The taste of childhood

Today I made playdough for The Daughter.

PlaydoughOne cup of water, one cup of salt, half a cup of flour, and red food coloring left over from Christmas cookies. It’s probably the recipe my mom used when I was growing up. Until I started school—nursery school, probably, but maybe kindergarten—I didn’t know playdough came in cans and bolder colors and wasn’t supposed to be eaten.

I am a bit of a saltoholic, and was even more of one as a child. (I never salted pizza or hot dogs, but there were few other nods to culinary decency.) I wonder if homemade playdough appealed because of that or was a cause. Some made it into The Daughter’s mouth, naturally; but despite the fact that she was sitting in her high chair at the kitchen table, she did not misinterpret the playdough as lunch. There was appropriate squishing, some throwing, and general enjoyment.

I, too, tasted the playdough. I am somewhat pleased to report that, as an adult, I found it too salty. Then again, perhaps I did as a kid, too: I remember eating it, but not in large quantities. But when I tasted it, that incredibly intense, tongue-shriveling saltiness took me back three decades.

A few years ago there was some ad on TV—body spray or deodorant or something—urging one to buy the product because the sense of smell is most closely linked to memory. At the time I made a joke to the effect that I now understood why I have a memory like a sieve: I have a lousy sense of smell. Since I’ve never had much of a sense of smell* I don’t miss it and only consider it as an afterthought. I have to take it on faith that deodorant is working; I don’t wear perfume because of the Spousal Unit’s allergies; he is just as fond as I of the foods traditionally contraindicated for romantic dinners, and as neither of us is a vampire we’ll just go ahead and order them; I have a strict three-day limit for eating refrigerated leftovers. Aside from questioning what food tastes like to me (quite delicious), other people also seem to consider it an afterthought.

Vision is a privileged sense, followed by hearing. Touch…I think touch sort of transcends privilege, in that most people cannot conceive of not having it. Taste and smell are at the bottom of the list (never mind the way taste jogged my memory today, or the strong scent associations other people form). Their loss or alteration is framed as symptom or side-effect.

I wonder how much of that is a sign of human cultural advances. Taste and smell are somehow animalistic and transitory. Very important for omnivores who want to avoid eating spoiled food; less important when the sell-by date is on the can.

I also wonder how literacy factors in. That sell-by date is written on the can. If you are illiterate, then you are outside of the society that filled that can with food. If you can’t read the sell-by date because your vision is impaired…that’s a disability, the precise nuances of which (to say nothing of the potential engineering/medical/social solutions) are up for debate, but there’s a general consensus that it’s a problem. The same goes—to a lesser extent, I think—for deafness. The assumption is that the solution for the loss of vision or hearing will rely upon the other sense. If one cannot see words on the page, they can be read aloud. If one cannot hear spoken words, they can be written or signed. Pictures and sounds can be described. With words. Those words might come from a live person, or they might come courtesy of adaptive technologies.

What’s the quote attributed to Helen Keller? Blindness cuts you off from things, deafness cuts you off from other people. I wonder if it’s as true now, in societies§ that are literate, industrialized, and mobile. Community is not necessarily defined in terms of a geographic neighborhood; social and business interactions are conducted using a variety of tools, some of which (e.g. passingly well-designed Web resources) can be pretty accessible. Is it adaptive technology if everybody uses it?

Which brings me back to the primacy of language, and the relationship between the written word and the sensual experience. I rarely see scents described unless there is a very specific purpose: descriptions of a meal (setting the scene or, depending upon length and level of detail, serving as food porn); the scent of cyanide (communicating plot-related information: it doesn’t matter that the poison smells like bitter almonds, it just matters that the audience knows that’s what cyanide smells like); the literary equivalent of “spooky cam” (establishing a non-human character’s Otherness** and conveying any additional information they gather via their particular sensorium). Taste is treated in a similar way, though it’s less likely to be used as a marker for Otherness. The neurons firing in the brain—the character’s interpretation of the data—are the important thing. Description is more likely to skew to the comparative (cyanide doesn’t smell bitter—it smells like bitter almonds). Whereas visual and auditory elements of the story are somehow harder, less open to interpretation: the things a character sees are the things that are happening.‡‡ Characters react to them, but they are somehow more external than things smelled or tasted. They’re certainly more likely to drive the narrative.

I find myself thinking about these things in relation to a field of study that relies upon language: written records to dissect, written records to re-interpret, written records to communicate within the field. Language is an excellent way to encode memories and transmit meaning, but it isn’t the only way. It’s comparatively easy to perceive some silences in the written record: gaps due to gender, class, race, what-have-you. But it’s important to remember that not everything is, or can be, written—even by people who do write—and that writing is a deliberate act which can itself have different meanings and will carry cultural and linguistic biases that go infinitely deeper than old reliables like gender/class/race. And that, no matter how much is written or taped or drawn or podcasted, there are always going to be huge swaths of ephemeral moments that will be lost even to the memory of those who experienced them, much less anyone reconstructing those lives from fragmentary sources.

* I don’t think I’m anosmic. I can smell really strong scents, but overall things tend to be binary, and some things (like Indian food) just smell like hungry: my stomach starts growling even though I’m not aware of any pings to the olfactory receptors. Were it a different sense, I would probably have some sort of diagnosis. I not only know that I am myopic, I know my prescription and thus have a quantitative measure of how much worse my eyesight is than the baseline ideal. Were it a different sense, I would feel the lack more keenly: the impact on my daily life would be more dramatic than the pre-emptive disposal of leftovers and the occasional wistful desire to experience the smell of baby.

Using “advances” advisedly, for the fuzzy set of factors allowing us to socialize and specialize and eke out a higher standard of living than your average wild critter. Or, as an anthro prof put it: “Culture lets us live in Philadelphia.”

Hence the twinned horror and admiration with which Helen Keller is regarded.

§ And yes, this is a very hand-wavy and problematic way to phrase it. Suffice to say that while I am aware of the digital divide and other issues of access, it’s not what I want to talk about in a post that’s already longer than anticipated.

** Often, though not invariably, in an animalistic or sub-human sense. Terry Pratchett’s werewolf Sergeant Angua is a good example of a subverted trope: she is different from humans, but some of that is physiological and some is cultural and some is psychological. Angua spooky cam renders scents as colors, falling back to the primacy of vision.††

†† As am I, particularly in my use of the term “spooky cam.” And I suppose I should not neglect the impact of visual media upon how narratives are perceived—I’ve certainly felt that some scenes were written with the movie or video game adaptation in mind (Children of the Night and Mistborn, I’m looking at you)—but see note § above re: length of post.

‡‡ This is also largely true for the sense of touch, which is a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes it’s used consistently throughout a story; sometimes it’s ignored or only trotted out for specific types of scenes. Sometimes it’s a means of communicating data; sometimes it’s used for porn (either in the sexual or lavish-degree-of-detail sense).