As a result of the heavy response to my post last month I contacted Goodreads. I sent them both the Indies Unlimited post and a formal request to add a coupon option to their giveaway contests. I received a response, friendly and professional, that GR is always looking to improve their programs. They thanked me for my e-mail, but did not commit to adding a coupon at this point. Since we have their attention, I encourage all IU readers who agree with my post to send an e-mail to Goodreads management in support of this marketing request. Let’s keep the ball rolling and achieve our objective—increased visibility and sales following a Goodreads Giveaway. And now, as I often do, I am about to make a sharp right turn.
This month’s post is about a subject that has been rolling around in my head for weeks. Do you know what umami is? I’ll bet it’s not what you think. Umami has nothing to do with beta readers or proper formatting. It is not a protective spell you chant to shield yourself from the latest publishing scam. It is not the name of a cutting-edge fashion designer from Japan. And whether or not you realize it, your story has a flavor profile that may or may not include umami.
In addition to my monthly post here at IU I am a food blogger. This is, in fact, how my writing journey began. My obsession with delicious cuisine and elegant dining is a vice I am willing to share. Many of you have visited my blog and have remarked on the recipes I love to experiment with. So, when a new culinary word, technique, or concept catches my attention I have to research it. Umami is one such concept.
It is common knowledge that our tongues can distinguish four tastes: bitter, salty, sour, and sweet. The fifth taste is umami. Surprisingly, it is not a new discovery. Chefs have been using a form of umami, technically glutamate, since ancient Rome. It wasn’t until 1902 that a Japanese scientist discovered there was another property to umami. To simplify the science, when ingredients like shitake mushrooms are combined with other food that contains similar scientific properties, the flavor profile is greater than the sum of its parts. The science creates a synergy in the food ingredients.
A rough translation of umami is “pleasant savory taste.” We know when we are eating a meal and it has perfect balance. The five tastes are harmonious. Even if one taste seems to dominate our palate for a second or two, if the meal is properly prepared and seasoned we will, at some point, be able to distinguish the five tastes. The same, I believe is true of well-written story. We know when the story has the balance of a fine meal, be it Mama’s Brown Sauce or Corn Bread with Carmelized Onions and Apples, both recipes on my blog.
Bitter: Bitter taste adds a bite that is not always unwelcome. To mix many of the cocktails I love, bitters are required. A bitter person is angry, hurt, or resentful because of a bad experiences or a sense of unjust treatment. Their words sting, and the expression on their face is one of disgust. In the cult classic Laura, Laura Hunt interrupts New York columnist Waldo Lydecker’s lunch to pitch the Wallace Pen. Waldo’s acrid response:
“I don’t use a pen. I write with a goose quill dipped in venom… I’ll neither consider, endorse, or use the Wallace pen. I hate pens. If your employers wish me to publish that statement in my column, you may tell them that I shall be delighted to oblige.” Waldo Lydecker, Laura
Salty: Salt heightens the flavor profile of food. Even if a meal is seasoned, a small amount of salt will provide the needed accent and bring the flavors forward. Salty dialogue serves the same purpose. Consider these famous lines delivered by nineteen-year-old Lauren Bacall in To Have and Have Not to a smitten Humphrey Bogart.
“You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve. You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing. Oh, maybe just whistle. You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and… blow.”
Sour: Sour is your taste buds’ ability to identify acid. Think of biting into a lemon. A little acid added to a soup, for instance, is that final fillip that will move it past a bland finish to something extraordinary.
“I suppose any note, no matter how sour, sounds like a song if you hold onto it long enough.” Dewitt Bode
Sweet: Sweet is easy except when it overdone and then it hurts my teeth. Zuzu from It’s a Wonderful Life sums it up well.
“Look, Daddy. Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”
Umami: Umami, for me, is a dish that I do not want to eat quickly. The flavors melt together, and although you may be able to distinguish them, when combined they are sublime. I struggled to find you a literary example that I consider to be umami. Here is a good one.
“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; It is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.” Sydney Carton, A Tale of Two Cities. Or perhaps this one:
“Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it. Every time a book changes hands, every time someone runs his eyes down its pages, its spirit grows and strengths.” The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.
I would like to play a game. In your comment below pick one of the tastes I have described and share an example. You get extra points for Umami. Have fun.