So an Indian farmer grows a mango that looks like an apple and tastes like a banana, cutting out several steps in the process of making mango-apple-banana smoothies, and some also taste like sweet lime, while others have a cumin flavor, all of which sounds like the sort of thing someone would have just come up with but they’re actually a variety that’s been around for at least two hundred years. And that makes me wonder why in all that time I’ve never had a chance to try them because they sound delicious, although I also like the regular mangoes I can get in the local grocery store. Well, usually—the last time I looked they were all out, so they weren’t mangoes but manwents, but that’s another story.
The surprising variety of flavors got me thinking about taste in general, and reminded me of when I was in college and a friend and I would sometimes get bored hanging out on the campus at night so we’d go to a gas station across the street that was called Don’s Station. I think it was originally called Don’s Gas but you know it took about thirty seconds for college kids who were bored hanging out on the campus at night to start making tasteless jokes about that, but my friend and I were more sophisticated and instead found it funny that Don was there behind the counter twenty-four hours a day, or at least he was always there any time we went in.
The refrigerators in the back held a wide range of exotic soft drinks and by “exotic” I mean sodas that were specifically midwestern. As a kid who grew up in the south I was familiar with Pepsi, or, as we called it, “Coke”, and Coke, or, as we called it, “Coke”, and RC Cola or, as we called it, “Coke”, and Dr. Pepper, or, as we called it, “Dr. Pepper”, but Don’s station had a whole rainbow of unbranded sodas in simple glass bottles that were only thirty-five cents each. We could, for fifteen cents more, get brand-name sodas, even ones that, I think, were specifically midwestern, like Red Kreme Soda or, as we called it, “what the hell is this supposed to be?” but the cheaper ones were good and also fascinating to me.
And also the way my friend talked about them drove me nuts.
“Let’s get two reds,” he’d say, which sounded more like a drug deal than two kids buying soft drinks, “a blue, two purples, and an orange.”
These would also be shared with guys on our dorm floor, especially that one guy who had a secret stash of vodka he’d use to turn his soft drink into a hard drink, and which he once shared with us, leading to a night I’m pretty sure was either great or terrible, but I have no memory of it and the only record of the events was a photo of me in an oversized cowboy hat holding another guy’s head over a toilet which was mysteriously burned in a deliberate fire several years ago.
What drove me nuts is the way my friend rattled off the colors of the sodas instead of, you know, the flavors. Purple was grape, blue was, I guess, blueberry, orange was, well, okay, I had to give him that one, and red was strawberry. Or cherry. Or raspberry. Or possibly even watermelon, although that’s usually more of a pink color.
In the end I had to admit the sodas didn’t taste like any fruit at all but like something entirely different, and anyway taste defies words. Scientists have identified five distinct taste receptors for sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and, finally, umami, which was first identified by a Japanese chemist in 1908 but only accepted by western scientists about the time I first started seeing mangoes in the local grocery store. But those five basic tastes don’t begin to cover the whole palette available to our palates. What does a mango taste like? It’s sweet, with a touch of sour, but there’s also something else; an apple could be described the same way but it’s different.
It wasn’t my friend who made me nuts but the futility of putting tastes into words, and, hey, what do nuts taste like? And why did “nuts” become a synonym for “crazy”? Maybe because walnuts look like brains, which is a whole other area that can drive you up the wall. Nuts.