Having written about using the sense of smell in writing (here) I wonder that writing about the sense of taste is not even more of a challenge. Like smell, taste preferences are highly personal and, if anything, even less tangible, less universal. Yet we cannot omit it. It’s utterly primal. Our sense of taste, we are told, developed so that we understand the difference between nutrients that will do us good, and those that might do us harm (for instance mistrusting something extremely bitter). More than that though, it is a key pleasure.
And what is the main thing we’re likely to taste aside from food (and barring certain niche predilections)? Another person.
In sensual writing, this is crucial. I don’t mean wearing edible panties, covering one’s naked self with chocolate sauce and whipped cream, using fruit-flavoured condoms, nor even a 9 1/2 Weeks style blindfolded fridge raid. Not that there’s anything wrong with those things. But rather that taste is the most intimate of senses. To taste a lover, their skin, mouth, sexual organs, is the ultimate. Besides, our mouths display the signs of sexual attraction and pleasure, with deepening lip colour a sign of arousal as blood flows into them.
It is a difficult sense to isolate. What we taste with our mouths, our tongues, is bound up with texture – hard, smooth, soft, gooey. Taste is also closely linked to smell. No problem. If that is how we experience taste in real life, so we can reflect that in writing. But because of the challenge to describe the taste of another person, it is an easy sense to neglect. How best to describe another’s sweat, saliva, juices, emissions, when one person’s strawberry lollipop is another person’s liquorice stick (or whatever they dislike).
Five categories of taste are identified: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and, more recently, the deeply savoury ‘umami’. Not sure about umami, but any of the others could be useful in description. Yet still we face the matter of individual preference. Skin is often salty because of the sodium or salts secreted in the sweat, which remain after the sweat evaporates. Semen can be salty too, because of its nutrients, though its high-protein fructose also gives it a sweetness. Men describe women’s intimate fluids as anything from sweet or milky to ‘musky’ to bitter, and so on. Bacteria can leave a slightly fishy taste, possibly cheesy. Okay, so none of this is ‘bad’ per se (well, maybe ‘cheesy’ isn’t for everyone). But is it a turn on for the reader?
Personally, I don’t see why not. Depicting someone as reveling in these sensations can identify them as a ‘sexual gourmand’. Alternatively of course, we may introduce some good old-fashioned simile – he tastes like honey, peaches and cream; she tastes like rich dark chocolate, her lips like wine… Or something less tangible – dawn sunshine, summer rain… This is where we get bound up in the effect of one lover on another, they please, intrigue, intoxicate. And we’re back to that inextricable texture – they’re soft, smooth, creamy, ripe…
Maybe sometimes it is enough to show that one character craves the taste of another, a sign of their desire, for the distinctive flavour one lover leaves on the other’s skin. “I would eat my way into perdition to taste you,” Jeanette Winterson wrote for one character to another in her novel Written on the Body (1993). It doesn’t get much more sensual than that.