Writing for the senses

strawberries    Today I am discussing the sense of taste.

This is a snippet from my story Your Heart My Soul, where Gareth returns to the cafe where the spirit of Sally, using the body of her host Libby, is waiting.

 He raced inside and found her. Seated where he’d left her, a wrinkle on her brow, she focused her attention on a long-handled spoon. Sucking on a pink straw she dug into the contents of the tall glass in front of her. He approached, and she looked up with a beaming smile.

“Oh, Gareth. I ain’t never ’ad nothin’ taste this grand,” she said. “Thank ’ee.”

A rush of pleasure in her delight raced up from his stomach. The sound of her voice brought tears to his eyes and understanding whacked like a blow from a Bosun’s rope through his thoughts. His knees sagged and forced him to hold onto the edge of the table. “Sally, we’ve found…”

Her bright smile faltered a little before it bloomed again to light up her face. “My Will?”

Your Heart My Soul by Daisy Banks.

Of all the senses I think taste is perhaps the most individual and personal. I was going to add the most stimulating too, but perhaps you might quibble with that.

Having young members in my extended family and watching them as they discover the world of foods has sharpened my eyes and my thoughts on taste and its part in life. Taste provokes massive reactions in these little ones, big round eyes and smiles for liked tastes, wincing and even spitting if the food doesn’t please.

The children get to taste a huge number of foods and flavours and it always surprises me that at such a tender age they can react so strongly.

I have often wondered if tastes are stronger for children than for adults, for example, as a child I suffered under the ‘clean your plate’ regime. Fortunately, as I wasn’t from a wealthy family my plate was often small, except when we children in the family were served sprouts.

When I think of them I can see them immediately I don’t even have to close my eyes. I recall the smell of them and shudder, but the recollection of their taste is a darkened room. Thankfully I have forgotten or blotted out the memory.

I enjoy cooking and I buy sprouts in season. They are physically small and delicate, their flavour is strong but as an al dente supporting flavour they can enhance some dishes. These little veggies bear no relation to those monstrous and enormous yellow versions my mother boiled until they wilted and broke apart when spooned from the colander. I hated sprout day. I tried everything I could to avoid them, or to hide the taste beneath the mashed potatoes, but there was never enough mash. The sprouts made me heave. It didn’t matter. I’m afraid they had to be eaten, no matter how long it took. There were times when I wondered if I’d reach my tenth birthday still looking at the same sprout lurking on my plate amidst concealing gravy and the last paper thin wisp of mash I wasn’t allowed to scrap off with my fork. I am surprised I ever overcame the sprout experience, but fortunately I did.

I do wonder if I’ve allowed some of you recollect your own sprout type of experience from childhood, I hope if I have the moment is not too harrowing.

Tastes change as we age, or perhaps our palate alters. An example of this occurred recently when I visited the Black Country Museum with my husband. There is a shop in the museum known lovingly as ‘the suck shop’. This shop sells sweets. The kind of sweets my husband and I both knew as children. By the way, just so you’re not confused, ‘suck’ is the Black Country term for sweets. I am planning to treat you to some Black Country readings to enlighten you on the traditional and exquisite form of Black Country speech, but that’s for later in the year. There’s more to it than ‘b is for nana’ believe me.  If that made no sense to you what so ever, don’t worry you will be enlightened.

During our visit to the museum my husband spotted a large jar of white, sugar coated bonbons in the suck shop window and announced, “I’ve got to have some.” He marched inside the shop, almost elbowing children aside in his haste, and returned with an enormous grin and his quarter pound of sweeties wrapped in a white paper bag.

“When did you last have any of these?” I asked as he opened the bag.

“I was about eight,” he said and put one in his mouth.

I waited and was surprised at his reaction. He looked a little bemused, the same way he had when I dropped a toolbox down from the loft and it hit his foot, but that’s another story. He shook his head and after chewing for a few seconds took the sweet out of his mouth and wrapped it in a tissue.

“What’s wrong?”

“They don’t taste the same,” he said. “Not the same at all.” His disappointment was palpable.

So taste is a fascinating sense, one we learn to use perhaps, or one an individual may have certain predispositions for preferences. I know I have always enjoyed savoury rather than sweet, as does my eldest son, my husband and youngest son are the opposite and prefer sweet things. Taste is also the sense that can trick our memories with expectations that can go unfulfilled.

