I remember, when I was still pastoring, asking my congregation a very simple question; when was the last time you had a conversation with a stone? Most of them, and I guess most of you reading this have never done that. My guess is that most of you are also wondering why I would even ask you such a question and what does this have to do with anything spiritual or food. It might not seem as much of a stretch if I asked you how many of you have ever had a conversation with a plant. It might seem even less of a stretch, if I asked how many of you talk to your pets. Those of us who have, or have had, animal members of our family know that there is an exchanging of information with our birds, cats, dogs, or whatever else is living in our home. It is not that they can speak to us, but somehow as we spend time with them and get to know them, we intuitively begin to understand each other through an exchange of energy. Over time, one’s ability to communicate with their pets enhances. We tend to pick up information all the time about what they are feeling and thinking.
Perhaps it is time for us to develop that same sensory level relationship with all things edible. It might seem like something simple, but food does speak to us. Freshness, for example, has a sound of its own. I was thinking about that last night as I heard the coffee brewing, the water boiling, the sausage sizzling, and the crispness of the vegetables going in the salad. I started thinking about how my mother had taught me to thump the melons to find the one that sounded just right. Then I thought about how I would get excited when the popcorn would begin popping, build into a crescendo of popping and then slow down the beat when the process was over. Many of the things in our kitchen speak to us. They say I am ready. I am fresh. I need to be retired. I need less heat. This pan is not hot enough. Yet, in order to hear the messages these foods are trying to communicate to us, we must have ears that can hear.
A friend of mine who is blind reminded me of the importance of touch. She shared with me she could tell a lot about a person by how they felt. She said, “Sometimes people feel different depending on their mood.” It made me think about how this is so true of food as well. How something is prepared changes the way it feels in our mouths. You can take something like parsnips for example. If I take slices of parsnip and fry them, then they will feel crispy when I eat them. However, if I want a silkier mouth feel, then I might boil and puree them. It is the same food; it just has a different touch and feel to it. The way something feels in our mouth can affect how we experience it. For example, I love creamy peanut butter, but I have never enjoyed the way chunky peanut butter tastes in my mouth. So often, when watching Chopped, my informal culinary teacher, I will hear the judges say this dish needed a little texture. What I hear, when they say this, is that it needed some variation in the way the dish felt in their mouths. Textures are an important part of how food communicates with us.
It has often been said we eat with our eyes first. If it does not look good, then we are reluctant to try it. I remember Jeffrey Zacharian looking at a sobe noodle rice pudding one of the contestants on Chopped had made and talking about how he had been reluctant to eat it because it looked like congealed chicken fat on top. While it tasted awesome once he dug in, the appearance was one that made him want to pass it by. Our sight is important for other reasons. I remember trying a new recipe for chocolate chip cookies. The recipe called for the cookies to bake for 10-12 minutes at 350 degrees. However, at 10 minutes, they were already darker then I would have liked. I did not like the way they looked. In my oven, they had the look I liked at about 8 minutes. We have to trust our sight to tell us when something is done, even when the “recipe” says it has not cooked long enough.
Perhaps the best timer for me is not the one on my oven, but the one that wafts through my house, especially when I am baking bread. The smell says to me, it is time to take out the bread. Sure enough when I open the oven door, it has the right feel when I thump it. One of the things I have been teaching myself to do is to think about how things smell and what aromas might go well together. When I take a loaf of my sweet potato bread out of the oven, I can smell the nutmeg, allspice, and cloves. The smell of freshly grated nutmeg smells so different then the ground nutmeg I can buy in the store. The aromas change when I heat the seeds. I cannot think about the importance of smell without remembering my wife saying, “If it doesn’t smell good, don’t eat it.” smell cannot only invite you further in to the experience, but it can be like a warning signal saying, “danger, eating this ingredient may make you sick.”
The last way foods speak to us is through taste. The way something tastes can change our relationship with a dish, like Jeffrey Zacharian and the sobe noodle dish. Sometimes a dish takes so good; it just keeps inviting you to take just one more bite, as if you are having a conversation you do not want to end. Other times, the way something tastes can make you not want to eat more then the one bite and wish you had not even had that. The way things taste can also change as they form relationships with other ingredients. For example, my wife dislikes avocados. If I dare put a piece of avocado in a recognizable form in a dish then she swiftly banishes it to the margins of her plate or summarily plops it on mine. At the same time, when I combine avocados with some herbs and sour cream, she will pour it on salad or use it to dip her southwestern egg rolls in.
Learning to communicate with our foods on a multi-sensory level is not just about creating amazing food; it is about gaining a level of awareness of all forms of life. We learn about ourselves, others, and our ingredients when we choose to develop ears that can hear, eyes that can see, tongues that can feel, noses that can smell, and palettes that can taste.