The Taste Test

Last week I participated in a taste test sponsored by a culinary college near my workplace.  Perched on a stool in a teaching kitchen, I sipped from plastic cups of murky, syrupy liquid and noted my response on paper: how sweet or bitter was it?  How did I like the sweetness or bitterness?  Which of about twenty-five adjectives described the way I felt afterward?

Much has been written about the connection between taste and memory: when we taste, we are rarely tasting for the first time but considering our taste against a history of remembered tastes. This sensory association may help us make aesthetic judgments (a little instant coffee really improves the flavor of this chocolate fondue!) or survival calls (this milk doesn’t taste right – better check the expiration date!).  They may instigate nostalgic reminiscence as in Proust’s Swann’s Way or they may barely register – certainly we don’t always take the time to reflect and ruminate on the food we eat, even though we’re told that thoughtful eating tastes better.  I was extremely aware of my desire to name and recognize and remember the tastes in those plastic cups, though.  When the objects my tasting deliberately vexed remembered association – the flavors were strange, the color and texture mysterious, and the plastic cups didn’t speak to a culturally legible presentation – I felt myself floundering and becoming vaguely disgusted.  (Happily, “disgusted” was an option on the adjective list after each new flavor.)

In the absence of signifiers from these murky and not entirely pleasant liquids, I began waxing nostalgic about the water and saltines we were given to cleanse our palates after each taste sample.  For example, I was often told as a child that water had no taste: I was disclined to drink very much of it, greatly preferring sweet tea and Sprite at that age, and I argued that I didn’t like water’s flavor.  “Water has no flavor” was my parents’ rebuttal, which seemed counterintuitive to me: water tastes like water!  In the tasting lab, I looked forward to every sip because the water-taste replaced the too-sweet, too-vinegary sample flavor.

The saltines gave me a full-on Proustian remembrance:  I recalled a wine and cheese tasting that my English teacher brought me to when I was twelve or thirteen.  Obviously I was not permitted to try out the wines, but my English teacher had for her own reasons decided that I should be taught how to taste and savor good cheeses and learn the etiquette of palate-cleansing between bites.  (Her reasons are worth speculating on, I think; in retrospect, it seems to have been a venture to introduce me to things that are considered polished, worldly, “classy.”)  I remember being fairly unimpressed by the cheeses and a little hungry, so I enjoyed the palate-cleansing with fresh fruit and saltines.  Munching on saltines in the taste test lab, I wondered how saltines became a staple for palate-cleansing situations: they definitely have a flavor, and isn’t salt supposed to increase your sensitivity to tastes?

As the taste test went on, my score for “nostalgic” spiked.  (Happily again, the last few samples were sweeter and milder than the first, so my “disgusted” score went down and my “warm” and “content” scores went up.)

The samples themselves mostly tasted like apple cider and iced tea from a jug (think Turkey Hill) mixed in varying quantities.  I was fairly stymied, until the last question of the test form asked how likely we were to buy a “functional beverage” from week to week.  My theory is that we were tasting for some new concoction of kombucha or similar tea: a vinegary fermented beverage intended to cleanse the body and boost energy.

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