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Taste testing London subway stations

Posted by Kevin Hartnett  August 27, 2013 01:11 PM

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No one wants to taste the grimy subway, but James Wannerton has no choice. Wannerton, 54, has a neurological condition known as "taste synesthesia," where his senses are crossed so that spoken words evoke involuntary taste sensations in his mouth. When he was four-years-old, he first noticed that the station names on the London Underground had, to his mind, their own unique flavor profiles, many of which were actually delicious. Over the next 49 years he visited every stop on the Tube, taking detailed tasting notes as he went, and earlier this year he released his results in the form of a gustatory map called, "Tastes of London: 1964-2013." There, Underground stops are renamed foods like "Spam Fritters," "Warm Semolina," and "Caramelised Lamb," among many other tastes, many of which Wannerton first encountered as a child.

In an email, Wannerton explained that his synesthetic experience of a name begins as a complex mix of taste, temperature, and texture. Over time he is able to take that experience and locate a specific food that explains it, kind of like the process you'd go through if given a blind taste and asked to identify the food. He explains:

For example, the station name "Hammersmith" carries the a sweet taste and texture of slightly warm cake, moist and quite dense cake, slightly crumbly. The outside of this cake has a subtly different texture than the middle. Playing this over and over in my mind I'll eventually come up with a food stuff that most closely resembles the synaesthetic experience. - in this case, Madeira cake.

Wannerton hopes the map will inform research on the relationship between taste synaesthesia and language acquisition, and also noted that he has two other similar projects underway, of the subway systems in New York City and Toronto. When asked whether he expects the subways in those cities to produce different flavors than the Underground, Wannerton answered, "The fact that it's in a different city does make a difference but only a subtle one."

Underground 1.jpg

You can see the complete "Tastes of London" map here.

Detail from "Tastes of London" courtesy of James Wannerton & Transport for London.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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