When I was 14 years old, my mom decided to bestow upon me her cooking techniques. Her first lesson was on texture. With her hands, she snapped a celery stick into multiple stringy, off-putting chunks. Next, she finely cut almost invisible slivers of celery into a pile.
“Put it in your mouth and chew,” she demanded, handing me the messy greenish hunk. I could still taste the oils from her fingers and fibers that lodged in the recesses of my gums with every bite. Then, she lay several pieces of her translucent paper thin celery delicately across her tongue. I followed suit, and instantly, I understood the difference.
How shockingly simple, but critical to all those who prepare food, and eat it. Texture can change taste. Because this was such an epiphany to me, I asked more questions about how people experience food, and if environment or emotions can affect taste. How and why do taste buds change over time, or never change at all? I later conducted the same experiment with friends and associates- and was dismayed that some could not taste the difference.
In a day and age where Islamaphobia runs rampant, and both Americans and undocumented peoples are asked about their citizenship, I have attempted to track the emotional implications in our environment and culture. Already the impacts are highly visible, with images of parents separated from their children during Trump’s travel ban; Men shot and killed by White supremacists in their own driveways; Immigration & Customs Enforcement agents detaining and deporting parents with or without criminal records; and Jewish families standing over the headstones of loved ones, riddled with swastikas. The environment is one of hate & fear.
How does this change the way we experience food? Some macro-level consequences include the agricultural industries, the very source of our food ranging from dairy to produce, will experience major losses within their workforce, some even fearing financial collapse. Owners ranging from fine dining establishments, to local mom & pop restaurants of every ethnicity, have become targets of Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE). Some restaurants have already permanently closed their doors, and their workers facing unknown futures locked away in privatized detention centers.
In “Kitchen Confidential” Anthony Bourdain writes: “I can’t stress this enough. Much of the workforce in the industry you are about to enter is Spanish-speaking. The very backbone of the industry, whether you like it or not…… These are your co-workers, your friends, the people you will be counting on, leaning on for much of your career, and they in turn will be looking to you to hold up your end. Show them some respect by bothering to know them. Learn their language. Eat their food. It will be personally rewarding and professionally invaluable.”
How obsolete such relationships and modes of operating will be for food providers? How many businesses will be able to reinvent and recoup in their workforce? Expect a sharp decline in the entrepreneurial spirit of food innovators and restaurateurs, as the American dining public will continue to narrow to its long standing tradition of multicultural foods and authentic dishes, knowingly or unknowingly made by undocumented peoples. Our country in the end could lose what it hoped to “preserve” in the first place, a healthy portion of what would “make America great again.”
So how does all this change America’s palate? How does an environment internally changes an ability to taste food? Well, the answer is more intrinsic than I first thought. In order to “taste” food, it requires simply the food that is being consumed, and also the person consuming it. Both components I assume, complex. We each have built in our minds our understanding of flavor profiles, representations of spices, sauces, and ingredients. We know what to expect when mom cooks our favorite dishes. But only when we are open to new experiences, when we are encouraged by new recipes or dishes or dining adventures, can we shatter preexisting expectations. This is what I look for as a food innovator and as a diner.
As texture can change taste, so can emotions. Ever tried eating something when you’re depressed or recovering from loss or trauma? Imagine eating foie gras or downing an expensive piece of toro while in a constant state of fear or hate or remorse. Sadly, I think about loved ones I have lost over the years, and those close to me forcing me to eat. Even the most delicious foods under duress can taste metaphorically bland and literally bitter. When I think about people who are suffering, and how they experience the most practical human instincts such as eating, I have a better sense of what they are going through. Call it a heightened level of empathy, but just the thought of someone’s trauma can affect me so deeply, it can impair simple human functions, even the ability to taste.
In a sense, people have become reactions to food. Taste and experience reflects the individual eating, and collectively can shape how food is prepared. In a growing culture of hatred and fear, there might be less room for love, care, and attentiveness in the dish before you, and within yourself. My hope is that we are just experiencing dysgeusia, only a partial loss of taste buds brought on by our current socio-political climate. This gives us a small window, even after long periods of tasting nothing, where flavor buds can magically reappear on our tongues and reinvigorate our palates. But if this is something longer, a case of ageusia, a permanent loss of taste, no one will be able to distinguish the texture between a thin slice of celery, and anything else that we eat.