The Umamist

by Marc Sheehan

First of all, what is Umami? It is the fifth taste beyond sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Like the sixth sense, there are people who don’t believe it exists. Like intuition, it is more subtle, less quantifiable. My step-father, an electrician, said that once, during the Depression, his boss was hiring a new crew and treated the candidates to lunch at Walgreens. He hired the men who did not salt their food before tasting it. Those men would make sure the current was turned off before touching a wire. That’s Umami. Umami is not your first kiss, but your second. It’s a character’s motivation, the back story. Umami is less tastebud than Rosebud. As a young man my grandfather, who spent his life working in a lumberyard, was recruited by the Chicago Cubs, but his family wouldn’t let him go to the big city. He could have been bitter, but he was Umami. It is the computer program running in the background, creating a trail of cookies. It’s the bass player in a rock band, or perhaps the band’s last original member, or both. Umami is the revelation you have at 2 a.m., but can’t remember. Umami is singing karaoke when you’re sober. It is badly translated assembly instructions and the left-over parts. Umami is taking this class to meet someone, or because you need an excuse to get out of the house. I see you’re nodding. Very good, we are ready to cook now.

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