Describing Flavor

In the fall of 2013, I wrote an article for Vermont’s Local Banquet on describing flavor, which focused on how food producers describe the flavor of their products and why that skill is important for them.

This past weekend, I graduated from the Master of Fine Arts writing program at Lesley University. Graduating students all teach final workshops, and for mine I delved into describing flavor again, but this time with a focus on how writers might describe flavor. It wasn’t intended for food writers per se — flavor description is an interesting exercise in translating a sensory experience to the page, whatever your subject area or genre.

I can’t recreate the food samples I brought for the class (it involved caramel, caramel baked into a cake, and some very dark chocolate). However, I can re-post the notes that made up the talking part of the workshop. I do recommend picking having food near at hand to nibble on and practice with. A flight of fancy craft beers wouldn’t hurt either. I’m serious, it’s not just hedonism, the point is to practice with flavors not just theorize about them.

And now. . . the notes:

There are many components to the sensation of flavor. The following is an overview of some primary components – starting with physical and moving further into the realm of how we think about flavor – with examples of how different authors use them.

Just the Tastes Taste refers to sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami (savory). These are a small percentage of what makes up the sensation we think of as “taste” (as the rest of the examples will show).

Example: Michael Pollan, Botany of Desire In the apple chapter that opens Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan focuses on the sweet and sour tastes, describing apples in the 18th century. Here is a portion of his discussion of sweet – setting us up to taste fruit with the mindset of people in Johnny Appleseed’s time:

. . . before [the 19th century] the sensation of sweetness in the lives of most people came chiefly from the flesh of fruit. And in America that usually meant the apple.

Sweetness is a desire that starts on the tongue with the sense of taste, but it doesn’t end there. Or at least it didn’t end there, back when the experience of sweetness was so special that the word served as a metaphor for a certain kind of perfection. . . the best land was said to be sweet; so were the most pleasing sounds, the most persuasive talk, the loveliest views, the most refined people, the choicest part of any whole, as when Shakespeare calls spring “sweet o’ the year.” Lent by the tongue to all the other sense organs, “sweet”, in the somewhat archaic definition of the Oxford English Dictionary is that which “affords enjoyment or gratifies desire.” Like a shimmering equal sign, the word sweetness denoted a reality commensurate with human desire: it stood for fulfillment.

Since then sweetness has lost much of its power and become slightly. . . well, saccharine. Who now would think of sweetness as a “noble” quality? At some point during the nineteenth century, a hint of insincerity began to trail the word through literature, and in our time it’s usually shadowed by either irony or sentimentality. . . The final insult came with the invention of synthetic sweeteners. Both the experience and the metaphor seem to me worth recovering, if for no other reason than to appreciate the apple’s former power.

Start with the taste. Imagine a moment when the sensation of honey or sugar on the tongue was an astonishment, a kind of intoxication. . .

Taste + Aroma Smell makes up a large part (up to 90%) of the flavor experience and when we describe flavor in everyday conversation, we’re most likely describing what is created through aroma.

In the example below “sweet and dilute” is a taste, while “watermelon” is an aroma.

Taste + All Senses In reality, we use taste, smell, touch (texture), sight and sound to experience food.

Example: Rowan Jacobsen, Apples of Uncommon Character – This book profiles 123 different apple varieties. Much of the text is dedicated to histories of the apples, but each profile begins with a quick sketch of the flavor that swiftly touches each of the senses (he puts “crunch” as texture but it’s also a sound – for example, in experiments when tasters couldn’t hear tortilla chips crunch, they experienced the texture as stale).

Honeycrisp Appearance: A large, green apple half covered in brick-red stripes. Surprisingly homely for such a rock star. Feels a bit like an old-fashioned Christmas ornament. Flavor Sweet and dilute, with a hint of watermelon. Texture Seemingly designed by a team of lab technicians and focus groups, Honeycrisp doesn’t crunch like normal apples; it shatters in your mouth like an apple-flavored Cheeto, and juice explodes from the bursting cells. The effect is exhilarating.

You can compare the above description that hits briefly on all the elements to a taste + aroma passage from Rowan’s book American Terroir, describing foods discovered on a wildcrafting trip in northern Quebec.

Crinkleroot tastes like peanut and wasabi. Dried red-foot boletes smell of cocoa and cheeries; sweetgrass of almond paste and fresh-cut hay. Milkweed-blossom syrup is like perfume on a fox. Cattail hearts are the love child of cucumber and asparagus. Dried bee balm petals smell. . . irreducible. I could say they’re like oregano, orange peel, and saffron, but I’d be missing the mark. They smell like the first time you walk into your lover’s apartment.

Or to a passage (again in American Terroir) emphasizing touch or mouthfeel – primarily in the form of fat – as the distinguishing characteristic of avocados:

This little oddball is perhaps the only fruit that has no sugar, and it doesn’t even have the refreshing acidity so important to the appeal of citrus, apples, grapes, and most other fruits. What it does have, in abundance, is fat. . . which is what’s responsible for the avocado’s famously rich and creamy taste. A fully ripened avocado can have an off-the-charts oil content of 30 percent. But it can achieve such heights only in its native land.

