I’m friends with a woman who can’t smell or taste anything. Let’s call her Eleanor. Because of this I try not to talk food around her. But of course, during one conversation, I forgot, and rudely steered the topic to favorite snacks. To my surprise, she answered that chips and anchovies were at the top of her list. She saw my blank stare and explained that she never lost the ability to experience textures and they’re a major factor in how she chooses her foods. This discovery stuck with me long after our conversation. The more I thought about it, the more normal the idea seemed. Perhaps Eleanor is not so different from those who can taste. While flavors are most often front and center when discussing food, texture may be a bigger silent partner than we realize.
Since college I’ve been pitching the idea that all of our favorite and least favorite foods have one thing in common, texture. Think about a favorite food. Why do you like it so much? What about your least favorite? My wife (Sweet), can’t stand the contrast of cooked peppers and its squeaky skin. Nor do I like the mushy center of a cooked carrot. When you discover a mealy tomato, kiwi, or squash, doesn’t it lose all of its appeal despite it tasting relatively the same? We blame flavor, but that’s not really what we mean. Is it?
We’re always happy to applaud flavor when food is texturally thrilling. How many times have you crunched into a strip of bacon and raved how good it tastes? Think of all the foods out in the world that tantalize your teeth but don’t get their due. The burst of brine when you puncture an orb of fish roe. The gush of juice when your canines breach a peach. The pushback of a boiled bagel against your two front teeth. How do you order your pasta?
Why is texture so (secretly) important to us? Do we learn such affections from our upbringing? Do I romanticize the push of a bagel because I grew up with good bagels? Or is it something animal? Does the chew from a lace of linguine or the cracking of crisped fat satisfy something primal within us?
While trying to find a unifying answer to all these questions I realized I was missing the greater point. For a long time I had been walking on egg shells around Eleanor because I didn’t want to call attention to the muted aspects of her life. I forget that somewhere, she is sitting down to some anchovies and enjoying them in a way I will ever know. Perhaps she pities me. Without aromas or tastes vying for her attention she knows the true breadth of the oiliness emanating from her select slices of fish. Her experience of texture is a solo performance in a silent chamber. I may know many tastes, but my teeth will never be as sharp as hers.