I love words. I’ve always been fascinated by syntax, etymologies and connotations, and that’s one of the key reasons why I enjoy reading fiction and poetry. It’s also why I gravitated to English as my undergraduate major and why I pursued a graduate degree in Literature and Cultural Studies. I enjoy dissecting words and phrases, and I find it thrilling to explore the nuance and depth behind the jumble of letters and characters that we see each and every day.
Since starting this blog and seriously undertaking the project of sharing my passions for delicious, affordable and sustainable food, I’ve come to realize that the vocabulary of gastronomy is at once both extremely fluid and surprisingly limited. In this post, I want to take a closer look at the words food writers – myself included – use to describe tastes, flavors and eating experiences in the hopes of raising awareness of the shades of meaning attached to the stock of descriptors we have for one of life’s most important and enjoyable necessities.
I want to begin this journey by discussing the process I took to write my recent post, “Top Ten Essential Herbs & Spices.” While I had a clear idea of what seasonings I wanted to cover and what dishes and cuisines they fit best with, I found the task of describing their taste in specific detail a bit daunting. For instance, although there is nothing sugary about basil, does it make sense to call its flavor sweet? For thyme and rosemary, which have very strong fragrances, is it appropriate to say they have an aromatic taste?
While these questions may seem nitpicky to some, to me they are fascinating. As I worked on the post and tried to narrow in on the most precise descriptions possible, I turned to two sources: the works of others and my own taste buds. Sometimes, the two were in harmony, but other times I found myself describing a flavor in a much different way than my fellow writers. Take sage, for example. To me, sage has a grassy taste, which reminds me of chewing on the sweet, soft bottoms of stalks of long grass when I was a kid. However, when I looked up how others describe its taste, I saw adjectives like “warm,” “astringent,” “earthy” and “savory.”
This disparity between my own description and those of others made me wonder why this was happening. Were my taste buds somehow different? After all, I often fail to taste the subtle flavor notes in wine or coffee described by sommeliers and connoisseurs. According to the website Taste Science, all tongues are unique, resulting in each person having distinct taste sensitivities and capacities. This is why, for example, cilantro tastes delicious to some folks, whereas it tastes like soap to others, and it’s why only certain people with heightened tongue receptors can be sommeliers or professional cheese, coffee and beer tasters.
If the discrepancy between flavor adjectives is due entirely to this phenomenon, however, then why are certain descriptions always similar? No one could possibly describe the taste of rosemary, let’s say, without mentioning its piney aroma and flavor since it is an evergreen plant. Moreover, nobody would ever describe red pepper as not being spicy or ginger as not being pungent.
Now it seems we’ve come to a crossroads. While certain flavors – particularly strong ones – are almost universally described in the same ways, other tastes – ones that are subtler or that closely resemble others – appear to be more open to interpretation. Moving forward from here seems like a difficult proposition, but for any food writer, this is precisely the realm where one’s words can thrive. In the indefinite and in the space of the hard-to-define, writers have the opportunity to tap into the host of words and phrases, adjectives and metaphors, which give understandability to experiences and allow others the possibility of sharing in those experiences.
Moving beyond the world of strong and easily described flavors – spicy, sweet, vinegary, piney etcetera – we arrive at the realm of individual sensory experience. Or do we? Even with these recognizable and universally accepted flavors a discrepancy still exists when it comes to intensity. Where does sweet end and saccharine begin? Why are some sauces spicy and other hot? What makes a food vinegary or sour in a pleasant way and what makes a dish biting, astringent or overwhelming?
I think the best way to deal with this issue to take a two-fold approach. First, one can try to use adjectives in the context for which their definition is written. And second, one can use metaphor and story to approximate the experience rather than trying to describe a taste scientifically as if it were discrete and duplicable.
Turning to my handy Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, I want to investigate the denotations of a few food descriptors that I feel are often used in a context that differs from what they were intended for. I have zeroed in, by the way, on the food-related definitions of each word when available instead of giving the whole definition.
