Taste – July 19, 2010

By Dr. Jim Ferguson

Dr. Ferguson is on sabbatical after nearly eight years with the Focus. If you like this essay, there are more in his book, “Well…What Did the Doctor Say?” available on line at Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble – a great Christmas gift!   

 

There’s no accounting for taste.  I don’t know why I love cabbage and detest Brussels sprouts.  I know I have a Southerner’s taste because I love collard greens, grits and fried okra.  Obviously, taste is a personal thing.  Count Basie perhaps said it best observing that “if it sounds good, it is.”

If you ask someone how many senses we have, most would say five and list sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste.  In fact, our brain sits inside our skull, shielded from the light of day and is dependent on the senses to bring data to it for interpretation.  The brain doesn’t even feel pain because it lacks the sensory apparatus to register painful stimuli.

As an empiricist, I observe the world through my senses.  I can see that the stop light is red and I can hear the music of Puccini.  I enjoy my wife’s soft touch, the smell of her perfume and consider her peach-berry pie sublime.  All these sensations are registered on my sensory organs and then transmitted by the nervous system to my brain.  It’s the brain’s job to sort it all out and define my reality.

Can your senses lie to you?  Can your eyes deceive you?  This is a relevant question with modern digital imaging and the ability to photo shop images.  But even in the 17th century, Thomas Hobbs considered his senses subject to bias, and his contemporary René Descartes went so far as to isolate himself in his room where he finally concluded, “Cogito ergo sum” (I think therefore I am).

Taking empiricism to the extreme, John Barkley wondered if a tree makes a noise when it falls in the forest if there’s no one there to hear it.  There’s a modern corollary to Barkley’s conundrum that wonders if a husband is still wrong if his wife is not there to correct him.

Textbooks tell us that we humans perceive four taste sensations – sweet, sour, salty and bitter.  But taste is complex and related to other senses.  Try tasting something with your nose pinched or plugged with a cold.  And the texture of food matters as does the visual presentation.  I’ve observed that food tastes differently if served on china versus a paper plate.  And Becky’s southern sweet tea is best when served in a tall glass rather than in a Styrofoam cup.

Experience tells me there’s more to this taste thing than meets the tongue.  You’d probably become bored if I discussed the anatomy of the tongue and its 10,000 taste buds.  Eyes might cross discussing the science of dissolved chemicals which bind to taste bud sensory receptors and generate electrochemical signals which race to the brain at 50 meters a second.  Yes, this might be a bit arcane or pedantic for the Focus.

More interesting was an ad I saw recently for Kikkoman Soy Sauce that alluded to a fifth taste called umami.  This is actually a borrowed term from Japanese and best translates as the savoriness of food, notably in meat, cheese and mushrooms.  Equally fascinating is that science has found the chemical responsible for umami.  It is monosodium glutamate (MSG), the additive in many Asian dishes and the cause of the Asian restaurant syndrome in sensitive persons.

I’ve read that salsa is now the most popular American condiment, surpassing even mustard and ketchup.  Certain peppers used in salsa contain the chemical capsaicin.  This is what sets your mouth on fire.  Perhaps this is another taste sensation.  I only wish I had known that a habanera was lurking in the salsa my friend served us.  There was little solace for me to understand why my mouth was on fire – so much for empiricism and science; bring me relief!

Becky and I love to have people over for dinner.  The sharing of a meal and fellowship is a time honored custom.  After all, the principle sacrament of the Church surrounds a meal, and though the elites of his day were horrified, Jesus reached out to the so-called undesirables in the sharing of a meal.

I have only one taste precaution; beware of the chili pepper.  Because this devilish plant originated in the New World, Jesus didn’t have to worry about the meal Martha was preparing for him.  We moderns need to be more careful.

 

 

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