The sense of taste is closely related to the sense of smell. Both are chemical reactions that send messages to the brain, where the different flavors and odors are identified. When there’s a problem with the ability to smell, the sense of taste is also affected. Age, smoking, certain medications, head injuries, illness, and chemical exposure are among the things that can affect a person’s sense of taste.
Taste is difficult to use in many stories as quick-paced plots don’t allow much time for enjoying a meal. When the character gets a chance to eat, take advantage of it to include sensory details that will make the reader relate to what is going on. They can associate their own experiences with what the character is eating.
For example, if a truck driver sits at the counter eating chili, the reader knows he likes spicy food. Adding extra hot sauce may suggest he’s older, or a smoker, and has lost some of his taste buds. If he orders apple pie à la mode he’s a guy who has fond memories of his childhood (that’s my interpretation, not necessarily accurate). Even if you don’t mention the actual taste, reading about familiar foods will invoke a reaction in the reader’s mind.
To give a character an extra flaw, you could show the loss of taste affecting the person’s ability to detect spoiled food, or causing them to add so much extra salt for flavor that people think they’re weird—and it gives them uncontrolled high blood pressure. Lots of opportunities for taste to spice up a story. (Lame attempt at humor, I know…)
One of my favorite books, A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, is rich with details that bring his characters and setting to life. It has wonderful descriptions of the food for sale in the market. The following excerpt goes against the writing advice we read nowadays, but I love it:
“There were pears and apples, clustered high in blooming pyramids; there were bunches of grapes, made, in the shopkeepers’ benevolence to dangle from conspicuous hooks, that people’s mouths might water gratis as they passed; there were piles of filberts, mossy and brown, recalling, in their fragrance, ancient walks among the woods, and pleasant shufflings ankle deep through withered leaves; there were Norfolk Biffins, squab and swarthy, setting off the yellow of the oranges and lemons, and, in the great compactness of their juicy persons, urgently entreating and beseeching to be carried home in paper bags and eaten after dinner. The very gold and silver fish, set forth among these choice fruits in a bowl, though members of a dull and stagnant-blooded race, appeared to know that there was something going on; and, to a fish, went gasping round and round their little world in slow and passionless excitement.”
What foods do you crave when you are worried or depressed? Which foods do you associate with happy memories? If you were stuck on a deserted island with only one type of food available, which food would you hope it would be? (My answer for all of those: butter pecan ice cream)