Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Wednesday Wanderings

I've been writing a story where the taste of a single food - an apple - is central to the storyline, and I've discovered something odd:  there are very few independent words to describe taste.

Now, your immediate reaction may be to cry out that of course there are thousands of descriptive words for tastes - as many as there are foods that can be eaten.  But what are we really saying when we say something tastes like an apple, a pear, asparagus?  At what point does describing a dish simply become a laundry list of ingredients?  If I have never eaten an orange, to say that something "tastes like an orange" will mean nothing to me.  There are no universal words to put together to describe that citrus taste.  (Citrus itself simply refers to the class of fruits ...)

So we try to describe new foods by combining familiar ones.  Jicama, for instance, is often compared to an apple or celery.  I find its starchy, fibrous nature to be very similar to potato.

Aha, you say - there are some words!  But starchy, fibrous, dry, moist ... all of these things don't describe taste, but rather the tactile experience of food, the mouthfeel.

There are other words we use that don't say much of anything:  delicious; succulent; cooked to perfection; tasty ...

Then, of course, there's the metaphorical.  If I say something tastes like childhood and late night bonfires, that may evoke a very vivid sensation for you.  If nothing else, it will inform the tone of the story.

In the end, though, these comparisons, metaphors, the mouthfeel, the overall experience, creates a taste for the reader ... even if it is an illusion, as solid as air.  And does anything in fiction have a firmer foundation, really?

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