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Can You Recall A Taste?

Had an interesting conversation with my SO the other day and I've been pondering something ever since. He basically said that he doesn't have a memory for "taste". He can remember what something looked like, what it felt like in his mouth, and whether or not he enjoyed it, but he cannot recall the actual taste.

I am at the other end of the spectrum: I can recall flavors from childhood - from individual dishes - and I can also recall when and where and who cooked the food and the event and so forth. I actually salivate and can almost "feel" the food in my mouth.

I had never really thought, though, about whether or not this was normal.

After giving it some thought, I can definitely see why he and I approach food so differently. He tends to ask me to look at a menu item and tell him how it might taste - I can usually, based on the description, get a strong sensation of the flavors (though not the textures) and how they might meld. He also asks me to choose for him when we go to an "assemble your food to order" type place - he has no idea what tastes might go with others. I can usually make a very fast order in such a place because I can just "taste" what the flavors will become together and this has to be because I can recall prior tastes and combinations and then can imagine how they'd come together in a different concoction.

I'm also wondering if this ability to taste from memory is why I like food so much? It is because food is tangible to me that I tend to obsess over the next meal? Because I can - almost literally - "taste" it?

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  1. Yes, absolutely. I can remember the taste of foods I haven't eaten in decades, like lamb chops. However, if we were introduced last night at a cocktail party, I have probably already forgotten your name or your face or both. The mind works in mysterious ways.

    5 Replies
      1. re: Dee S

        Maybe instead of shaking hands, I should just lick people. That might help my recall. It would certainly help theirs.

        1. re: small h

          Nice idea! I like how you think but I believe that might get you some trouble. No too many people like that.....well, not at first meeting! ;)

          1. re: small h

            ROTFLOL! Thanks for starting my Friday off with a genuine laugh!

            1. re: small h

              ha, yes!! I can (sort of) remember faces, but I can't remember names for the life of me!! Tastes... well I could tell you how the bluefish at my youngest sisters' first birthday party tasted, but my doctor that I'd seen a year? nope, not a chance i'd remember his name. You're licking idea has merit... but might lead to some awkward second meetings.... haha

        2. I can definitely remember tastes and imagine them. Sometimes makes it hard to read about food, because I can imagine how it tastes and want to eat it NOW lol.

          I'm pretty good at being able to 'blend' flavours in my head when planning dishes. If we are planning a new meal, Mr S just leaves it with me for a while to bounce it around in the brain. And aha! we should make a sauce flavoured like this, or serve this combo, etc.

          Makes for interesting questions...is this genetic or learned? how about 'eat to live' people?

          3 Replies
          1. re: Sooeygun

            Of course! That's why I try not to think about what I'm going to eat if we haven't decided where to go for dinner yet -- if I start thinking about Indian food, then Italian food will just taste wrong, and vice versa. Sooeygun, this post made me think the same thing. My guess is that every CH has a taste memory, and maybe people who don't care about food don't.

            1. re: Pia

              "if I start thinking about Indian food, then Italian food will just taste wrong, and vice versa "

              So true. Sometimes Mr S and I have planned for X meal/ style of food and he'll say why don't we have Y. No, my brain's been preparing for X all day!

              1. re: Sooeygun

                Same! Once my brain has decided on something to eat, anything else ends up being a disappointment.

          2. Definitely, and I think that ability is essential for a good cook . You have to be able to "taste" in your mind what effect adding a particular ingredient (and how much of it) will have on a dish.

            1. There is also the taste or aroma of something bringing me to a specific time and place. There was a bite of cinnamon toast that took me to a tea room outside of London a decade before, the smell of diesel fueled bus that always takes me to Paris and a certain burger that puts me right back at a field trip in the 4th grade.

              1. This is an interesting question. I'm not sure if I was born with the taste recall or if I learned it, though. But I defintely remember tastes and know what that taste will be like the next time. Not sure if it just experience in cooking or if it is a physical knowledge. Great question!

