What I’d trade (or not) for my sense of taste

Yesterday, I read the New York Times article in which Kim Severson promotes Roger Ebert’s soon-to-be released cookbook (“The Pot and How to Use It: The Mystery and Romance of the Rice Cooker”) and spends some quality time preparing dinner with Ebert and his wife. I’m pretty stoked about the release of the cookbook; I don’t have a rice cooker yet, but am planning to buy one solely to test the recipes in this collection. (At any rate, I’m no stranger to one-pot meals*.)

What stayed with me most was not the article’s promotion of Ebert’s new publication, not the accolades for his blog, but rather Ebert’s recollections of foods he loves and can no longer eat. I found the blog entry in which these memories were originally presented — it’s here, if you’re interested — and was most touched by Ebert’s reminiscences of Steak and Shake, one of my own longtime favorites. Writes Ebert,

Yet I could if I wanted to right now close my eyes and re-experience an entire meal at Steak ‘n Shake, bite by bite in proper sequence, because I always ordered the same items and ate them according to the same ritual. It is there for me.

This is meant to be consoling, I think, Ebert’s assurance to the reader that he can so vividly recall certain tastes that it’s almost as if he can re-experience meals. Still, I was dumbstruck. I’d never considered the possibility of losing my ability to eat (and drink), but for past day, this deficit has been all I can think of.

Ebert writes, “What I miss is the society.” And at first, that’s probably what I’d say, too. Eating is inherently more pleasant as a social activity; a good meal acts as a catalyst for meaningful conversation, brings together (sometimes disparate) companions, and helps concretize an event or experience in our fickle memories. I can name all the meals corresponding to my most salient experiences: homemade Sachertorte, a cake dense as compacted earth and decorated with silver nonpareils, is what I ate at the picnic celebrating my fourteenth birthday. A cheese and raspberry danish from Uncle Billy’s Bakery on the morning that I was accepted to graduate school. A bacon and cheddar omelet when I first recognized I was in love.

Yes, the social aspect of eating and food’s inextricable link to memory are two things I’d sorely miss, were I to lose my ability to taste. But the physical act of eating, of tasting food and gauging its texture and filing that information into your own personal Taste Schema, is not something I’d readily give up. Example: I spent my whole life thinking I hated caviar. How I formed this bias, I don’t know. A few months ago, I tasted caviar for the first time, served on crackers thinly layered with gouda. I’ll never forget the sensation of the roe popping against my teeth, the small rush of saltiness balanced by the smoke of the cheese. In a moment, a long-held conviction was debunked. In a moment, I’d become a person who likes caviar. The experience of tasting — and liking — caviar was a singular one, and the information gained as a result of it subtly changed my outlook on my food perceptions.

Even as I write, I’m tallying a mental list of abilities/aptitudes/digits I’d more readily relinquish than the ability to eat. Would I lose a hand? Yes. A foot? No. A finger? Of course. An ear? Yep. Sight? Maybe. I could continue like this indefinitely and still never calculate a value, in senses and organs, for taste.

***

At the Galesburg Steak and Shake, June 2006. This was the last time I ate at S&S.

I first tried Steak and Shake as a freshman in college. Steak and Shake didn’t exist where I grew up, nor are there locations in any state I’ve lived post-college. I spend a fair amount of time daydreaming about the steakburger, hold the onions and with a fat dollop of plain yellow mustard, and the mint cookies and cream shake. How Midwesternly decadent, the curlicue of whipped topping and the plain chocolate wafer slid into the top of the shake! I loved that the waitresses brought out the extra milkshake in a tin cup. That the “extra” roughly equaled the amount of the milkshake proper. In a town replete with 24-hour eateries, Steak and Shake was the one we gravitated to, the light of the dining room casting outward to the parking lot, the vacant Buick dealership, the cornfields and grain elevators. I can envision it now.

***

* I was once given a Crock Pot by a friend who had received three Pots at her wedding. There was nothing better than coming home from a hectic day on campus to steaming BBQ ribs, ready and waiting. The Crock Pot wasn’t able to come to Cali with me — not enough room in the backseat of the Toyota —  but I’ll be getting another one soon. Probably at the same time I get the rice cooker.

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