I first realized I couldn't taste food very well when I was in a cooking group for a co-op in college.
Up until that point, I'd been perfectly content plodding along, shoving basically anything (vegan) that wasn't nailed down into my gaping maw, with no one the wiser. But when I actually had to cook for other people, it emerged that "throw hot sauce on it and put it into a fire" isn't actually how the majority of the population prefers their meals prepared.
After the sixth or seventh time my garlic-peanut butter tofu scramble was returned, uneaten, to our giant co-op fridge, our house president banished me to dish duty. Goodbye, dignity; hello, rubber gloves.
Gradually, I began to notice a pattern. When my friends would bring home wine from their culinary classes, I couldn't tell any difference between a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot. I sucked down Diet Coke like it was my job and never detected any of the "weird aftertaste" that my housemates bitched about. And I always drank my coffee black, no matter how watery and nasty it was.
I always thought that being a glutton for tongue-punishment was just part of my weirdly high pain tolerance. But I recently stumbled upon an article suggesting that my undiscerning preferences are actually the fault of my taste buds -- or lack thereof.
I had never heard of "supertasters," but they're apparently the envy of everyone who has any opinions about classy nonsense like fine wine and good chocolate. They're endowed with extra-dense concentrations of "fungiform papillae" -- the bumpy bits on the end of the tongue where the taste buds live -- and are far more sensitive to traces of bitterness, sweetness, and spicy food than the rest of the population.
Scientists theorize that back in our hunter-gatherer days, those of our ancestors who lived in places with lots of poisonous plants developed the ability to detect the bitterness of toxins on the tongue early. Since roughly 35% of women are supertasters (compared with 15% of men), they also believe that the trait may have contributed to the protection of fetuses while in the womb.
Now, of course, all those nightshades and hemlocks have been replaced in the Supertaster Burn Book by things like good scotch, black coffee and hot sauce. Since I basically survive off all of those things, I hypothesized that I might be the opposite of a supertaster -- a "nontaster."
To test my theory, I needed blue food dye. So the next time I went to the movies, I happily slurped down a raspberry-flavored ICEE and then hurried off to the bathroom after the show to count my taste buds. Doctors recommend that the curious attempt to count the number of papillae in a "hole the size of a paper punch" -- I just eyeballed it, because science loves it when you just estimate shit (false).
Supertasters can have anywhere from 30 to 65 little bumps in that hole. Regular types have 15-30. I had 6.
No wonder I never knew what my mom was on about when she said birthday cake was "too sweet."
It also explained why I never seemed to take the same pleasure out of food that other people do. I mean, I love to eat, don't get me wrong. But I tend to taste food as being shruggingly fine, like a Kristen Stewart indie movie or a Mumford & Sons album. I enjoy it, particularly if it's vegan, but I've never gotten the whole eyes-roll-back-in-the-head, drooling on the fork, Meg Ryan in "When Harry Met Sally" thing.
In fact, I tend to get the most pleasure out of food when I'm satisfying a craving, like eating a thing of beans when I'm protein-deprived or chomping on a sheet of nori like a brontosaur when I start to feel a little anemic.
Frankly, it can be a little bit lonely. In American culture, we tend to use food as a symbol for trust or affection, which is part of why people regard eating together as a viable bonding exercise. Between the veganism and the nontaster issue, it's hard to feel fully enmeshed in a birthday potluck when I'm only eating lettuce doused in Frank's Hot Sauce.
And because my disastrous co-op foray has fully convinced me that no one should put anything I make into their mouths again, I don't feel comfortable relishing the nourishing implications that come with shoving a homemade pie at someone.
Wine-tasting, chocolate fondue, and all that fancy 20something shit: I like it fine, but I'd be just as content chewing on a piece of cardboard if someone shredded ginger on it for me. The resulting hangouts at these places feel kind of alienating, like I'm in a car with everyone screaming along to the radio when I only know half the words.
But there is one major upside to being an N-T (as I like to call our nonexistent posse). People love to watch other people eating gross stuff, and N-Ts have that shit locked down. I got my housemates in college to pay me $10 to eat a pack of wasabi, for example. For those of us who love attention (hint: me), it's an addictive way to captivate and horrify those around you for anywhere from five to 30 minutes.
One recent night, for example, I was feeling peckish, so I teasingly asked my housemates to give me "one thing out of many to snack on." When they brought me an Oreo, a lemon, and an onion, I took great satisfaction from taking methodical, deliberate bites out of all three as I unblinkingly stared at them. I even made it almost halfway through the onion before my roommate, screaming, slapped it out of my hand.
I felt so much fondness for this story that I recreated it on video! I actually tried to make it through the whole onion this time, but turns out it is desperately hard to get your gastrointestinal system to say yes to a ball of food that is leaving a sizzling trail of dying cells behind like a slug trail on its journey down your esophagus, even if your mouth was totally onboard. Watch and tremble, young grasshopper:
My belly still hurts just thinking about it.
If you're a picky eater who almost threw up at the mere thought of biting into an onion like an apple, I may have a rejoinder for you to use the next time your friends get pissy with you for rejecting every takeout place within 5 miles.
If you hate scotch and coffee, love salt and think cookie dough is overrated but hold bran meal in high esteem, you may actually loftily inform them that you are a supertaster, and worthy of awe, not derision. Enjoy your blindingly accurate wine tastings and eternal, baseless discontent in your mouth-region.
And if you think you're the opposite, like I do, don't get too down. Sure, we're about a frillion times more likely to die of some poisonous plant we eat on the dino-trail, but we're also historically better nourished -- because supertasters tend to flee from foods high in antioxidants, their diets tend to include far fewer veggies like spinach and Brussels sprouts than nontasters' do.
So relax, carry around a bottle of mini-sriracha, and content thyself in the knowledge that you're probably less likely than your friends to get scurvy.
Of course, you can also go on the road and try to convince people you're a jalapeno-popping supervillain. Like my grandma always says, we have to use the gifts we're given, even if those gifts include a barren and desolate tongue-desert.
Kate is eating everything in sight at @katchatters.