My Taste, Your Taste

Last night, the Pirate and I opened a bottle of red wine after dinner. We were still drinking the wine when we retired to the bedroom to get ready for bed. The Pirate brushed his teeth before he’d finished his wine, and when he came back into the room and took a sip, he made a weird face.

“That’s interesting. After brushing my teeth, this wine tastes like…chocolate…and cheese….” He was doing that thing people do when they’re trying to describe a taste or sensation they’re experiencing: looking around in the air above his head as though the answer were on one of the hundreds of postcards attached to the ceiling.

Postcards on my bedroom ceiling

I started collecting these in college, and still pick up a few whenever I go someplace cool. If you sent me one, I’d put it up and think of you when I looked at it.

He wanted me to taste it after brushing my teeth, but I declined. I feel certain that if I had done the experiment, I wouldn’t have tasted chocolate OR cheese, and it led me to wonder – when I eat chocolate, do I taste the same thing my husband tastes? Or that you taste? I know that when I drive past a skunk that was hit by a car, the skunk smell is exactly the same to me as the smell of roasting coffee, and yet I know people who say that the smell of roasting coffee is pleasing to them, but the smell of skunk is disgusting – how can they make a distinction between them? To me, they’re identical.

People can distinguish five different tastes: sweet, bitter, salty, sour and umami. In addition, they can distinguish seven different types of smell: musky (the smell of perfume), putrid (rotten eggs), pungeant (vinegar), camphoraceous (moth balls), ethereal (dry cleaning fluid), floral (roses) and mint. Here’s what I’m not sure about: a given food contains a set of chemicals that make up its flavor profile. Every eater of a given food is working with the same set of chemical inputs. Why, then, the differences in perception? Is it a difference in body chemistry? Is it a difference in brain wiring? Both?

How much does our sense of taste play into our food and drink addictions? A Google search of the words “fast food addiction” shows 16.6 million results, including studies that show the addictive properties of fast food. Those addictive properties are tangentially related to taste in that the pleasing taste activates the brain’s pleasure centers – one article outlines the addictive ingredients in fast food including monosodium glutamate (a prime component of the “umami” taste) and casein, a naturally-occurring protein that, in fast food, is pumped up to past the danger point.

I’m not addicted to fast food. I can’t afford to be, since I’ve been battling a weight problem all my life. My husband, on the other hand, is naturally thin and has no real fondness for the things I have the most trouble with – baked sweets, chocolate, cheese. It feels unfair to me that because of an accident of chemistry my husband can maintain a healthy weight despite eating an enormous amount (I know, part of it is that he’s a man and therefore has more muscle mass and a higher metabolism, in addition to the fact that the man is two meters tall and therefore has a lot of guy to feed) while I have to consider every bite that goes into my mouth.

On the other hand, I also like to think that it means that I have outlets for enjoyment that are closed to my husband, who doesn’t equate the taste of white jasmine tea with love, or the flavor of Ezekiel bread with independence. In that way, I’m the lucky one.

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