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  • Writer's pictureNathan

The taste of time

I spent an hour making pancakes yesterday morning.

That felt like a lot of time.


The ingredients were already assembled for me in convenient form. I did not grow the wheat, harvest the eggs, grind the sugar, turn the soybeans into milk, or churn the butter. Which means all that past labor by dozens or hundreds of people enabled about 5 minutes of actual pancake eating for me. I also had leftovers, which I reheated and ate for lunch. That was another 5 minutes, for a total 10 minutes of eating, enabled by however many thousands of hours were required to grow, process, package and ship the pancakes' individual components.

That left me wondering: How long does it really take to eat? Not just the chewing and swallowing, and all that, but rather: How many hours underlie every bite of food I take? The answer is not always the same. If I pick an apple off a wild apple tree, this may take on the order of seconds or minutes, depending on how picky my picking. This is clearly less time than that required for my pancake example, by orders of magnitude...until you include the time required for the tree to grow, and produce my apple.

How do we factor these time disparities into our emotional processing of the food that we so instinctively know how to physiologically process? Does something taste better if it has more effort behind it? More history? More time?

History and origins

Do we feel better, or worse, if we know exactly where each ingredient has come from, and how long it took to reach our plate, and by what route it did so?

How does our perception of the food change its taste? What we conceive of as the balance of its blended nature and nurture, its ontological situation within our minds as we consume it with our mouths and bodies - does our knowledge of a food's origins alter how it feels to our mind's tastebuds?

I guess what I'm asking is: How does the narrative heft of a dish's history sit upon our tongues?

Do we possess any sensory vulnerability to the lineage of human knowledge that created, over time, our ability to cultivate and manipulate all modern food types to our variegated culinary whims? Can we taste any of that?

What is the flavor of the first thousand years of human beings learning to farm rice?

I am not asking how that rice tasted, or how its mix of molecular components interacts with cell receptors in our tongues and nose.

I am asking how we experience the knowledge we possess about that rice, the knowledge that such an ungraspable length of time as "the first thousand years" is in any way a real, meaningful part of the last curry bowl we bought for lunch because we were running late and happened to already be downtown.

Energy and water

What about energy? What do our mental tastebuds think of the calories in each leaf, each strip of flesh, each lump of butter? How much sun was absorbed by plants and plankton, and how much of these did our dinner eat before it, itself, became our prey, whether plant or animal or microbe?

What about water? How much water did this cow drink, its whole life, before we butchered it? How much grain did it eat, grain that in turn grew because it also consumed water? Where did this water come from, and where else might it have gone? How have we diverted the literal rivers of history, and what have we pulled from the oceans, to give us this plate of carpaccio and scallops? How did those environments change in response to our harvests? What ecosystems have turned and doubled back on themselves and shriveled up? How many have abounded and then collapsed?

Space and life

What do we think of the fact that all of our food, every bit of it, was alive, or the biological output of something alive? We eat very little that was ever not living: Some salt from lakeshores and sea coasts; some minerals from mud pits. How do we feel, knowing that we consume life so readily, even as we seek more kinds of life within the depths of ocean and dirt and planetary crust, up in the atmosphere and past it, out among other planets and moons, swinging past other stars? Would we eat all of that, too, if we could? How would that taste to us? How would it make us feel? In what new ways would these alien diets cause us to connect with our cosmic jungles and the broader cosmic deserts in which they cluster, islands of twinkling visible matter within great lakes of dark matter, all incubating potential chemical configurations of will and sentience?

What do we think of the genes in each organism we have devoured? What information in those genes was, almost perfectly, just like the information inside our own bodies? How much of a human body could be successfully run using only the genes inside of the pancake ingredients I consumed yesterday morning? How does that thought experiment make us feel?

How does all of that taste, in the sensitive and creative parts of our minds that we often find ourselves forced to repress as we age within cultures descended from dualistic undervaluations of the real, inseparable interplay between our sensory perceptions, our internal reactions, and the confusing terrain of spacetime that undergirds our every action within reality?

Does anything taste different if we conceptualize our every action as enabled and driven by the endless consumption of living wells of time, each one crafted into a beautiful container of energy for us to eat?

What is the taste of all that?


Clearly, this is a more meanderingly contemplative piece than you may have come to expect from my standard output of vaguely practical yet slightly poetic guides to thinking in interesting ways about overly specific issues. Read it over a plate of pancakes to start your day kinda weird.

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