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Taste, Sound, and Place
Our Sensory Embodiment of What and Where we Eat, Explored through Two Books
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I love putting books in conversation with each other. There's such a richness of reading both, allowing the ideas from both to meld and diverge, to percolate in my mind, and thus I'm able to experience a richer version of my world by seeing multiple perspectives of it.
It's the interaction between text and reader in a way I find especially pleasurable, where the book allows myself and not one, but two, authors to be the co-creators of a new understanding, a new way of exploring the world.
Sensory exploration and thus, sensory understanding of the world has been a theme in my life recently, popping up in newsletters and conversations as I've worked my way through these two books (see this recent essay by Sophie Strand as a serendipitous example). It's a mode of understanding I'm naturally geared towards, as my previous writing on my experiences of gustatory synesthesia and sensory experience will tell you.
Obviously as a writer I also understand my world through words, the more richly textured and delightful to read the better, but it's through my senses that I feel that understanding really root into my body and psyche, offering an innate, instinctual connection to place, people, or an idea. It's through my senses that my learning really comes home: A true connection of body and mind.
The books, Mandy Naglich's How to Taste: A Guide to Discovering Flavor and Savoring Life, and David George Haskell's Sounds Wild and Broken: Sonic Marvels, Evolution's Creativity, and the Crisis of Sensory Extinction both tell me that this phenomenon, one that I'm only now leaning into more deeply, is both not unique to me and not unique to humans.
Both explore how we connect with the world and to each other through our senses.
These are objective (can be scientifically studied and measured) as well as subjective (we each experience the world in a unique way, and our sensory inputs are not all the same)
I love these books in tandem because they foster my curiosity about the ways my body intersects with the world via the inputs I receive. My senses are the intersection I have with other beings, with the world in general, and understanding my senses more fully helps me appreciate them more and, perhaps, experience them more deeply.
Naglich offers the example of terroir, often defined as "taste of place" and in particular often applied to wine. But she cites examples including cheese and oysters that show we can taste place across an entire range of foods (and which is, to my mind, a great argument for eating locally at home and wherever you travel). As Naglich says,
"Rather than using terroir as an exclusive term, a label to demarcate that this product can only ever be made here by this small group of people who own this land, it can be used as a celebratory term. You can taste the earth and environment in (almost) everything you eat. It's worth appreciating the ever-shifting flavors it contributes to our lives."
Senses as interconnection
Our senses also don't exist in a vacuum: Cultural background and personal experience shape how we taste, as Naglich notes. For example, whether a spice is used for sweet or savory applications in a culture will predispose us to expect a similar taste experience when we smell that spice. Our interconnectedness, and our history, is woven into our very bodies and experiences.
Both books, Haskell's in particular, show that while we shape the world through how we want it to intersect with our senses (think shoes and soft carpet for our feet), we aren't the only creatures who shape the world around their senses. As Haskell notes, all species share the same kinds of nerve cells and neurotransmitters, even if our neural architecture differs. And these same building blocks inform how we sense and shape our world:
"Unless evolution has wrought an entirely different product--aesthetic experience--from human nerves than those of all our cousins, aesthetics are at the center of how nonhuman animals understand their worlds and make decisions. To presume otherwise is to suppose that humans and other animals are separated by an experiential wall. There is no neurological or evolutionary evidence for such a divide."
As Haskell is quick to point out, this is not just reserved for sexual displays (bright feathers or mating songs, for example), but for everything: Where a creature lives, judges its changing environment, how to assess what is good in others, how we should behave, our well-being. As Haskell notes, "in all these cases, aesthetic judgment emerges from an integration of the senses with our intellect, subconscious, and emotions." In other words, we build our homes, worlds, and relationships, through our senses.
And since we're made of the same neurological stuff, by understanding how we make sense (that wording used intentionally) of the world, perhaps we can understand how our non-human cousins make sense, too.
A sensory life as an act of ecological love
I thought of this while reading Haskell: You'll notice the last bit of the title is about the "crisis of sensory extinction." What does this mean? In Haskell's book, he offers several examples of diminished and changed soundscapes (like pine plantations vs native forest) due to human intervention. Here, then, sensory extinction is not just speaking about species extinction (though that's a component of it), it's the extinction of the sounds themselves: Altered, shifted, lessened, or drowned out.
Our collective sensory landscapes changed. Some of the impacts are obvious: Species and habitat loss, for example, but perhaps by fully engaging our senses within natural spaces, we sharpen our ability not only to appreciate those spaces but also perhaps to reconnect with the experiences and decisions of all the creatures that exist within those spaces.
To listen, to allow our senses to guide us to deeper appreciation of the natural world, is an act of ecological care.
