As memorable as the sense of scent is the evocative wonder of the sense of taste. Every day communities around the world come together to experience the innumerable joys of taste. Many of us wince at a sour slice of lime, daydream about the indulgent pleasures of sweets and fats, or feel a bitter punch at a bite of horseradish. We experience a salivating rush with the crunch of a salty potato chip, and harness the deep cravings for savory meats, fish and dark greens! There are five recognized taste sensations including sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (savory) that help us navigate our relationship with each of these foods. Receptors on the tongue recognize molecules in food and this mingling of chemical reactions sends a signal to the human brain. This signal is processed as the multitudes of taste combinations we experience (Ginsburg, 2014).
The miracle of taste has evolved over 500 million years and acts as the first defense against dangerous foods. Dr. O’Connell of Dublin City University writes, “In our ancestral human population, those who had the ability to perceive dangerous compounds in their food could better avoid them, and those who could better assess the nutritive and caloric value of their food could get a good supply of energy” (O’Connell, 2014, para. 8). The variety of tastes we know today are careful products of evolutionary complexity and therefore directly connects us with the biological world, to awaken our primal instincts (Breslin, 2013).
Not only can taste intimately connect us with the biological world, our sense of taste is strongly connected to almost all of our other senses. Smell and sight both play a large role, chemically and psychologically, on our sense of taste (Breslin, 2013). Taste can also be deeply connected to specific memories or time periods, bringing a strong emotional element to the foods that we consume. In this way, each of our senses strongly connects us to the bonds of our evolutionary past.
Today, in increasingly fast-paced modern societies, many forget to savor the wonders of taste. In a world often filled with disconnection, taste is one way to connect modern humans with their evolutionary past and to their current ecological surroundings. As an inspiration of hope, taste opens the door for connections to daily wildness, cultural histories, and the potential energy or dangers harnessed in the foods that surround us. It reminds us that cross-culturally, we are in steady relationship with the ecological world, as our bodies naturally inform us of the diversity housed within our food and as our body and mind mutually inform one another as we continue to evolve throughout time. To deepen connections with our sense of taste and therefore our ecological selves, we can practice mindfulness. Mindfulness can help us “wake up to the miracles of everyday life” (Michaelson, 2008, para. 1). By focusing on something as simple as taste, we can begin to connect to the abundance of life that surrounds us. If we are able to be mindful and pay attention to the simple messages our tongue is sending to our brains, and approach that interaction with a child-like wonder, curiosity will be ignited within.
Taste Mindfulness Activity
For this meditation, choose a morsel of food. Select foods that demonstrate the five different tastes (sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami). The facilitator can guide participants through this exercises with guiding questions similar to these:
- Look at the food item, what colors is it? Does it have any patterns? Why might it have that color? Is it natural or are there artificial colorings?
- Feel the food item, what does it feel like? What texture does it have? Is it hard, soft, rough, bumpy? Why might it have that texture?
- Why might the food item have evolved in such ways?
- Can you listen to it? What happens when you squeeze it? Scrape it? Tap it?
- Smell the food. Smell is so connected to taste, can you imagine what the food might taste like?
- Your food item is part of a larger, interconnected web. Think about where this food might have come from. Did any part of it come from the earth? How did it grow? Under the soil? What kind of soil? From the branch of a tree? Did it need sun? How much water do you think was required for this food? Where does that water come from? Who grew the food? How did it travel to you?
- Take a few breaths and allow your mind to calm.
- Put the food on your tongue and let it rest there for a few moments. Focus on the sensations. How is your mouth reacting? Your tongue? Are any other parts of your body stimulated? Are any memories coming up for you? How do you feel?
- Start to chew the food. Notice it as it changes states. Where will the food go from here? How will it return back to the earth?
Try selecting the same food but different varieties or types from different bioregions. For example, choose three varieties of apples and note the similarities and differences. Or, choose honey from three different bioregions or floral varieties and note their similarities and differences. Use this opportunity to talk about local foods, connections to place, and the taster’s connection to place through food.