Journalist Kathy Mathys ponders the essence of taste in first book


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.” 


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 (★★★★)

More new books this month

Verloren brood (French Toast)
Nele Reymen • Vrijdag

Flair columnist Nele Reymen’s third novel deals with people and luck – both good and bad. Reno is leading an uneventful life, occasionally distracted by a prostitute named Leyla, a woman who is also troubled, making any attempt at a real relationship end abysmally. Then Reno meets Mayanne, who appears to be his soul mate. He falls madly in love and drags everything and everyone with him on an adventure that will rock their world. Verloren brood is a novel about searching for and letting go of ideas, feelings and, often, people. ★★☆☆

Veelal (The Usual)
Mark Eyskens • Lannoo

In addition to his autobiography, economist and former prime minister Mark Eyskens has written several philosophical works. His new book Veelal: Een theorie van alles (The Usual: A Theory of Everything) is a story of ideas that combines science, philosophy and, for the first time, fiction. An old professor named Mortel and his genius great-grandson Hyperion are the two main characters who ponder life’s big questions, while cutting-edge science and technology results in the creation of the “transhuman”, a new kind of human capable of determining their own evolution. Veelal is a fascinating, surprising and profound mix of fact and fiction. ★★★☆

Luc Vandaele • Manteau

Security guard Luc Vandaele likes to kill time writing stories. These have now turned into a novel in which real-life Flemish novelist Herman Brusselmans gets a ghost writer. Lacking inspiration and living the good life, Brusselmans hires Tim Vernieuwen, a literary nobody, to write his biannual novels. One day, however, Vernieuwen decides he’s had enough. Brusselmans has to do his darnedest to convince him otherwise, now that he’s been nominated for the Nobel Prize. An obvious Brusselmans admirer, Vandaele has tried his best to innovate and, although the premise is original, the novel is slightly contrived and lacks genuine wit. ★★☆☆

Drang (Urge)
Yannick Ottoy • Manteau

Former political advisor Yannick Ottoy’s first book tells the story of Philippe, a young and ambitious police officer who doesn’t hesitate when his commissioner asks him to work an extra shift on a night that would go down in history as one of the biggest tragedies in football, the Heizel Stadium Disaster. During the final of the European Cup in 1985, 39 people lost their lives when riots broke out and infrastructure collapsed. Drang explores the aftermath of this real-life tragedy. When the truth of the fated night gets twisted, the lives of all those involved are turned upside down. A promising and captivating debut. ★★★☆