Notes From My Knapsack 7-21-16
Tastes of summer are a mouthful
Once in a while, I have this strange, unaccountable hankering after peach rings.
Not having much of anything to do with actual peaches, which I hope and trust will be for sale off the back of trucks along 21st St. soon, these are gummy, chewy, artificially colored and definitely artificially flavored disks of an industrially chemical composition.
Yet they have this flavor that, once in a while, surges up in my memory and grabs my tongue and tickles my fancy. And I find a bag on a metal rack and buy it and eat them. Usually all. And regret it.
Until the next time.
Tastes have a strange connection to our brain. Smells and flavors seem to go deeper faster than sights and sounds. They may not be capable of triggering the same level of detail, but they grab us and connect us across years and distances.
The food science industry has done some amazing things in my lifetime, much of which I don't want to complain about. From astronauts getting an orange-flavored beverage from powder in outer space to electrolyte balancing lemon-lime beverages in aseptic packaging, we live in an era of marvels that make our lives easier.
But is there anything of the orange in that breakfast drink? Lemons, limes: even the color of certain fluids sold as having that flavor looks more alien than natural.
I'm not even talking about organic foods, just whether there's any organism or ecosystem involved in some of the tastes we find ourselves craving.
There are candy spheres I remember enjoying as a kid called "Michigan cherries." They're tart, and crammed full of sugar, suffused with an artificial taste that is referred to as "cherry." But if you eat one of these hyper-sweet items, then pick up an actual Michigan cherry, of a sort grown on a tree with a stem to toss aside and everything, you find an entirely different flavor and texture.
I'm not saying never eat candy, I'm just wondering if we're doing a good job of being clear with ourselves: cherry-flavoring has very little to do with the taste of a cherry. You don't even have to say it's better (or worse), just that it's different. And uniquely itself.
I find banana flavored taffy delicious, but have to also admit there's more than a hint of acetone involved. And it doesn't taste anything like your average banana, peeled and eaten. Apple hard candies are unique and green and tasty, ditto watermelon red ones, but let's be serious. The actual experience of biting into a nice cool green apple, or enjoying a slice of juicy melon at a picnic: that's another flavor, and its own raft of memories.
It's getting easier and easier to experience artificial flavors, to the point where sometimes the actual fruit or vegetable or food item tastes strange. Imagine someone who's had nothing but "cheese food" getting a big hunk of Gouda. It would be a shock. And sometimes folks can turn away from a bowl of fresh cherries or an actual peach, because the taste is more subtle, less brassy and assertive.
May your summer be filled with flavors of the season, of fruits and vegetables in season, of tastes that have roots and history and connections for you.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County. Tell him what you'd like to taste this summer at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.