This post is dedicated to my elder son, who lives far away on the other side of the continent. Your West Coast family misses you and your family, Dave! The image leading this post was inspired by him. He crafted an alphabet flash card deck called Aberfoible. He came up with whimsical, miraculous words for each letter and a limerick to accompany it. I drew the characters. Slavenblaven is above and that tongue captures the essense of this post and the word, umami!


A word new to me has “spiffied up” my vocabulary at the end of the first year of the new decade – or is it really the end of the last year of the old decade? (I’m always a bit befuddled by markers like anniversaries and birthdays when I remember that we don’t turn six years old until we’ve finished living that sixth year.) The word is UMAMI and I just like saying it. Umami rolls easily on my tongue and conjurs deliciousness for me, which is actually what it means to the Japanese who originated it.

I discovered umami in What the Dog Saw  and Other Adventures by Malcolm Gladwell, author of two other books beloved by me: Tipping Point and Blink. ( All these books have been loaned to me by my younger son who often embellishes my life with new thought.)

The word pops up in the chapter called The Ketchup Conundrum or Mustard now comes in dozens of varieties. Why has Ketchup stayed the same?

Gladwell defines it well I suspect, especially after reading the none juicy definition of umami in my New Oxford American Dictionary. ( I hadn’t realized until I read a post by Kate Shrewsday that I had the American version – I bet the English one is quite different. )

NOAD definition: Umami is a category of taste in food {besides sweet, sour, salt, and bitter}, corresponding to the flavor of glutamates, esp. monosodium glutamate.

I took MSG ( monosodium glutamate ) out of my spice rack years ago when I discovered it might not be good for our health and that some people had allergic reactions to it, so this definition would not have captured my interest.

Page 44 of Gladwell does however. Check it out: “There are five known fundamental tastes in the human palate: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. Umami is the proteiny, full-bodied taste of chicken soup, or cured meat, or fish stock, or aged cheese, or mother’s milk, or soy sauce, or mushrooms, or seaweed, or cooked tomato. ( I begin salivating as I write those food names.) ‘Umami adds body,’ Gary Beauchamp, who heads the Monell Chemical Senses Center, in Philadelphia, says. “‘If you add it to a soup, it makes the soup seem like it’s thicker – it gives it sensory heft. It turns a soup from salt water into a food.’”. . .Salt and sugar and umami are primal signals about the food we are eating – about how dense it is in calories, for example, or, in the case of umami, about the presence of proteins and amino acids.”

“Sensory heft” grabs me and I find myself thinking about the happy heft of Christmas Eve at my daughter’s house in West Seattle. NOT ONLY is the family in smiling moods and loquacious modes  – imagine the goodness when both the teen and the almost teen are in love with their new schools, the toddlers have had naps, the elementary school girls have opened some presents already and there are more to come, the grown ups have most of the prep work done, the mother-in-laws enjoy each other’s company, the dogs are both friendly and don’t bark, the cats disappear quickly, and during the gift exchange everyone gets something he/she REALLY wants – BUT ALSO the food is dense with both calories and protein.

My daughter and I were given a secret recipe for roasting rib roast from a ‘seasoned’ butcher back in Montana – fool proof…we’ve never varied from the method since. This time her pepper mill broke while grinding above the meat and she decided to let all those little black orbs stay right where they fell. Ahhhhh yes, that along with the spontaneous forethought of my daughter-in-law to make homemade horseradish cream…oh my goodness…the look of umami on my son’s face as he purposely layered a triangle of beef with grease-browned-congealed-peppercorns with a slap of horseradish cream still has me smiling. The mashed potatoes laden with butter and rosemary – oh my, the fresh spinach salad riddled with pine nuts and tiny bits of sweet onion – oh my – and I haven’t even mentioned dessert. I must tell you, though, that my granddaughter who is just ten days into her seventh year made better butter cream frosting than I. I know that to be true because I had to make another batch when she wasn’t available to help. I curdled it!

For me, that delicious word umami relates to more than taste buds and the food we put in our mouths. Christmas Eve felt special because of the nourishment of conviviality, thoughtfulness, and delight as well as sharing wonderful food.

Don’t you think umami is a concept that could be applied to every situation? Does a conversation have enough bite to make it interesting? Does a chore have enough spice to make it worth doing? Does work have enough savory-ness to make it play? Is play dense enough to make it engaging work?  Does an encounter with another have enough nourishment to make it food for the soul? Does a mistake lead us in another direction that may actually be more satisfying?

Umami describes how I want to live my life, the full bodied taste of living life engaged with what’s happening.

I’d love to hear how you apply umami, deliciousness, to your lives.

Maybe I’ll make a bumper sticker!

About Deborah

Deborah Jane Milton, Ph.D. is an artist, mentor, writer, mother of four, grandmother of eight. who inspires humanity's Great Turning: our evolution to living as a "whole" human, with headbrain and bodymind collaborating, with science and spirit dancing, with rationality, intuition and the ephemeral co-creating.
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6 Responses to Umami

  1. earthdaughter48 says:

    This is a beautiful essay, Deborah. I drooled as I read it! I appreciate your wisdom and zest for life. Hope to encounter you again in the near future at some gathering of mutual friends. Blessings for the New Year.


    • Deborah says:

      Is this you, Patricia??? Feels like it. Glad you found the post and thanks for commenting, too. The responses always mean a lot.
      I see your facebook entries every so often and wonder when we’ll meet again. It’ll happen. Is Sol still around? Joyfilled end of the year to you,


  2. What a fabulous concept. The spice of life: thanks for this, Deborah. I love the picture…it feels Umami-ish to me. My dictionary is old and full-bodied too: not only is it English, it was published two years after I was born. Really should get an up to date one 🙂 But now I feel the need to possess the American version too, just for whimsy!


    • Deborah says:

      I want an English version, too, to compare definitions. Just as Harry Potter has English and American versions, I bet dictionaries do, too, otherwise why is American specified in the title of mine? So many new words mostly internet related.

      Umami has definitely taken hold in my brain. I’m looking for deliciousness everywhere.


  3. pjsixft says:

    Hello Deborah,
    THIS is “Patricia” or do you know others with my name… ? LOL I had misplaced this blog and rediscovered it today ….. (NOT ONLY am I “misplacing” things all about.. but your blog???? full of awe (awful) LOL
    Coming here and reading your words and spirit… makes me miss you… in person..
    Your deep knowing always lifts my spirits…
    more… later but for now..
    SENDING YOU LOVE… LOVING your words and spirit here…


    • Deborah says:

      Believe it or not, Patricia, I do know others by that name!!!
      I wondered why you haven’t commented in a long time, now I know. Thank you for sharing and we must talk soon. My days are a blur of people and PAINTING!!! Will blog about it later today I hope! love you, too.


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