When people talk about flavour, they usually focus on taste and smell. But there’s a third major flavour sense, as well, one that’s often overlooked: the physical sensations of touch, temperature and pain. The burn of chilli peppers is the most familiar example here, but there are others. Wine mavens speak of a wine’s “mouthfeel”, a concept that includes the puckery astringency of tannins – something tea drinkers also notice – and the fullness of texture that gives body to a wine. Gum chewers and peppermint fans recognise the feeling of minty coolness they get from their confections. And everyone knows the fizzy bite of carbonated drinks.
None of these sensations is a matter of smell or taste. In fact, our third primary flavour sense flies so far under our radar that even flavour wonks haven’t agreed on a single name for it. Sensory scientists are apt to refer to it as “chemesthesis”, “somatosensation”, or “trigeminal sense”, each of which covers a slightly different subset of the sense, and none of which mean much at all to the rest of the world. The common theme, though, is that all of these sensations are really manifestations of our sense of touch, and they’re surprisingly vital to our experience of flavour. Taste, smell, touch – the flavour trinity.
In February of 1880, the whaling ship Hope sailed north from Peterhead, Scotland, and headed for the Arctic. Her crew included a highly regarded captain, an illiterate but gifted first mate, and the usual roster of harpooners, sailors, and able-bodied seamen—but not the intended ship’s surgeon. That gentleman having been unexpectedly called away on family matters, a last-minute substitute was found, in the form of a middling third-year medical student making his maiden voyage: a young man by the name of Arthur Conan Doyle.
Conan Doyle was twenty when he left Peterhead and twenty-one when he returned. On Saturday, May 22nd, in the meticulous diary he kept during that journey, he wrote, “A heavy swell all day. I came of age today. Rather a funny sort of place to do it in, only 600 miles or so from the North Pole.” Funny indeed, for a man who would come to be associated with distinctly un-Arctic environments: the gas-lit glow of Victorian London, the famous chambers at 221B Baker Street, and—further afield, but not much—the gabled manors and foggy moors where Sherlock Holmes tracked bloody footprints and dogs failed to bark in the night.
Back then, mainstream, non-academic pop culture critics often saw a work's political message as unimportant at best, a liability at worst.
Something has changed in criticism since then. Critics working today, whether veterans or newcomers, are more likely to praise a work for having a political or social message, and they'll also criticize a work for not confronting its own implications. Today, a nostalgic, lightweight musical like La La Land can inspire discussions of whether the story is what MTV.com's Ira Madison III called "a white-savior film in tap shoes," because the hero is a white jazz fan whose tastes are portrayed as more authentic than a black character's.
It was a devastating story, quietly told by a writer with a casually worn mastery of structure. Strout is the opposite of a literary show-off: her writing has no ego and the sentences she creates are to serve the characters, rather than the author.