Mexicans don’t dip. The idea of sweeping a tortilla chip through a bowl of either guacamole or salsa is largely an American invention, as is chunky, thick salsa that can stick to a chip. In Mexico, salsa and guacamole garnish your food. . .

. . . Once you start using avocado in place of butter and cream, you realize why the Mesoamerican cultures had no need for dairy. In everything from creamy soups to decadent desserts, avocados work like butter and can be grown using a fraction of the resources needed for dairying.

Food in Context of Other Food / Cooking: This is not the same as saying that everything “tastes like chicken.” In fact, it isn’t necessarily a “tastes like” statement at all. Thinking about how you would use a food or what flavors complement a food is another common descriptive technique.

Example: Ed Behr, 50 Foods – This book provides profiles of 50 different foods with exacting technical proficiency. It is definitely a book for foodies. A full profile for figs was part of the assigned reading for the workshop. It shows both description through all the senses (as described above) and placing one food in context of other foods as Behr describes how one uses figs, in which dishes, as a complement to which flavors. (I rarely say this, but if you go to the Amazon preview function for 50 Foods or download a sample from iTunes, you can read an example of how he writes the food portraits. As a bookstore employee I’m obligated to add “and then run straight to your local independent bookseller and purchase a copy”).

Food in Context of Personal Experience Often restaurant reviews focus on the atmosphere of the restaurant, because the context of a full experience – ambience, the occasion, memories of similar occasions, etc. – shapes our perception of food.

Example: M.F.K. Fisher introduces food through scenes and personal experience in her essays. Here’s an example of one scene in “Little Meals with Great Implications” . In this example, instead of drawing on her memories of earlier food experiences, Fisher is looking forward to the type of memory she will create for her young daughters.

Tonight will be cold. Anne and Kennedy [her daughters] and I are making valentines. Kennedy must go to bed first, but I don’t want her to feel left out, so on the play table by the fire, on the red and white cloth, I’ll put material for one valentine on each of our napkins, blunt scissors beside our soup spoons, and a red geranium sticking out of the paste pot in the center. (This sounds a bit whimsical, but it won’t be, for I’ll not do it condescendingly, and I’ll have as much fun as they).

While we put together our valentines, we will drink soup slowly from solid little brown casseroles which cannot possibly tip over, and sip cool milk from silver mugs. And for dessert, each will eat a heart-shaped open sandwich of dark, moist, whole-grain bread, sweet butter, and red currant jelly. Then Kennedy will be falling off her chair from sleepiness, and I’ll put her to bed while Anne remains at the table listening to Burl Ives records. After she and I have cleared the plates away, we’ll build one or two more extra fancy valentines together. . .

Fisher then goes into details on how she’ll make a soup matched to the evening she’s planning with her daughters:

The soup I will make is a very flexible adaptation of the classical Potage Bonne Femme (of germiny or sorrel [lemon-y greens]). It depends on what herbs I have at hand, what soup stock, and most of all what ages my guests will admit to! Tonight it should more properly be called Potage Bon Enfant.

I will use a rather meaker soup stock, less butter than my basic recipe calls for, three eggs instead of four, and top-milk instead of cream to avoid the collie-wobblies at night, and I will pour it into the bowls over the crusts from the valentine sandwiches, to make it easier for small hands to carry in small spoons to small mouths.

Fisher then shares the recipe.

Food in Context of Place Some food writers are very particular in describing food in the context of the place where it comes from. This is both a writing technique and a technical element in describing some foods – wine, for example, can exhibit what is called terroir (roughly translated as “taste of place”).

Example: Kevin Lynch’s classic wine book Adventures on the Wine Route. He enters his discussion of European wines with a description of the places that he visits to experience them. Here is how he introduces the wines of Vieux Telegraphe (a French vineyard that he has visited as a wine importer):

The source of [this] wine’s quality, [the vintner] says, is his stony terrain, situated upon the slope of the highest ridge in the Chatenauneuf-du-Pape . . . because of the superior elevation, it was on this ridge that a telegraph tower was constructed in the eighteenth century, one of the relay points for communications between Paris and Marseilles. The crumbling stone ruin of this tower gave Vieux Telegraphe its name. . . to the eyes there is no soil here and one would think it is barren, but living vines poke out from the thick layer of smooth, oval stones. Walking the vineyards, one is impressed by the difficulty of climbing such steep hills. . . the stones slip and slide underfoot. An unreal landscape, it sticks in the mind like the volcanic Kona coast of Hawaii or the surface of the moon. It is totally unprotected from the elements. I have been there in the summer when the stones are too hot to touch. I have heard the sound of vine branches cracking in a fierce mistral. Nowhere does the mistral blow with such force. It can knock you over, and when it turns cold, the mistral cuts right through you. You cannot move your fingers, your teeth chatter, your nose and ears turn red. You are glad you are an importer who can head for the fireplace and a glass of Vieux Telegraphe and not the poor fellow out there pruning vines.

