Columbia University Press
Hardcover, 978-0-23120-175-9, 152 pages
“Your body is not a temple,” claimed culinary rock star Anthony Bourdain. “It’s an amusement park.” Jehanne Dubrow invites readers into a tasty and delightful gastronomic theme park, a sensory exploration of flavor, palate, perception, emotion, caring, fulfillment, wonderment; a nourishing entrée to the world through the most essential element of human existence: food.
The concept of this compact, 152-page booklet is simple, the execution, brilliant. Dubrow tenders a clever series of essays that examine the linkages between the visual, aural, oral, olfactory, and taste perception, in all significations of those terms. It’s a gustatory realm of chemical reactions underlying the generative sensations of smell and taste in the spectrum of sweetness, tartness, saltiness, spiciness, and more; plus, the emotional inscription of the sensory impression as well as the physicality of ritual collaborative meal preparation and shared consumption. What’s the outcome, beyond caloric nutrition? What’s the value, the cost and payoff, beyond quantities, weights, volume, and ingredients, and the conventions of preparation and eating?
The writing is smooth as chiffon, the content lush as mousse; the metaphors are deft, and the descriptions layered and satisfying. The essays—“bites”—are captivating, engrossing and thought-provoking. The discourse is vivid, often lyrical, a blend of personal experience, science, culinary arts, history, and sociology. It’s as if readers were having espresso and scones at an outdoor café, exchanging ideas. Taste is an easy read, perfect for stop-and-go reading minutes, though I was unable to put it down until I’d finished it. Here’s a savory morsel:
I entered this world early because of spoiled cheese. In Vicenza, the city of my birth, my mother ate a crumbling chunk of bad gorgonzola and went into labor ten days early. Once, in Paris, I had a meal comprised entirely of cheeses made from goat’s milk. At the end of my wedding day, a few minutes before midnight, I tasted a grilled cheese sandwich; I can still summon the flavors of that first bite, the thick graininess of the melting gruyere, the hot butter, the brioche, eggy and sweet.
Literary allusions abound in crafted metaphors and in new perspectives: we are salty. Dubrow folds in the saltiness of tears with grief, with joy, with emotion; the sweat of fever as proof of life, as in Rebecca Brown’s The Gifts of the Body. We are what we eat, as Adele Davis liked to say, and Dubrow explains exactly how and why.
Taste’s lens widens the traditional utilitarian perception of food as simply sustenance, which of course it is, transcending the obvious to explore the deeply rooted connectedness of food, flavor, sense, satisfaction, dissonance, and nourishment, both physical and spiritual.
Readers come away with a broader view of taste deconstructed: there’s a transformative effect, linked to what we eat, as Dubrow paraphrases author Pierre Bourdieu, contingent upon the preferences we elect in what we consume, be it poetry, music—or food. Taste limns our social, aesthetic, even emotional borders. The exploration of Taste is an invitation to widen borders and their inevitable exclusions, on the plate as well as in life itself. That ride, in Bourdain’s amusement park as well as in Dubrow’s implicit encouragement to explore, is an experience not to be missed.
Jehanne Dubrow is a professor of creative writing at the University of North Texas. She is the author of nine poetry collections, including most recently Wild Kingdom (2021), and a book of creative nonfiction, throughsmoke: an essay in notes (2019). Her poems and essays have appeared in Poetry, New England Review, Colorado Review, and the Southern Review.