Wednesday, July 10, 2013

`Rhyme Made Visible'

A new word to plug another hole of meaning in the world: umami. It’s borrowed from the Japanese for “tasting good” or “deliciousness,” and I came upon it in Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms (another silly and unnecessary subtitle), published by Rodale in 2011. The Oxford English Dictionary dates the word’s first appearance in English to 1963, and defines it as a “category of taste corresponding to the ‘savoury’ flavour of free glutamates in various foods, esp. protein-rich fermented and aged ones such as mature cheeses and soy sauce.” The author of Mycophilia, Eugenia Bone, says umami is “generally understood as meaty savoriness, the flavor of the non-essential amino acid glutamate, as found in steak and cheese and MSG.” I most recently encountered the flavor (though it’s more than a flavor – rather, a satisfying, multisensory sensation that feels as though it answers some deep need) at my oldest son’s wedding reception last weekend. Among the many pan-Indian dishes served was palak paneer, a mix of spinach and farmer’s cheese. 

Like Bone, I savor the flavor and texture of mushrooms, and was happy when the shiitake and portobello crazes hit the U.S. in the eighties. There’s a romance to fungi apart from the culinary, toxic and hallucinogenic qualities possessed by many species. They seem exotic and even more biologically remote from Homo sapiens than, say, elms and tulips, perhaps because photosynthesis plays no role in their existence. They need the sun less than we do. In a small masterpiece, “Picking Mushrooms by Moonlight” (The Door in the Wall, 1992), Charles Tomlinson suggests the mystery of mycophilia and art: 

“Strange how these tiny moons across the meadows,
Wax with the moon itself out of the shadows.
Harvest is over, yet this scattered crop,
Solidifying moonlight, drop my drop,
Answers to the urging of that O,
And so do we, exclaiming as we go,
With rounded lips translating shape to sound,
At finding so much treasure on the ground
Marked out by light. We stoop and gather there
These lunar fruits of the advancing year:
So late in time, yet timely at this date,
They show what forces linger and outwait
Each change of season, rhyme made visible
And felt on the fingertips at every pull.” 

I love the progression from mushroom, to moon, to mouth (“O” = “Oh!”), “translating shape to sound.” In a wittily rhymed poem, Tomlinson renders “rhyme made visible.” Writing about Sign in Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf (1989), Oliver Sacks says “the concrete leads to the general, but it is through the general that one recaptures the concrete, intensified, transfigured.” Umami.

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