By letting our senses lead us to love the world around us, perhaps we can also be led to make choices that preserve what we sense: If we aren't listening, how will we hear the sounds of a forest, shifted and diminished as native forest is leveled and replaced with pine plantations or McMansions. How will we know what we lost?
The sounds, sights, and tastes of oceans whose species are depleted by the vast imbalance in what we pour into the ocean and what we take out. In both cases, far too much.
But humans tend to not notice the gravity and intensity of these shifts because we experience them on the scale of our individual lives, and when we experience something from the now, we often assume it's always been that way: It's not until we lean into our memories and community memories, and into our sense memories, that we recall how different things were even a few decades ago.
Shifting Baseline Syndrome is, according to Soga and Gaston, "occurs when conditions of the natural environment gradually degrade over time, yet people (eg local citizens, natural resource users, policy makers) falsely perceive less change because they are not aware of, or fail to recall accurately, what the natural environment was like in the past."
When I was growing up, and even a decade or so ago, road trips inevitably involved at least one stop to scrape squashed bugs from my windshield and front grill with a gas station squeegee, or stocking up on extra windshield washer fluid to scrape away bugs en route. Now, barely a bug hits my windscreen as I drive: I haven't had to do a full-scale emergency pullover, my vision obscured by the carcasses of former insects, in years. But I used to have to, all the time.
This shift, from more bugs to dramatically fewer, may not strike folks as a particular problem, but it's a shift we see with ocean life and a whole host of other life, too, plant, animal, and microbial. Our sensory baseline is shifting constantly, and we are often unawares.
Going back to sensing our world as an act of loving what we have: what if we were led by this love, this sensory pleasure and desire to deeply listen? What if, rather than the baseline shifting without our knowledge, we allowed ourselves to be aware, able to hold the grief of experiencing loss, yes, but that awareness also allows us to hold possibility? When we know what the world is, and see it with our eyes open, it's far less likely that it can be drastically altered without our knowing.
How would our relationship to the world shift if we really, deeply sensed it? We won't know until we, each of us, decide to listen and feel and see and taste with abandon.
P.S.: Re-meeting my senses
Writing about food requires one to know one's senses, and be willing to follow them down rabbit holes of curiosity, wherever they may lead. To be a good writer about food is to be able to reflect upon one's sensory life.
Over the course of this year, I've felt an almost entire transformation as a person as I've really leaned into both somatic experiencing and somatic-based business coaching (also here, I have two coaches!), both of which have allowed me space to trust the wisdom of my body. As an academic, I've long favored the wisdom of my intellect over my body's wisdom, my book learning over my gut sense.
Despite my ignoring it for many years, I've always had an incredibly strong gut sense, so it's still managed to serve as a guide (and perhaps has made my work to integrate the knowing of my mind, and the knowing of my body, a bit easier).
By listening to and honoring the 'yes' and 'no' responses that echo within my body, as well as the reasons behind 'yes' and 'no' that echo within my rational mind, I find that the choices I need to make become easier, less fraught, more joyful.
I think of how my cats don't have an existential crisis each time they decide to lie down for a nap. They simply feel the need to do something, so they do it. I was worried that by listening to the pull of my body I'd become less productive or lazy, but amazingly the opposite has happened (I work less though).
This is all a long-winded way of saying that I'm grateful for the serendipity of this year, for learning, unlearning, and reweaving, but mostly to say this: Every other creature in the natural world besides us has it right. There's never a bad time to rest, and it's always a good time to listen to, and learn from, your senses.
My book is on this wonderful list from Bookshop.org, a great grounding in all things fermented.
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To make: Holiday citrus spice vinegar
If you start infusing this now, you'll have a fragrant, delicious vinegar that you can use to jazz up fruit salads or cranberry sauce, mix into drinks and desserts, or even marinades.
The spicing on this vinegar is flexible based on your preferences, but the goal is to get a classic orange + spices profile that, at least for me, signals holiday meals and wassail and cozy winter days.
You can also use whatever kind of vinegar you want: For more of a wassail flavor profile, maybe try a red wine vinegar. For a vinegar that really highlights the citrus and spice itself without adding any flavor, try white distilled. Or for something that really leans heavily into fall and winter produce, try apple cider vinegar. As always, using the best quality vinegar you can will yield the best results.
1 quart jar
1 large orange, peel on, sliced in 1/4 inch-thick rounds
1 tsp cloves
1 tsp allspice berries
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
Place all ingredients but vinegar in the jar. Pour vinegar over to cover, seal the lid tightly, and store out of direct sunlight.
Start tasting after 2-3 weeks, and strain once it has a flavor you enjoy (I find this vinegar takes ~1 month to finish).
Store finished vinegar in an airtight container at room temperature.
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