Writing to involve your reader in the sense of taste may involve all the emotions I have described and yet there might still be more.

Taste is sensual in the extreme and in writing romance it is my task to try to convey the sensual satisfaction of a kiss between my hero and heroine, and to do it without sounding like I’m writing to the requirements of the local board of dentists. Minty and fresh are words often seen associated with kisses, especially first kisses. But really is kissing truly a minty fresh experience? Kissing beyond the first tentative lip joins leads into a whole new world for lovers, and in my humble opinion, at that stage minty fresh although pleasant is not the entire focus of the act.

This leads me further into the way the mouth discovers a partner in the same way a toddler learns more about the world. The mouth is used to find the texture of the skin on their neck and face, the taste of their skin, their cologne and most of all, them in essence.

The analogy of taste and lust is one which has often been used and I still think its best outing is in the classic film made of Mr. Fielding’s marvellous book Tom Jones. Sadly, this is rarely seen on T.V. but this naughty romp contains a fabulous sexy food scene. There have been other taste spectaculars in later films too, perhaps more detailed in their observation or presented in greater depth, but to my mind never quite so much fun.

One of the genres I enjoy is the Historical, and it’s in this genre that taste can challenge an author, because for some historical food types we can only guess the tastes involved.

One of the activities I often enjoyed working in school was some Roman cookery. The taste combination of honey and black pepper present in some recipes was a challenge the students always enjoyed and was easy to replicate in the classroom with the little dumplings popular as a Roman dessert. However, the ubiquitous fish sauce known the Roman world over was impossible to replicate. The best I ever managed was an anchovy sauce and for most of the students that was one taste they preferred not to try. As ever my imagination ran with the idea and one writing piece I asked my students to complete was a letter of complaint about a newly opened fish sauce maker setting up shop next to their house. The sauce so popular in the Roman Empire was made by leaving fish parts to stew in oil in hot sunlight for several weeks  and on learning this the students waxed lyrical in their concerns.

Sometimes when we write to involve the senses we have to accept taste preferences were different in the past and let the imagination run the description of the experience. Contemporary taste descriptions are a little easier but demand accuracy from the author. I hope you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on the sense of taste. My next piece will revolve around the sense of sight and how important descriptions of visual experiences of a character are for the reader.

Bye for now.

Happy reading and writing.

Daisy Banks

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6 thoughts on “Writing for the senses

  1. My horror taste was carrots, parsnips and turnips – mashed. I vowed aloud I would never make my children eat it, and I never did. Had one teenager very miffed when he discovered turnips at 15 and absolutely loved them. “Why don’t we ever have turnips?” My answer was “You can feed them to your children but I’m not feeding them to you.” I can bear them now, chopped into a soup mix or a casserole, but not a lot! I think taste triggers as many memories as smell.

    • Turnips!!! Oh no! Swede surely. Carrots, parsnips and swede. No wonder you hated the taste. Turnips are bitter.
      I agree about not enforcing the same tastes you disliked so much on your children. I never did the boil for a month kind
      of sprouts when I cooked for them.
      Lovely to see you hear, Virginnia.

  2. I’ve come a long way since the days of frozen Brussel sprouts my mother used to make. In fact, I’d never ever seen one naturally occurring. I thought the only way they came was in a box. Imagine my surprise when I saw them at a Waitrose on the stalk. I was nearly shocked when I heard they were a Christmas delicacy. I’ve learned to like them in their steamed and sauteed with bacon state. My most recent experience with food was salted licorice, which I understand is a treat in New Zealand. Sorry, but I had to spit it out.
    You’ve done an excellent job with this topic, Daisy. I enjoyed the read.

    • Tiny button sprouts steamed and sauted sound interesting. I liike the idea of
      salted licorice that is the kind of taste flavour that might appeal to me.
      Thanks for you comments and thoughts, Gemma.

  3. I wonder if I will ever look at brussel sprouts the same way. My horror experience was Milk. I hate it, it makes me feel sick, as does too much ice cream.. somewhere, around 12 yrs old, I finally won the battle… but dinner time as a child was not a good experience.

    • Ah, poor you. Ice cream of all things to make you pukey. I remember ice cream giving me brain freeze. I apologise for the sprout thing, I did wonder if
      it was a step too far. Thanks for reading and commenting.

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