TheRelationship of Our Senses
by Dan Burkhardt
If simply describing the sense of taste were a burden I hadto bear, it would be one that I would most definitely fail to weather. When Icall upon the synapses of my mind to purge themselves and reveal to me thereason certain flavors elicit such strong emotional responses, the onlythoughts I can form are complete situational memories; the atmosphere in thatcertain restaurant, the feeling of fellowship and family at a barbeque, the elationand carefree attitude of wedding guests at a reception. Naturally, like anyoneelse, I think of my favorite comfort foods and the fact that really no matterwhat the situation, they always succeed in making me feel at ease. It seemsthat my attitude toward certain foods or flavors has been shaped by situationaland environmental contexts, which may have negatively or positively altered myperception of that particular taste.
In ablog I had come across related to the experience of dining, the author, AlanPorter, a self described food enthusiast, elaborated on his perception of thequalities that made the restaurant experience enjoyable: “Ambience-not stuffy, but also not noisy; white table cloths, and the judicious use of acrumbler between courses is always appreciated. The food must be better thangood and ‘good’ is hard to define. Fresh, seasonal and local (if possible)ingredients prepared in interesting ways” (Porter).Why do people have such preferences for the environment in which they eat? Whywould the knowledge that the food was grown locally, have any influence on howit tastes? Alan Porter obviously has some very developed tastes that manypeople may not share, but I think that he is on to something. I think that theexperience of eating the food can be just as important as the food itself.
I thinkof this concept in the context of something like preparing lunch. Using some ofmy favorite deli items, ham and American cheese, if I were to make a sandwich(or two) it would not only taste good but it would also feel good. When I think of that particular meal in general, amemory that brings itself crashing through the forefront of my mind is of whenI was a boy and spent the weekends at my grandparents’ house. My grandmotherwould make my siblings and I ham and cheese for lunch while we were out playingin the yard, carefree and adventurous. I looked forward to it then, and as asort of comfort food today, the reason why I may choose this particularsandwich over another is because when I bite into it, a feeling of satisfactioncomes rushing back and I silently experience part of that special memory evenif only in the most dormant part of my mind.
Peoplehave the tendency to covertly and unknowingly attach emotional responses totheir senses. This seems to be as much a part of the human experience asbreathing, or asking questions. It is because of this fact that someone couldstay right where they are and recall a particular taste. Envisioning theflavor, texture and temperature of that particular morsel, one can, for a coupleof seconds, reproduce the taste in their mouth. It is usually in this momentthat other senses may interject themselves; the feeling in the air, the smellof the location where the tasting occurred for the first time and the sounds accompanyingthat place. In my experience, I find that most people can, in his or her mind’seye, take a look around the room and remember the subtle details of theenvironment surrounding them when exposed to a familiar flavor. If even forjust a brief lapse of time, the forces of emotion and memory can place theirbody in a time warp of sensations that have long been suppressed.
Thoughthe sense of taste is powerful and extremely personal, taste is not just taste.The tongue can only detect four basic things; salty, sweet, bitter and sour.With this being said, I don’t think that any person could place the experienceof their favorite or most memorable flavor into one of four variations, or evena combination of them for that matter. Diane Ackerman refers to the sense oftaste early on her chapter entitled “Smell” in A Natural History of theSenses when she states that “much of the taste of food depends on itssmell.” Elaborating further, she writes: “We taste only four flavors, sweet,sour, salt and bitter. That means that everything else we call flavor is reallyodor” (Ackerman13). So if this is indeed true, then any person’s perception of what hisor her favorite food or flavor is, actually has much more to do with the senseof smell, then with the sense of taste.
Takingthis one step further, I don’t think it would it be incorrect to say that sincethe sense of smell has a great amount of influence on what someone may taste,the sense of sight could have the same effect. And what about the sense ofhearing? Additionally, the sense of touch has a great amount to do with it,after all, who would want to eat something that has what they perceive to be anuninviting or uncomfortable texture? All of these things have an influence onthe memory of that particular taste and in the future, when the person isconfronted with this same flavor again, for just an instant that stored memoryof flavor unlocks a hidden door, and all the other emotions tied to it comerushing back. Surely the instances that a person will remember with regardtaste or flavor have been in the company of a whole host of other senses thatprovide a supporting role, influencing the overall opinions that one mayconsciously form.
Ackerman,Diana. A Natural History of the Senses. New York, New York.: VintageBooks, 1990.
Porter, Alan. Alanporter.Blogspot.com.14 December 2007. 14 September 2008