Journalist Kathy Mathys ponders the essence of taste in first book

Summary

Flemish writer Kathy Mathys weaves together scientific research, personal anecdotes and cultural references to explore the true meaning of taste

Food for thought

Kathy Mathys has long written reviews for De Standaard’s book supplement Letteren and about food for the Dutch Bouillion magazine. Now in her first book, she goes in search of the meaning of taste – not just what it is in general, but what it means to each of us.

Every chapter in her book Smaak: Een bitterzoete verkenning (Taste: A Bittersweet Exploration)  deals with a particular taste (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, pure, spicy, umami and even greasy) and starts with a short story to explore what each of the sensations means using scientific data, personal anecdotes and cultural references.

“I’ve been writing about food for some time, first for the newspaper De Tijd and then for Bouillion,” the Flemish writer tells me from her home in Breda, the Netherlands. “What especially interests me is food against a backdrop of culture and food in literature or philosophy – not just reviews of Michelin-star restaurants.”

Mathys (pictured) has always been fascinated by scenes of eating in books and film and used to write about them in notebooks, thinking that one day she would do something with this information. After reading about food for many years, she was inspired to take things to the next level. 

Culinary memories

The result is a book that has simmered on a low heat for several years. “I wanted to write about the sensory aspect of taste,” Mathys continues, “make it into not just a scientific work, but a book that was entwined with my own culinary memories, as well as cultural and literary references.”

In Smaak Mathys explores what taste is. Although certain of its aspects are determined by biology, others are influenced by external factors such as upbringing, experience and emotion, making taste a subjective and intimate affair. 

I took me a while to let go of my journalistic point of view and make the story personal

- Author Kathy Mathys

Memories, says Mathys, have a special impact on the way we think and feel about food. Simple and slightly banal dishes, like macaroni and cheese, can become all important to us simply because they may have been something we relished as children.

Comfort food, which we usually associate with a certain time or feeling, also becomes heart-warming for that reason.  And the dreaded Brussels sprouts: Childhood traumas involving these local nasties may linger on despite the fact that you have long grown up and may have even come to like them.

Mathys’ personal touch lures you in. Friends, family and her own youth form an integral part of Smaak, making it a very personal and relatable book that evokes memories of your own childhood and the quirky eating habits you might have had.

“I’m not a scientist,” Mathys says, “and it was the wide array of approaches that appealed to me when I was writing this book. At the same time, it did take me a while to let go of my journalistic point of view and make the story personal. In the end, it’s this vantage point that ties it all together.” 

Narrative-driven

The daring and refreshing endeavour, combined with all the quotes and references, makes Smaak a fun yet fact-filled treat.

The short stories are on the whole a lot darker than the rest of the book

- Kathy Mathys

Non-fiction is becoming more and more narrative-driven in general, creating a captivating story instead of a straightforward list of facts. In Smaak especially, the lines become blurred as Mathys starts off each chapter with one of her own short stories.

“I’ve been writing short stories for quite some time,” she says, “and I was urged by my publisher to use them. Surprisingly, it came quite easy.”

The stories create a counterbalance to the non-fiction aspect of the book, which is still usually cosy and whimsical. “I also deal with darker aspects of eating, like eating alone or having a last supper, but the short stories are on the whole a lot darker than the rest of the book,” says Mathys, who is currently writing her first work of fiction.

Smaak explores the true meaning of taste, through both its biological and psychological aspects. Mathys illustrates this lavishly with her autobiographical approach, creating a book that is a genuine joy to read. Packed with anecdotes and cultural references, Smaak will tantalise and surprise readers.

Smaak is published in Dutch by De Bezige Bij (★★★★)

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