Every time a friend announces that they might be coming down with something, I worriedly probe my own body for symptoms. A consummate licker-of-fingers, sampler-of-spoonfuls, cleaner-of-cake-batter, I can never entirely trust that the infection didn’t originate with the food I cheerfully plonked in front of them last week.
This tendency to stick whatever I fancy into my germ-ridden mouth is only exacerbated by the taste as you go mantra of all my cooking idols. All very well until I need to try my stew both before and after adding salt. What am I meant to do, wash two teaspoons? I’ve got essays to write.
Biohazards aside, I can see where they’re coming from. Tasting gives a chance to course-correct, and it’s a way to get more in touch with what’s happening to the food – to see for yourself over time how a tin of tomatoes turns into a sumptuous sauce. On a good day, I’ll take a bite and let it linger in my mouth, probing for anything that I think would make it better. What happens if I add soy sauce? Vinegar? Tabasco? Oh, god, now it’s inedible – how to save it? (Usually, potatoes.)
I’ve now learned the hard way that not everything exists to be shovelled in by the handful. A mouth full of raw pine nuts was an unpleasant way to discover that I’m not keen on the taste, and I can’t count the number of times an incautious spoonful from a hot pan has left the roof of my mouth tender with pain.
After all that effort, it feels criminal to sit down and shovel dinner in while watching Netflix. Some days there’s nothing that can come between me and my Brooklyn Nine Nine fix, but simply taking the first bite with no distractions – TV paused, bum on seat, desk cleared of notes – delineates the space within a hectic day to focus on the highly pleasurable act of getting energy from outside to inside my body.
Flavours make up the backdrop of all our best memories, and learning to speak that language makes every moment more vivid. In a few years’ time, when I want to invite a rush of nostalgia, I’ll order my go-to Hassan’s, heavy on the chilli. The meandering buzz of conversation, the sticky cling of dance floor sweat on my skin, everything glowing streetlamp-yellow: it’s all folded in there with the industrially acidic garlic sauce and too-hot falafel, a constant thread that anchors me to the end of the night. One perfect bite, eyes closed, and I’m there.