(Long post ahead, please bear with me on this one as it’s the first of its kind on this blog and I’m very much testing the waters here. Hopefully I will be better at writing these more philosophical posts with time.)
When asked what their best advice is to home cooks who want to cook good food, the answer from the professional chefs is that we taste, taste, taste. But what happens when it disappears? And I don’t mean like when you’re getting used to loads or no seasoning, killing everything that is basic flavour. I mean what happens when you lose your basic sense of taste or it changes profoundly?
If you, like me, have watched the show “Chef’s Table” you have probably seen the episode featuring Grant Achatz, owner of Alinea in Chicago. In 2007, two years after Alinea’s opening, he was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma of the mouth. The cancer was already in stage 4 when it was discovered and he was first told that he would need extensive and radical surgery in order to get rid of it. In the end that wasn’t needed, instead he went through a tough regime of chemotherapy and radiation treatment at University of Chicago. The side effect of this treatment, though, was that he lost all sense of taste. In the show he says that his taste buds were practically burned off because of the aggressive treatment. After the treatment had stopped he eventually and gradually got his sense of taste back, starting with intensely sweet and salty and working his way back to the delicate nuances of flavours he knows today.
I have seen this happen in my own family. About two years ago my grandfather was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. One of the side effects he suffered (like many cancer patients do) was that nothing tasted the same anymore. Everything tasted too harsh, too sharp, too much, which made it difficult for him to eat as he missed what food used to taste like. That knowledge, that he would never be able to experience or do the same things like he used to, in the end is what took the most toll on him.
A couple of years ago my sister had her tonsils removed as they had caused her a lot of trouble during the years. She also suffered a strange side effect after the surgery as suddenly everything started to have a metallic taste to it. Now, my sister is a pretty picky eater and doesn’t like it when things don’t taste the way that they should so for her it was incredibly frustrating to not be able to eat anything because she knew it would taste weird. Her sense of taste is now back to normal, although she can still be a fussy eater.
Last November I went in for surgery on the inside of my right ear to get rid of a cholesteatoma that was wreaking havoc on my ear and hearing. Before the surgery I was informed that there is a taste nerve on each side of the face and that nerve just happened to be situated in the exact spot behind the ear where they would have to go in. Unfortunately it is so well placed that the surgeons can’t help but poke it during the procedure and it does happen that it gets cut. So I was warned that I probably wouldn’t have a normal sense of taste for a while. After the operation I got a pear juice to drink and all I could taste was… Pear. The juice tasted the same way it always had. It even surprised my surgeon until he realised that this meant that the taste nerve on the right side had probably been severed a long time ago because of the cholesteatoma. The only reason I had never noticed was because the left nerve had compensated during all that time. I still don’t know if the nerve will ever heal up but if it does it will surely be an interesting ride.
In the world of food taste is everything. And I’m not just talking about the taste we sense with our taste buds. We also eat with our nose, our ears and our eyes. If something looks and smells like it will taste good we in general are more inclined to eat it, whether it’s a dish we’ve had before or not. This is also why we can feel disappointed if a good-looking dish lacks in flavour and pleasantly surprised when something that doesn’t look that appealing reveals a complex combination of flavour and texture.
But it’s not just our five senses we use when we eat something. We also eat with our memory. I think that Vladimir Muhkin, of White Rabbit in Moscow, said it the best when talking about Russian cuisine: “Ask any Russian, ‘Do you like dressed herring?’ and they will say, ‘Yes! I love dressed herring so much!’ Even I am under the spell of that crap. When I see dressed herring, I understand that it is a complete piece of shit. But I take it and eat it. That taste it’s in our heads. Russians suffered 75 years, two and a half generations of Soviet time, when people were fooled into eating this gray urban grub. And our mentality has remained the same ever since. I really hate that period because it destroyed all Russian cuisine. And I will do whatever it takes to bring the genuine Russian taste back to the people.”
Because it is true, we learn about flavours when we are very young and that forms the basis of our palate as well as distinction between what we like and dislike. Sometimes we stick to that for the rest of our lives and sometimes we become adventurous as we grow older and will try everything we’ve never had before. Or we end up somewhere in the middle. We learn all this from our family, our friends and at school. I’m sure there are a fair number of you who have good and/or bad memories from school lunches, I know I do. My mum use to tell me that when I was little and we were eating out I would never go for the kids menu but choose something from the ordinary menu instead, simply because I thought it sounded more interesting. I still do that today. When given a choice I will go for the dish that stirs my curiosity. I love trying new things and experience new flavour combinations and while I can choose a core ingredient that I know and like it makes me happy when it is paired with something I don’t normally eat. For example, earlier this spring my boyfriend, my mum and I was at Lilla Ego (one of the most popular restaurants in Stockholm) and on the menu they had lamb with aubergine and veal with baked celeriac. While I love both lamb and aubergine I just had to have the veal. One reason was because I don’t eat veal that often (it’s actually quite rare to find it on a menu) and the other was that I knew that I had to try the baked celeriac. It was one of the best things I have ever eaten and the accompanied thyme gel was something completely new to me.
Veal with salt baked celeriac, celeriac puree, chorizo sauce, thyme gel & mustard surprise.
Taste is important to make us enjoy eating and cooking and it has also been important for the human race throughout history. Because of our constant curiosity we have spent our existence tasting things and learning what we can and can’t eat as well as how certain foods can be prepared in order to be able to eat them. Along with the other four senses taste has kept us alive and helped us evolve and grow.