Imaginary Food You can create foods in your reader’s imaginations that don’t exist in real life. Like the candies in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Harry Potter. You don’t have to use this technique only for fantasy foods, it can also help explain real life foods.

Example: Peter Sagal, Book of Vice – In this passage, Peter Sagal has arrived at the avant garde restaurant Alinea, which at that time served 24 courses that consisted of one very weird bite each. The style is called molecular gastronomy (or modernist cuisine) and Sagal is writing a very spot-on description of a fictional molecular gastronomy dish to illustrate the approach:

You and I may look at a banana and see a banana. If forced to come up with something more inventive to do with it, perhaps we’d mash it up, or maybe we’d dip it in chocolate. . . a molecular chef would look at a banana and see something to be frozen, microtomed, processed into foam or liquid, or maybe, through some magic bit of alchemy, turned into a meatball. Why would you turn a banana into a meatball? Maybe because you’ve realized that the fibrous structure in bananas has certain similarities with beef protein, and can be manipulated into a congruent texture. Maybe because it occurred to you that the bland sturdiness of semolina pasta would provide an interesting contrast for the sweetness of the banana. Maybe because you want to comment on the visual comfort of spaghetti-with-meatballs by invoking the shocking, familiar, yet somewhat exotic comfort of “banana-ness”. Keep in mind that I’m just pulling all of this out of my ass. But you can’t eat any of this food, as spectacularly good as it often is, without thinking, all along, that all these celebrated chefs are reaching up behind their perfectly tailored chef’s jackets with their names embroidered on the breast and doing exactly the same thing. Except they get three stars from Michelin for it.

Food that Isn’t Really Food In writing food can be a metaphor for all sorts of things – home, comfort, sex. In real life cooking, sometimes food isn’t really food either but more of a performance art. In fact, a debate exists around where the line gets drawn between food (like stuff we eat for sustenance) and art.

Example: Francis Lam’s writing about Alinea (the same restaurant in the previous Sagal piece). Here he’s describing his first meal at Alinea in the article “A Restaurant That’s Really This Good” (from Gourmet)

. . . But at some point, after a single raviolo blew up in my mouth, showering truffle broth, I involuntarily turned to [the woman next to me] and said, “There is so much cool shit going on in this restaurant!” She looked at me as though she thought I might be a little bit crazy, but I didn’t blame her, because I was, in fact, a little bit crazy. But I was having such a powerful experience that I felt like everyone had to have been sharing it with me, like we were all in the orbit of one another’s supernovas.

That’s when I started staring. Whenever I saw servers come in with shot glasses, I kept my eyes trained on the faces at the table receiving them. I watched as they listened to the server give away the surprise by explaining that the little ball inside the celery juice is going to burst. And then I would watch their faces as it did exactly that, since no words can give away the essential surprise in the sensation of this ball shattering the moment it hits your mouth, giving you a sudden wash of bright, sweet apple juice. “You’ve got to stop staring,” Chuck said. “You’re going to start making people uncomfortable.”

He was probably right. But in my state, I couldn’t imagine anyone minding. It was as if, after that shot, we were all in on the same secret. . .

. . . when we were finished, spent but still not—never—ready for it to end, I stood up, suddenly feeling the strangest urge to embrace my server. I wanted to hug the mother and her daughter, to hug the people at the other tables that laughed along with me at the perfumed woman’s joke. It was like we all knew each other now, having gone through this together. I thought better of it, but just barely.

Chuck said, “I should quit going to other restaurants.” He paused, then said, “Hell, I should just stop cooking. What’s the point?” Another pause, and then, as if to himself: “No one is going to believe me when I tell them about this.”

And that’s exactly how it was. It was the kind of experience, like summer camp when you’re 15, that is so powerful that it aligns with all the words you wish you could have saved to describe this: amazing, stunning, life-changing. But you’ve used all those words before, you use them every day, and now you don’t know how to talk about what just happened in a way that people will understand. You don’t know how to make them believe you when you reach for the same tired words and want them to mean something new. So now, the truth of the experience has to remain a spoken but still uncommunicated secret between you and everyone you had it with. I just want to keep seeing people’s faces when they realize that.

Final Tips for Tasting

  • Start with smelling
  • Taste foods in comparison with each other
  • Taste with other people and discuss what you’re tasting – even better if the other person knows the food you’re tasting well
  • Try tasting on more than one occasion (if possible) – subtle flavor differences become easier to detect the more familiar you are with a food or drink
  • Ask how an ingredient might be used in different dishes
  • Pay attention to how much of what you experience is the flavor of the food itself, and how much is shaped by the context in which you’re tasting it
  • Don’t be shy about starting simple – pay attention to the balance of the 5 tastes, then work your way up from there to notice other elements of the food.
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