27 June 2013

Guest Post: Author Eli Brown (Cinnamon and Gunpowder) Talks Taste

A few weeks ago I gave you a bare-bones tease of Eli Brown's Cinnamon and Gunpowder and shared the opening paragraph. Here's the premise in a nutshell: Owen Wedgwood was been captured by Mad Hannah Mabbot, a fearsome pirate. In return for his life, Mabbot makes the following proposal:

You will, of a Sunday, cook for me, and me alone, the finest supper. You will neither repeat a dish nor serve foods that are in the slightest degree mundane. In return I will continue to keep you alive and well. . . . Should you balk in any fashion you will find yourself swimming home, whole or in pieces, depending upon the severity of my disappointment. (p. 13)
What follows is an action- and food-packed account of Owen's meals, his developing relationship with Hannah and her pirate crew, and his many failed attempts at escape. Side plots include historical information about British trade in the Far East and what life was like aboard a pirate ship. I found Cinnamon and Gunpowder to be a fun summer read, and I often thought how I'd manage to cook my way off the gangplank if I were in Owen's shoes.

Today I'm happy to welcome author Eli Brown to Beth Fish Reads. When I met Eli in New York during BEA, we chatted about food and writing and editing, but we didn't talk about biology. What does science have to with Owen Wedgwood? Read on to find out.
The Taste Map

The first time I saw the taste map chart in a biology textbook I was around eight years old. It showed up again and again as I grew, and it was still there when I entered college. You've probably seen it too, the graphic that delineates where on the tongue we experience different tastes: sweet is perceived on the tip, salt flanks sweet, sour sits like saddle bags on the sides near the rear, and bitter squats near the hole in the back. It's compelling in its simplicity, and there's something comforting about seeing our senses organized in bright colors.

In Cinnamon and Gunpowder, the chef, Owen Wedgwood muses about taste, assigning each one a color. It's a kind of earned synesthesia that was inspired by my own explorations into this sense. For me it all started with that drawing of the tongue.

Of course, the taste map is wrong—very wrong. Scientists now tell us that none of the tastes is so clearly confined to any region of the tongue. Some tastes even wander to the roof of the mouth.

And where on the chart was umami, the savory fifth taste? It hadn't been "discovered" by Western palates yet, and so, for much of my life I couldn't distinguish it. I grew up in a culture that was limited to only four tastes. I was umami-blind.

We were told a number of whoppers as children. It turns out that the brontosaurus, that benign behemoth, was a pastiche of different animals. Franklin didn't fly a kite in a storm. Newton didn't sit under apple trees. But the taste map holds a special place in my internal museum of misinformation. It was the one lie that I could easily have disproved. I had a tongue, and it worked just fine. Still, I believed the chart. We all did.

But there are revelations hidden inside the shadows of ignorance. We now "know" that sweetness will brighten the whole tongue, not just the tip. I'm thrilled to have my tongue unshackled from the numbing chart, thrilled to have five tastes instead of four.

Now I can't help but wonder what dark age I still wander. What undiscovered continents of pleasure await naming? 
Thanks, Eli, you certainly gave me some things to think about. I clearly remember that taste chart from the many, many biology classes I took over the years. I'm particularly fascinated by the different perceptions between East and West and the idea that it took us Westerners so long to figure out that there was a fifth taste. How did that effect Eutopean culinary masters throughout the centuries?
Don't forget to pick up a copy of Cinnamon and Gunpowder; you'll love getting to know Owen and the crew. And if you're an audiobook fan, consider listening to the unabridged audio edition (Macmillan Audio; 11 hr, 50 min), which is nicely read by James Langton, even if he doesn't know how to pronounce mole (the Mexican sauce). Langton captures the characters' personalities beautifully and kept my attention throughout.

Published by Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2013
ISBN-13: 9780374123666
Source: review (print); bought (audio) (see review policy)
Copyright © cbl for Beth Fish Reads, all rights reserved (see review policy).


bermudaonion 6/27/13, 8:56 AM  

Great guest post! I had no idea the taste map myth has been debunked!

Julie P. 6/27/13, 12:09 PM  

Fun guest post and I learned something as well!

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