- Acrid: sharp and harsh or unpleasantly pungent in taste or odor: irritating.
- Aromatic: having a strong smell; having a distinctive quality.
- Astringent: causing contraction of soft organic tissues: puckery.
- Bold: fearless before danger; standing out prominently.
- Piquant: agreeably stimulating to the palate; suggests a power to whet the appetite or interest through tartness or mild pungency.
- Pungent: having an intense flavor or odor; implies a sharp, stinging or biting quality.
- Savory: pleasing to the sense of taste esp. by reason of effective seasoning; pungently flavorful without sweetness; applies to both taste and aroma that suggests piquancy and often spiciness.
- Sharp: having a strong odor or flavor: acrid.
- Succulent: full of juice; moist and tasty; having fleshy tissues that conserve moisture.
- Vibrant: pulsating with life, vigor or activity; bright.
- Warm: having or giving out heat to a moderate or adequate degree; newly made: fresh; having the color or tone of something that imparts heat.
As you can see, there are few very interesting things about this list. On the one hand, many of the definitions are circular: acrid, piquant, sharp, savory and pungent all reference one another and depend upon each other to make sense. On the other hand, a few of the words – bold, aromatic and vibrant – lack specific definitions for tastes or flavors. Nevertheless, food writers commonly use these adjectives, often taking it for granted that everyone knows what they mean.
Let’s turn again to the description of sage that I mentioned above. Given these definitions, can we really say that sage is savory, astringent or warm? It doesn’t necessarily make me pucker – it’s not sour – it doesn’t have a pungent, sharp or piquant taste and it certainly doesn’t remind me or impart the feeling of heat. Instead, these exact same adjectives would be much more fitting in a description of ginger. It certainly has a puckery quality to it, its yellow color reminds one of fire, its taste imparts heat to the body and it has a certain sharpness and spiciness to it that lacks sweetness and stimulates one’s mouth for another bite.
To be perfectly frank, though, I’m not sure that most people would agree with some of the definitions above, particularly the one for savory. However, we all must remember that for the words we write to be understood by the greatest number of people and in the clearest possible way, we need to use precise terms. If we use savory to mean primarily having the attributes of something roasted, of something that causes one’s mouth to water or that invites strong, earthy and umami flavors, then we need to make it clear that is the definition we all agree on. Otherwise, we might alienate non-foodies and non-native speakers of English, shutting them out of the conversation.
It’s the age-old Inigo Montoya problem: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” Well that begs the question: who does know what it means? Does using savory, for instance, in this particular way over and over again make it so? In a way, yes. All words are fluid and malleable – just ask a deconstructionist – so therefore the context surrounding a word and the connotations and implications attending it are really the only meaning a word has. So yes, implying this additional definition of savory does give it a new meaning, whether or not someone knows – or cares – what the dictionary says it means.
I believe, however, that there is a better way to approach food descriptions, one that relies neither on strict dictionary definitions nor exclusively on connotations and context. I think the best approach to describing flavors involves metaphor and story. By recreating the experience of eating a certain food, others are invited to share those moments, feel the same atmosphere and understand the tastes as we do. Words aren’t science, so we shouldn’t rely on discrete adjectives to convey something so complex as the flavor of food.
When I eat rosemary, it is a full sensory experience. The aroma of the herb transports me to a pine forest like the ones in North Carolina where I grew up; the taste of it makes my mouth water, it makes my tongue feel a bit sticky and causes me to crave other strong flavors; and the deep green color reminds me of nature, of fresh air, soil and plants. I don’t think saying merely that rosemary has a pungent, woody and evergreen taste does this wonderful herb justice. And, to me personally, so much more surrounds its taste that dropping a few adjectives simply doesn’t cut it.
Instead, by explaining why something tastes like it does – instead of attempting to define its specific flavor profile – food writers invite their readers to experience the taste with them. By the very nature of our tongues every person will taste food differently, and when we guide people on the journey of eating a dish or tasting a spice we can both allow them to have a fuller picture of what we taste and encourage them to form their own impressions and tastes as well.