive.’ Interview. Audio blog post. Npr.org. NPR, 29 Sept. 2014. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
4. Bryant, Chuck, and Josh Clark. ‘Taste and how it works.’ Weblog post. www.stuffyoushouldknow.com. How Stuff Works, 20 July 2010. Web.
5. Collings, V. B. ‘Human taste response as a function of locus of stimulation on the tongue and soft palate.’ Perception & Psychophysics 16: pp. 169–174. 1974.
6. Smith, David V., and Robert F. Margolskee. ‘Making sense of taste.’ Scientific American 284.3 (2001): 32–39. Web.
7. Day, Liz. ‘Taste buds found in lungs: DNews.’ DNews. N.p., 26 Oct. 2010. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.
8. The mythology of the vampire provides a realization of this ‘eating’ fantasy, posing another problem entirely. The vampire desires death but cannot experience it (consider Louis de Pointe du Lac in Interview with the Vampire or ‘Adam’ in Only Lovers Left Alive as examples of the melancholic vampire who wishes to die). The vampire’s relationship to this fantasy inverses the human’s: his thirst for blood is sated while his desire for mortality remains infinitely deferred.
9. Mintz, Sidney Wilfred. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the past. Boston: Beacon, 1996. Print.
10. Rodgers, Joann. ‘Science/medicine: the enduring myth of aphrodisiacs.’ Los Angeles Times, 14 Dec. 1987. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
11. Torres, Emily. ‘The taste of a woman.’ Salon.com RSS. 18 Sept. 2000. Web. 22 Oct. 2015.
12. Setting aside the ejaculatory nature of this Eureka! moment or Arthur Fox’s discovery, the intimacy of his ensuing methodology must be noted. To ask friends and family to extend their tongues outward to receive a foreign substance recalls other sensual rituals of feeding – giving a treat to a dog, placing a ripe fruit on a lover’s tongue, even the taking of communion.
13. ‘Taste Disorders.’ Taste Disorders. NIDCD Information Clearinghouse, Apr. 2015. Web. 16 Nov. 2015.