When I was a kid my little brother would ask me to make him lumpy bowls of Wheat Hearts cereal. The instructions on the box described how to make a tidy, smooth porridge, but my brother didn’t want that. So I ignored the instructions and did my best to make what amounted to dumplings for his breakfast. They were dense and kind of dry in the middle, and it made the rest of the cereal too watery, but he loved it.
Taste buds sense the 5 basic tastes of bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and savory, plus sensations from spicy foods, minty-cool foods, and astringent foods.
Flavor is the sense of smell at work in the back of your mouth. Humans can detect at least 1 trillion odors.
Why did it matter to my brother if his bowl of cereal was creamy or lumpy? I didn’t change the ingredients or the flavor, and it all looked the same under a sea of milk. Looking back, I realize that his mouth was hungry for a certain texture – he just wanted to sink his teeth into something.
My brother ended up going to culinary school and becoming an expert cook, and now I’m the one making asking him for special dishes. But I’ll never forget his lumpy cereal and the way he showed me how to recognize my appetite and ask for the foods I love.
While the eyes crave beauty, the mouth craves sensation. Different parts of the mouth specialize in touch, taste, and smell, which allows us to experience a fantastical array of tastes, flavors, textures, and temperatures.
What’s in a mouth? Lips, tongue, teeth, cheeks, gums, hard palate, soft palate, taste buds, nerve endings, salivary ducts…
Our mouths have a lot of wisdom to share. With three of the five senses hard at work*, it gathers incredible amounts of information about the nutrients entering the body. If for some reason the mouth doesn’t get a chance to sense what it’s eating, things go awry: pleasure goes right out of the meal, and it’s hard to gain a sense of satisfaction and bring the meal to a close.
Recently I was talking to a friend who had just undergone jaw surgery. For six weeks she couldn’t chew a thing, and she blended all of her meals into the consistency of cream soup. Because all of her food was liquid and smooth, it didn’t linger in her mouth and she didn’t really taste it or feel it on her teeth or tongue. It wasn’t long before she started feeling distressed during mealtimes. She was feeding herself nutritious foods, but she never felt satisfied. The sensory deprivation left her feeling restless, like her mouth was always hungry.
It doesn’t take an extreme situation like surgery to understand mouth hunger. If you’ve ever said, “You know what would taste really good right now? A cold glass of ______/a crunchy handful of ______/a sweet bowl of ______,” then you’re on to mouth hunger. Notice how it’s a desire to experience a particular sensation in the mouth. The craving is centered in the mouth as opposed to the stomach, eyes, or mind.
*Our sense of hearing also seems to play a part in satisfying mouth hunger. After all, what would be the fun of eating a potato chip if you couldn’t hear the thundering crunch? Salivary glands outside of the mouth also get in on the game; a tart lemon drop just wouldn’t be the same without feeling the spasms of the salivary glands in the cheeks.
What is your mouth hungry for? Here are some ways to skillfully connect with your mouth’s appetite:
- Practice paying attention to your mouth when you eat and drink. Stick with the sensations – temperature, texture, taste, flavor, the sound of chewing – as long as possible. When your attention wanders, gently bring it back to whatever is going on in your mouth. Use your curiosity to experience the food as if for the very first time.
- Observe the different ways in which you eat. There may be times when you chew and savor the foods in your mouth. At other times, or with different foods, you might gulp without really tasting. Whatever happens, just observe without judgment.
- Before meals and snacks, pause for a moment and take a deep breath. See if you can identify precisely what your mouth is asking for. You may be able to put your finger on it, or maybe not. The important thing is to practice tuning in. If you need help coming up with some vocabulary for your mouth hunger, click on the pictures above.
Next: Nose hunger