Monday, June 2, 2008

Guest Comment: Appetite for Disruption

…Sensory Overlord

I get this sensation. I get it when I’m standing in line at any deli, bodega, or bagelry and order jalapenos on my sandwich; it’s as if my tongue knows that pickled bite of vinegar and heat from the last time I had a pepper in my final sandwich shard.

I also get it when I’m shaking a carton or container of grapefruit juice and my jaw knows that acidic jolt – the one that leaves me all too aware of every cut and crevice on my lips, cheeks, and tongue.

And I get it most evocatively, I get it when I’m washing a container of raspberries.

My brain and body are conditioned to respond to a pepper or citrus or berry with subconscious aversion from my previous exposure to them, and because I’ve sampled (and really enjoyed) these flavors before, I remember the strangely satisfying stimuli even before they touch my tongue.

Some might say that muscle memory is best described through a motion, or series of motions, that your body remembers how to complete even after years of idleness -- we usually say that when someone is returning to original form that they are shaking the rust off. My mouth is frustratingly similar.

Muscle memory, and what I’m going to call Flavor Recall, interrupts my life. As often as anyone, I feign control of my daily existence primarily because I obsess over control – at least as much as anyone (sometimes more). But without fail my subconscious, my Flavor Recall, can be counted on to interrupt my delicately balanced control. The burnt coffee at Miguelito’s will irrevocably throw me back to the drive from college to home my sophomore year when I desperately needed to stay awake. The next instant I’ll have forgotten the three things I was supposed to do after getting coffee, still remembering that really reviling cup. The same is true for the poor rotting spinach leaves in the bottom right drawer of my refrigerator.

But for the disruption that Flavor Recall causes, I enjoy the memory. The feeling those bitter/painful/delicious foods evoke in my mouth mirror those feelings that I stumble upon in a more daily, inane sense. I feel the jolt under my belly button before the PATH turns under the Hudson after Christopher St. I recoil when I walk into a bathroom at any Starbucks because I know the urine smell before I open the door – which is somehow comforting.

This hanging thread of muscle memory is braided into the fabric of my everyday routines, and if I were Jack Handey or Hendrick Hertzberg, I’d insert a personal anecdote that would illuminate relevance and add intrigue to my theory of Flavor Recall. It would happen with precipitous pacing and feel smooth but escalating. I’m not Oriana Fallaci and am happy to not be Bob Woodward, either way I can’t justify ending with a shocking reversal. And as much as I wish I were LeVar Burton or Edward Murrow, I don’t have a sign-off that merits cultural repetition.

But I was talking on the phone with my parents the other day and my mother reminded me of a trip our family took to New Orleans (pre-Katrina for those interested). We were there for nearly a week and the entire trip was planned with meals guiding our itinerary (the best way to travel, for those interested). Every time someone mentions the city I, for better or for worse, get that catfish-dredged, shrimp-and-andouille-smoked, saucy, vegetable heaviness in my throat. My mother alluded to a return to New Orleans this winter, and with even the mention over the phone, my taste buds shook the rust off to anticipate the creole-cajun Mulate (see:, for those interested).

Maybe a better phrase would be flavor nostalgia; it would at least have made the memory easier since I happened to be eating a donut when my mouth suddenly remembered catfish. Flavor Recall disrupts my existence.

So next time you’re standing in line and ordering a small cone, push your tongue against your cheeks and bottom teeth to see if you taste Mint Chocolate Chip before you bite. If that sensation comes and you taste hot peppers, maybe step back from the ice cream. Take the extra second to shake the rust off – it could be the difference between putting bourbon on your cereal or tasting grapefruit juice in your coffee.

But you don’t have to take my word for it.



Sarah said...

Dear writer,

I was wondering, how often is "flavor recall" based upon the last bite of food or the last swallow of drink? Often I find myself at a meal and I savor the last bite as if to embed it in my memory: the last bite of grandma's coffee cake or Sal's bread pudding with whiskey sauce, the last salty Pacific oyster, the last sip of that fine martini (the one where the shaker was shown the vermouth bottle, but that is all), the last of the tuna sashimi.

Further, is this different then visual recall -- capturing the moment so you won't forget the van sliding door falling off in a parking lot in Idaho; or a sensory recall, the last floating moment in the bay in St. Johns flat on your back, head in the water, a reality, but virtual, saline isolation tank.

Do we cling on to these sensual memories hoping for repetition or hoping for conversion?

I am not sure. As for me, they cling like an overfilled glass -- my memories are like surface tension -- overflowing but hanging on.

A reader

Sarah said...

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