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Taste the Wonder

When I was young and we would go out for a nice dinner with my grandparents, towards the end of the meal when everyone was sharing their delight about the restaurant and raving about this dish or that, my Nana would quietly sit there. I would then invariably ask her, “Nana what did you think about dinner?” And she would respond, “It was tasty.”

Her response never wavered. It could be the best meal or the worst, the most expensive restaurant, or the least. Food was tasty, never delicious. Meals were not deserving of accolades unless of course she was related to the cook and then superlatives could be showered on my mom or dad or even me when I cooked the one thing I could make as a child, an omelet.

On Monday we entered the Hebrew month of Shevat. In two weeks, we will celebrate Tu B’Shevat (the fifteenth of the month), the day on which we mark the new year of the trees. This month is associated with the faint beginnings of spring. In the land of Israel trees begin to blossom, most particularly the beautiful, pink flowers of almond trees.

And the Jewish mystics associated this month of Shevat with taste.

The only time I ever recall my Nana offering something other than her usual tasty judgment about was when she told me about her first bite of a tomato. Soon after arriving in America from Eastern Europe someone gave her a tomato to eat. The vegetable was unfamiliar to her, and she thought it was an apple. When she bit into it and the tomato exploded, she spit it out. She hated it. The taste did not mirror the expectation.

Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory are the different types of taste, although some experts suggest there are more. (I am sure the family experts will weigh in on this debate and my son, and probably my mother, and perhaps even my nephew will suggest corrections.) What makes chefs celebrated masters are how they finesse these tastes and conjure flavors from ingredients that in other people’s hands taste ordinary and familiar.

On our recent congregational trip to Israel our best adventures were often unplanned and unexpected, and they frequently involved food. We arrived at a hummus restaurant to discover that it had lost electricity moments beforehand and yet we discovered the most delicious hummus many of us have ever tasted. Was it because our expectations were diminished by the darkened surroundings?

On another occasion we decided to stop for lunch at a goat farm where they make many different varieties of goat cheese. We were apprehensive about bringing so many young children to a restaurant that serves only goat cheese. They devoured the goat cheese pizzas. Susie and I enjoyed goat cheese rice pudding after savoring the best cheeses we ever tasted. Again, I wonder. Is taste more a matter of expectations than reality? Did our apprehension awaken our taste buds to unexpected surprises? Is this what makes cooking more of an art?

So much of taste is driven by what we know and what we expect. Familiarity too often guides are cooking habits and restaurant choices.

Defy expectations and it becomes a luxury.

My Nana knew hunger. She recalled times without enough food to calm her hunger pains. For her, could eating ever be transformed and become something more than tasty? Then again perhaps tasty is the highest praise she could offer.

And perhaps taste is a luxury everyone can enjoy and appreciate. Let go of expectations.

The mystics were right. Savor every morsel. Allow the faint beginnings of spring heralded by this month of Shevat to awaken your senses.

Let us taste its wonder.