In first grade, you learned the five senses. You learned that you taste with your tongue.
Sadly, for vast tracts of America, this is true. Food is a tongue transaction. Food scientists, armed with Ph.D.s and expert tongues, create ever-more sophisticated flavor profiles (iterative combinations of sugar and salt, mostly) to make food as simple and easy for us as possible. We've been grateful. We had other things to do, and needed thumbs free for our iPhones.
But true tasting requires your entire self: all five senses and a spirit willing and eager to connect with others. Beyond biological imperatives, eating is a 100% emotional event. That's why we lose and gain our appetites in correspondence to strong emotions, and why the speed of our eating and tablemates' reactions to the foods we share are so vital to our pleasure.
As Adam Gopnik emphasized in his terrific interview with Tom Ashbrook in October 2011, every major life event circumscribes food. Gopnik challenged the listeners to think of a single critical convening that didn't put food at the fore. I couldn't.
Take New Years Eve for example. Sure, there was a time when it was all about cramming crackers down my gullet to line the stomach for the beverage-fest ahead. But these days, it's all about what I'm eating and with whom.
This year, my husband and I ran away to Istanbul. We had no plans and so found ourselves, at 4pm on December 31st, standing opposite the owner of Sultanahmet Fish House, Ercan Ceylan, attempting to beg ourselves a reservation.
Ercan shook his head with a sigh and threw open his ledger of names and times. "The Italians," he said, turning a sympathetic eye to my husband (who hails from Slow Food country). "They all want to eat at 9, you know?"
But he didn't close the book on us. We lingered, peering over the ledger together as if an answer might be found on the page, just three food entrepreneurs determined to find a way.
Finally he said, somewhat warily: "You could come at 11...?"
"Yes!" I practically shouted. "We would love that."
He clearly wasn't eager to seat anyone at 11. But in those few minutes, we had somehow become friends, and he would not deny a friend.
We wandered back at 9, just to see if perhaps one or two Italians had failed to show. The place was stuffed to the gills.
Despite the hullabaloo, the owner calmly led us outside onto the curb and pointed the way down the winding street to a nearby pub. "My friends own it. You will like it, I guarantee. Have a drink, relax, take your time. Not before 11, okay?"
This is a food entrepreneur, I thought to myself. He's doing killer New Years Eve sales. He doesn't have to work this hard to please us. He takes care because he cares.
When our exquisite dinner commenced, we feasted on the best meze of our time in Turkey (I was so pleased to find small plates on Chef Marcus Samuelesson's expected trends for 2013) and a platter of fried hamsi (Black Sea anchovies).
His last table, we rang in the New Year with him.
Ambling home in the wee Istanbul hours, I noted that dinner had really begun at 4. Every moment we had interacted with Ercan had been garnished with joy, comfort and connection, and had lined our stomachs to absorb the celebratory meal.
Hunger is biological.
The pleasure of food is about people - and how they aim to taste life with you.