Like many timid scribblers, Don Reese’s day job is as a teacher of English. Saturated by words, he is nonetheless never satisfied he’s had enough of them. So he tries to make them into art in his spare
time. Don was born in the Pacific Northwest, spent a long time in New Mexico, and he’s now firmly ensconced in New England in a recently emptied nest.
Let me begin with facts. We must try to act dispassionate, mustn’t we, in order to understand? The human tongue, to make room for speech, differs from all the other primate tongues; it moves forward and away from the pharynx during human development; thus we can say i and u and also g and k, the velar consonants, with no fleshy organ obstructing the sounding box.
Note: the vowels are open, liquid sounds that can only be closed by consona
nts. The vowel makes your mask slip under your nose, perhaps, because you have to open your mouth now. And it just so happens that the nerves that carry the impulses that come from the taste buds pass through the middle ear, as if hearing had some distant connection to tasting—or as if you could taste words. But I’m losing my objectivity already and must rein myself in lest we marvel too much at pleasure in the midst of evolution. So we should remember that this also makes it possible for us to choke to death on our food, that it is a trade-off, speech for safety.
Back to the tongue, a remarkable organ: it makes speech possible, it makes the mechanical motions necessary for chewing and swallowing, and it tastes. Taste, of course, is a complex thing, requiring olfaction as well as gustation, and appearance plays a role in taste, too. There are four flavours, as you undoubtedly remember: sweet, sour, bitter, salt. In my lifetime, scientists have consented to a fifth: umami, the voluptuous, fatty mouthful. Each flavour has its own kind of taste buds which predominate in certain areas of the tongue: sweet at the tip, salt on the sides, but both kinds of buds collect into papillae, or small mounds, that are “fungiform,” as opposed to the “vallate” receptors for bitter or the fan-shaped sour ones. Umami, it appears, attaches to glutamates and nucleotides. All taste buds, whatever their shape, are nerve endings; they’re the places where our senses meet the world, and all flavours can be tasted on all parts of the tongue. One of the science encyclopedias says that taste buds are the “expanded termination of a nerve fibre.” These nerves go directly from the tongue to the lizard brain; there’s no cognition involved until after the fact. I begin to lose myself thinking about how the body opens up to the world this way through sensitive and sensate flesh. Let me enumerate for control: salt, bitter, sour, sweet, umami.
To get even smaller, each taste bud has microvilli, tiny wrinkles that make for more surface area, more possible contacts for the chemicals that cause taste. Those chemicals, incidentally, are like keys; our taste buds are locks that only open to certain keys. Taste buds are wrinkled for the fullest possible saturation when they do find that one chemical. When the food seems spicy, to begin with, and then becomes less so as you eat more of the food, that’s because the nerves are saturated, the chemical locks are overwhelmed. Wrinkles, then, give a small area more surface, and that makes a fuller taste possible. That’s why I love to see wrinkles around your mouth or my eyes. More contact is possible that way. Sweet, umami, salt, sour, bitter.
Now, you, clever reader, may be thinking to yourself that all this tongue business is a rather blatant sexual come-on. So I remind you that Jonathan Edwards, the 18th-century American Puritan who theorized what the urbane preachers of Boston criticized as an excess of intense religious emotion to bring the flock under his control, kept a notebook of observations about the way that scripture is mirrored in the natural world. Perhaps that was a bridle for his own tongue, that notebook wherein he noted that “There is the tongue and another member of the body that have a natural bridle, which is to signify to us the peculiar need we have to bridle and restrain those two members.” But he was a Puritan, so he got a kick out of bridling and restraining anyway. Should we listen to such a man? Should we keep ourselves restrained? Umami, bitter, sour, salt, sweet.
Bitter, sour, sweet, umami, salt. I said a while ago that there were now five flavours. But those five flavours, along with texture and smell, are the component parts of 200 natural flavours and more than three times that many artificial flavours. I also said that the papillae, or mounds of taste buds, tend to congregate in specific parts of the tongue. In fact, “aftertaste” comes from the progress of the food down the tongue: sweet mostly comes first, in the tip of the tongue, while bitter predominates all the way back. The geography of the tongue fascinates me, though it is less certain now than it used to be; especially the “median furrow,” that long crease down the middle. Apparently, all the salt receptors parallel it, while the sweet receptors are sort of perpendicular to it as if salt and sweet are the x and y-axis of taste. But it turns out that the “tongue map” is false-an overgeneralization from the predominance of certain receptors in certain places, and it precedes by seven years the discovery of umami; so, perhaps it is like certain ancient maps that pretended to know the whole world before those enticing cartographers of the Age of Exploration began to label the blank spots.
The Dictionary of Biology, taking a wider, less anthropocentric view of the matter, says the taste buds are “gustatory receptors”, and the tongue serves in “food getting, manipulation, tasting, and swallowing. It may also serve other functions, as touch, olfaction, and sound production.” But that’s a trifle too wide a net; I’m after something more specific than that “may,” those “other functions.”
Taste buds can only taste flavours that have first been dissolved in saliva. Funny how much of it sometimes springs into the mouth during kissing, as if you were trying to taste your partner, dissolve your lover’s skin so that you can consume them, absorb them onto the very ends of your nerves. The umami, the new flavour, seems especially active in salivation. Because I have committed provisionally to the bridle, I am resisting pointing out how fully you, dear one, are voluptuousness on my tongue.
The Encyclopedia of Science, which perhaps goes a bit too far in its restraint, calls taste “A chemical sense by which flavours are perceived depending on taste, tactile, and warm and cold receptors in the mouth, as well as smell receptors in the nose.” A more useful phrase from the definition is that taste buds are “end organs.” Still not all that poetic, but more to the point. The dictionary on my computer calls the tongue a “muscular organ.” If you think about it, how many other muscular organs are there? I can only think of one, but then, that’s Jonathan Edwards talking. And restraint has its uses, too, to beckon the muscles into motion.
Taste does not inhere in the object; like colour, it takes a human organ to decipher or perceive that quality that seems to be a part of the material. In other words, you need both the key and the lock; the scientific metaphor, in this case, illuminates the extent to which the world depends on us, too, to come alive. Smell and taste depend on a kind of foreordained completion of the outside by a chemical connection with nerves. As if we were lovers fated for the world, joined at last with the one we were meant for, every time we taste food. Or one another.
Bitter, umami, sweet, salt, sour. If you are salt and sweet, that leaves us to explore: bittersweet, sweet and sour, those are commonplaces, but what of bitter sour or sour salt? Umami sour and umami bitter? Do we have enough wrinkles for all the contact? Can we ever be saturated with our flavours? Does even the pedantic ultimately turn romantic?