John McQuaid isn’t one to mince words. When he says the sense of taste has been more crucial to humankind than we’re inclined to give it credit for, well, he certainly doesn’t aim low.
“More important than vision, or hearing, or even sex, flavor is the most important ingredient at the core of what we are,” he writes. You can almost hear the heavenly choirs sing behind him.
Better than sex: It’s a high pedestal to be sure, but with Tasty, the Silver Spring author’s book-length investigation of the history and science of taste, McQuaid has committed himself to a writing challenge that’s nearly as lofty. After all, in the attempt to craft an all-encompassing look at taste—both its components and cross-cultural implications—McQuaid has forced himself to tackle a not-so-trifling task: simply describing the damn thing. Though tastes are instantly recognizable to our tongues, our words have a much tougher time taming them.
Here, McQuaid does an admirable job. While he may be mainly occupied with matters of the mouth and brain, it’s his ear for language that makes the proceedings immensely readable. From “bubbling fat” and “the crackle of seared skin,” to notes on an ancient ancestor that was “no more than the wisp of a beast,” McQuaid moves ably between topics that often elude description—not just taste, but also the past’s unimaginable creatures and brain’s winding paths.
And when these descriptions wear thin—admittedly, there are a few too many “firing neurons” and “bursts of boldness”—McQuaid turns to one of his other strengths: an exceptional knack for analogy. When describing how umami (that is, savoriness) silently accentuates the other basic tastes, he writes, “It’s like the Wizard of Oz, putting on a tremendous show from behind the curtain.” On how taste buds lasso passing food molecules, McQuaid likens the reaction to “the bottom of a bouquet when the middle is grasped too tight.” In just a phrase or two, he summons the means to make even abstract ideas relatable.
Now, I don’t want to give the impression that Tasty dwells only with the specifics of what we lick and chew—nor that it’s perfect. McQuaid doesn’t lack for ambition, extending his focus as far back as 250 million years and as deep as the DNA that turn some misfortunate souls against broccoli. For the most part, McQuaid’s concerned not with the plate but with the brain, both the neurology and psychology that craft what we experience as pleasure in food, and how it’s helped direct us.
This wide scope can make for uneven reading; the author appears more comfortable with some topics than with others. A section presenting the prehistory of taste drags a bit, and McQuaid’s novel device of dividing that span into five important meals becomes a tired gimmick before long. His chapter on fermentation meanders a little far from its focus, losing its thread—and me—somewhere along the way. The seeming ease with which McQuaid glosses many difficult topics occasionally makes them a bit too smooth to use as building blocks later; when we only get the reduced versions of complex concepts, it’s difficult to appreciate how these missing details influence the ideas he introduces later.
Luckily, McQuaid regains his footing soon enough. His meditation on the deadly history of sweets is at times devastating, and his thoughts on the “benign masochism” of eating hot peppers are both funny and fascinating. These chapters and others, leavened as they are with timely anecdotes, manage to be at once unsettling and enlightening.
I approached this book a skeptic (in my defense, I submit that Tasty sounds alarmingly like a reality show on Bravo) but leave it a convert. In his bid to enthrone taste at the heart of human experience, McQuaid does more than offer a compelling argument. He leaves the world looking—and, yes, tasting—just a little bit different.