Taste: A Book of Small Bites, by Jehanne Dubrow

Joy Harjo’s poem “Perhaps the World Ends Here” asserts from its first line that food is at the center of life: “The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.” Jehanne Dubrow’s collection of lyric essays, Taste: A Book of Small Bites, is similarly concerned with the centrality of food. With her essays on the sweet, the salty, the sour, bitter, and umami, Dubrow aligns her collection with how science understands food, while also interweaving her own personal experiences with her deft analysis of poetry, philosophy, and religious texts to show how gustatory experience can be a striking metaphor for living life.

In her introduction, Dubrow states that “This book is for the diner who prefers a repast filled with dozens of varied, cacophonous flavors.” Rather than discussing food with a linear narrative, Dubrow presents food as messy as life. She shows that life, like food, is an often-overwhelming smorgasbord of experiences. 

In the section “Sweet,” Dubrow alludes to Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” to discuss the idea of forbidden fruit. She states that what Adam and Eve taste in the fruit “changes their taste forever.” Adam and Eve’s sin committed in the eating of “forbidden fruit” symbolizes the nature of the human psyche; that is, of humans doing the thing or things that are not allowed. Dubrow goes on to give the reader other examples of food being used in literature to make profound statements about life. For example, she discusses Proust’s novel Swanns Way to show how literature can use descriptions of food to reveal the intricacies of relationships, saying, “Swanns Way was first published in 1913, and the story of the madeleine has since become an essential part of how we talk about the relationship between taste, smell, and memory.” Swann’s Way tells two related stories: that of a young Marcel experiencing life and his older self recalling memories of experience in the French town of Combray. When the older Marcel dips a madeleine cookie into tea he relives “gusts of memory.” By remembering his childhood friend Charles Swann and pondering his friend’s affair with Odette, Marcel gains insight into life and love. 

In another section, “Sour,” Dubrow discusses an “element of punishment to the pleasure” when she retells her experience with strawberry sour belts, with “those vivid pink candies cut into long, flexible strips, their texture gummy, their surface covered in a glittering layer of tart sugar.” Dubrow continues to discuss various literary works in this section; for example, when she presents Eavan Boland’s poem “Pomegranate” as a retelling of the myth of Persephone. The author also interweaves her own personal experiences, and provides rich detail about her life:

I was miserable that summer and didn’t care that I was eating something that scalded my tongue. In fact, I developed a theory about myself: that I could only appreciate the sweet if it caused me a little hurt. Without their sour coating, the strawberry belts would be cloying, too pink and ecstatic a taste, I was sure.

Dubrow is skillful here in her comparison of the heightened feeling of love after it is lost to the increased sweetness of candy when it is combined with a sour taste.

The last section of the collection suggests that in literature and in colloquial language, when we talk about taste we are talking about much more than just food: “It happens so easily, so effortlessly. Every day we use the word “taste” to mean something beyond our preferences for certain foods.” In fact, we want our taste (of food, fashion, art, etc.) to align with those we love, and yet perception of the world is often every individual, as Dubrow notes from Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things: “What is food to one, is to others bitter poison.” Towards the end of her work the author asserts that taste is so ingrained in our perception of the world, that it is difficult to avoid talking about it: “Taste is so much a part of our metaphor-making that it is difficult to imagine the figurative without it … Happiness can be described as sweet. Desire is characterized as a thirst or hunger.” She ends her collection by retelling a relatable memory of when she was a sick five-year-old child and her mother cared for her. Recalling this memory at the end of her collection allows Dubrow to show how the memories of food, love, and even fear are necessarily linked. By remembering the taste of strawberry jam, she can remember the love she and her mother had for each other, and how her mother soothed her fears: “The strawberry jam and Acetaminophen … tasted of being five years old, of childhood, the sweetness and the fear of being so small.” 

Natalie Marino is a poet and physician. Her work appears in Atlas and Alice, Gigantic Sequins, Hobart, Isele Magazine, Pleiades, Rust + Moth, The Shore, and elsewhere. Her chapbook, Memories of Stars, is forthcoming from Finishing Line Press (June 2023). She lives in California.