                1. This is a great topic. Years ago I went to school for flavor evaluation and analysis as part of my profession. What we learned was that we may consciously lose our memory of a particular taste or aroma, but subconsciously we never do. All that is needed is perhaps an odor, say, of a musty cellar from your grand parents cellar, combined with the smell of a pot roast on the stove. Or the smell of my Italian grandmothers restaurant kitchen with the rosemary chicken and potaoes in the oven while floors were being mopped with spic & span. Sounds crazy but..... This will bring it rushing back to you. Our olfactory senses play a large role in our taste memories. I have tried for years to recapture those classic flavors, and aromas (not so much the must or cleaning fluids.). Some successful, some not so much. Maybe it's like "there's nothin' like the fist time" or "you can never go back". But we try. That's why we're Chowhounders. Always looking forward, but never losing the past. Never stop hounding!

                  3 Replies
                  1. re: teflontom

                    I remember that spic and span smell. For years, I associated it with chocolate covered raisins because my mom once rewarded us with those after my brother and I had washed the garage floor with spic and span.

                    1. re: teflontom

                      That's what actors call "sense memory" which they use to get into character.

                      1. re: teflontom

                        This is a side note from the original topic, but smelling something and having an immediate recognition is due, from what I've read, to brain anatomy. Your nose, unlike your other senses, is linked to the limbic part of your brain. So inputs are processed somewhat differently. Many people have had the experience of smelling something and instantly remembering when and where they've smelled it even it was decades before. Not every scent brings back this association, and perhaps most don't, but when it happens it is the most astonishing feeling! Akin to the mention above of a musty cellar, when I was a small child there was a crawl space underneath the house we lived in and occasionally I'd go into it. We moved from that house when I was perhaps 4, and yet to this day when I smell a certain damp earth smell I instantly recognize it.

                      2. Love the topic, but I would guess that we all have basic taste recall. I mean if we go out and have a dish we've had before, if we didn't, we wouldn't have something to compare it to, to say "that's great" or "that's terrible."

                        As for specific tastes. I think the funniest one for my is a simple thing. It's Wise Salt & Vinegar potato chips. Whenever I get them, I salivate and can picture the tart flavor. Once the bag is open and I can smell them, forget it. I think this ability to recall is also why I can't stand Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks Coffee. I expect a strong hearty flavor and then I get sour or burnt. Very disconcerting.

                        Another let down is when I have pizza. I grew up in Brooklyn in the 70's and 80s and I remember the feel of the pizza in my mouth. The nice firm crust, maybe a little char on the bottom near the crust. The perfect blend of sauce and cheese. Now every place serves thin slices, the crust flops around like a fish. My memories have ruined pizza for me.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: jhopp217

                          I had a colleague who used to call the floppy kind of pizza "fold and drip" pizza.

                        2. I can definitely recall flavors, better than just about anything else, except perhaps scents. I will obsess over a taste that I'm trying to recreate until I get it just right.

                          1. Definitely. It's been over 20 years since I visited England, but I still can close my eyes and remember this amazing soup I had at a B&B there where they grew their own herbs and made their own goat cheese, that I have never found anywhere else and never been able to successfully replicate on my own. But I still remember that velvety soup, the slight saltiness, the creaminess.

                            1. Without question, especially food I've tried on travels as the trips are something I desire to re-live over and over again. Most often I associate food taste with an event or experience, frequently even more so than in a restaurant. The most aromatic lingering taste/smell for me is freshly-dug white truffles. There is absolutely nothing like them elsewhere.

                              Childhood memories of food are also clear and sharp in my mind. When I think of one of my grandmas, I think of boiling chicken feet and potato dumplings. Whilst I did not enjoy the boiled feet, the smell of it for me is something unforgettable - not just in a bad way. My Mom had us churn butter that came from the milk of our cows to show us what real butter was and I can recall that flavour in mere seconds.

                              Very interesting topic.

                              Just like the OP, I also obsess about food and what to cook next as I can already taste it.

                              1. My BF can't really remember tastes specifically. I'll ask him, "Have you ever had ____?" and he'll say yes, then I'll ask if he liked it. He says he doesn't know, which boggles my mind. How can you not remember if you liked or disliked something you've eaten? I could understand something that didn't really light your fire being a vague memory, but he literally has no idea if he liked it or not. He is equally amazed that I can remember things I haven't eaten in 10 years.