Topsoil - the priceless foundation sustaining humanity - has been of interest and concern since the Mayan and Egyptian empires and earlier. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington Carver, Helen Caldicott, and Mark Kurlansky are a few of the more well known who have voiced alarm at what any wise farmer could tell us: topsoil, good clean dirt, is - by far too many people - not accorded the respect it deserves.
Many generations of humanity pass by while topsoil acquires its magical, microbial, womblike ability to nurture the lives of plants and house its myriad tiny residents - fungi, bacteria, enzymes, nematodes, copepods, diatoms. Topsoil is grander than the Grand Canyon, older than giant sequoias, and more valuable than any gold or diamond mine. It's amazing features are hidden in plain sight, looking so ordinary to most people as to be relatively invisible, "just" dirt.
Wether we have a tiny piece of turf by the front steps in the city or larger pieces of land under our care, it is amazing how much can be done to help. Even more amazing is that it helps itself -witness the weeds in the tiny cracks of sidewalks, coming about due to topsoil constituting itself from windblown materials in the crack that had been tiny and relatively sterile at first. To save coffee grounds, egg shells, vegetable scraps, and other non-animal based tidbits for a compost bin or pile (at the community garden in the city if you have no room yourself) is one of many small acts helpful to topsoil.
A practice as simple as keeping a kitchen compost container stimulates awareness of connection to earth's topsoil, growing things deepens this, and in the act of eating is an opportunity to appreciate the incredible behind-the-scene processes that have gone into, say, a tomato, a golden beet, or a blueberry. It may be so that some people have been genetically bequeathed impaired smell and taste, some end up with superior abilities, and most are about average. I believe that we all tend to do less with this facility than we could, and to fall prey to the urgings of evolutionarily imbalanced perceptions which prompt us to go for the salt, the fat, and the sweet. Profit motives of corporations play up this affinity for certain flavors. And cultural influences shift people towards or away from bitter, umami, sweet, sour, and salty.
But there is much more to taste than these five common designations, that much is clear. More than any of us will likely ever know. Certain individuals have what seems to be super powers - able to pinpoint a wine's vintage, determine the exact location to harvest truffles, hunt, guide the production of cheese, beer, tofu, or agricultural products, and detect or react to minute and varied molecules. Most of us do not have to be super powered to appreciate the difference between a home grown blueberry or tomato and one we buy - or even the difference between eating right off the vine or after storage for some period. Sadly, most of us don't get such opportunities. One of the more fascinating lines of inquiry that intersects such fields as paleobotany, human evolution, climate change, diet and allergy, anthropology, and our relationship with plants is the effort to look into the origins of agriculture.
It appears that in terms of human evolution, agriculture, and by extension, our messing around with/closer relationship with topsoil, it a relatively recent development. Some scientists argue persuasively that the "comfort food" of today may represent the opportunity to feed a craving for exorphins - opioid peptides found in both certain foods and produced by the body and of importance in the brain to influence stress, pain, pleasure, motivation, and attachment. The popularity of corn syrup, pizza, french fries, and so on attests to the power of this bio-feedback system - and to the fact that it is not necessarily adaptive.
Apparently, the neolithic era during which evidence of agriculture's beginnings are found correlates with the glacial and interglacial cycle that favors annual crops - such as grains. And this correlates to the growth of larger communities centered in one place and dedicated to grain production. Technology, animal domestication (e.g. dairy farming), more radical hierarchical social structure, and most of the things we recognize as civilization (e.g. libraries, arts, law, ritual and culture) then had a foothold - in the topsoil.
Which brings me back to my topic: memory of taste. I began by thinking about my personal memories. Although aging probably influences not only how things taste but how much we might remember of tastes long past, I am convinced that food, water, and beverages did not taste the same 40 years ago or so, when I was a child, as they now do. Some things seem relatively unchanged, others completely different or nearly unrecognizable. I can name cantaloupe, carrots, milk, chocolate, and other things but the differences are also influenced by how the food has been grown - some carrots do taste more like a carrot than others. My informal surveys of other people tells me I am not alone in this general impression. Recently, one person described the phenomena as things tasting washed out nowadays. This is a case of nostalgia with bases in agriculture, neurology and pharmacology. It's a case of something conspicuous by its absence, some missing bits of nutrient, electrical charge, or biochemical complex that gave rise to a certain changes in potency of taste that people can detect.
It is obvious that the first generation of crops grown on vintage or untouched land creates a very different result than the tenth or thousandth. The amount of such land left today can be assumed quite tiny. Instead, soil tends to be "fertilized" (a misnomer if ever there was one, since it implies an instantaneous restoration of what took ages to develop and/or preserve) and modified. And the crops grown are ever more genetically engineered, and altered by the washed out soil itself along with whatever pesticides, herbicides, radioactive fallout, and unstable compounds have been introduced. Such an agricultural system that results in washed out food and in destruction of small farms in favor of more profitable production of more and more tasteless things like corn syrup does not seem worthy of support. And the support it does have seems to be largely based in larger segments of the population having no memories of what food was like when grown in healthy soil without the various nasty treatments it receives today - at least on non-organic farms. Organic farms and sustainable practices respect topsoil and, therefore, taste.
But there may be taste memory built in, genetically transmitted, that helps people who are introduced to good, honest, organic and/or sustainably produced food to recognize that what they are tasting is genuinely good. A promising thing to remember.