Review: ‘Taste’ by Jehanne Dubrow


On the face of it, Taste has all the appearance of a visceral confrontation with the five flavors — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami —with an astute eye cast on both the physical and the aesthetic. As something that is taken for granted daily, taste often conceals both a personal narrative and a cultural backstory.

As such, it offers Dubrow the chance to pull a sense of awareness from the pretension that surrounds its form. After all, as she points out, we are constantly being touched without noticing the contact.

And with melodic, fleshy writing shaping itself into a body sprawled across the page, we can interact with her words in an almost physical sense. However, what manages to dazzle at first is quickly stripped of its glossy veneer. 

Dubrow’s observations carry an air of exaltation that derives from traditional poetry — examples of which she brings up fondly — but which prove exhausting and superficial in book form. And the substance found below the shell only deepens this impression.

That’s because the book, compiled of Dubrow’s memories, remembered artworks and arbitrary associations that tie in with each taste, comes across as a product of languid mind-mapping. 

The process of walking the tunnels of her consciousness yields a disjointed, awkwardly intimate experience. Dubrow’s impressions of things, plucked from certain periods of her life, feel both shallow and biased enough to distort reality; particularly her observations regarding the Polish identity.

While referring to a famous verse by Adam Mickiewicz, an exiled Polish dramatist known for composing in the nineteenth century, Dubrow states that mushroom hunting is as indispensable to the Polish identity as reciting the national anthem. The main conundrum here is her very obvious use of the present tense, which feels both misleading and overripe to the modern Polish reader. 

In fact, Dubrow’s repeated use of Poland as a canvas for the unfurling of various “bitter” and “sour” aspects of the human experience — such as the horrors at Auschwitz, the bleak years of communism, the wild landscape of a long-forgotten past — all seem to drive forth an agenda that is as outdated as it is blatant to anyone with roots in the country. 

Maybe Poland’s beaten-up image, the one that’s certain to speak to human empathy and remembrance, is both exotic and inexhaustible enough to appeal to an overseas audience. Still, this ploy is becoming more and more obvious in today’s day and age. 

Similarly, Dubrow is too far removed from other cultural spheres to capture a trace of their authenticity. What this means is that her mention of the Vietnamese broth known as “pho” is exactly that, a remark to skirt over. And any broader observation, such as the one expounding on the relationship between trauma and the beautiful, or the ability of taste to tickle memory, is too familiar to seem revolutionary.

Taste often feels like a scrapbook assembled from summaries of encyclopedic entries and, as such, relies on topics that are too obvious to fully engage us. This is, by far, the work’s greatest defect. Dubrow’s focus on honey and sugar under the heading “sweet” can be forgiven, however, as she divulges how sugar fed slavery, a fact that is as horrifying as it may be largely unknown. Likewise, her autopsy of the blend of passion and annihilation in relation to sweat and HIV is phenomenal.

But the tendency to recall the most obvious foods in connection with each taste, often annotated with mundane observations, turns bland by the halfway mark. What’s more, any deeper analysis of a recognized work is cited. The author’s creativity, then, assumes the role of a slightly rusty matchmaker.

Salt and tears are entwined, bitterness can be found at the bottom of every cup of coffee, sourness feeds on contorting breakups, umami clings to milky, pungent acids. Of course, Dubrow manages to hide a few pearls here and there. 

But the random choice of subject matter, from operas and paintings to personal ruminations, ensures that for every bit of nuance we glean, there’s a topic sure to leave us untouched. Then again, this falls very much in line with the subjectivity of taste, for which the author argues.

Publication date: August 9, 2022 (Columbia University Press)

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