The Taste Tester With No Taste

“Sensory Judge.” That was the official title. And it made the job sound a lot more glamorous than it really was. What could be easier and more delightful as a profession, after all, then to stuff one’s maw with various types of chocolates and similar confections for just three days a week, two hours a day? It was a profession that could only exist in one’s fantasy of Italy. And Giancarlo was a man who could only exist in the true reality of Italy, for he had a very limited threshold when it came to working. Accordingly, his employment history was somewhat “spotty.” A gig at a macelleria here, a fishmonger stint there. Never anything for a very high profile company like Nocciola Inc. But somewhere within himself, he knew that there was a kismet aspect to coming across the ad in an online job board. For one, he never looked at online job boards, knowing full well that the only way to acquire work in this and basically any country was through knowing somebody. Getting just one person to vouch for you so as to make another believe you weren’t a languid misanthrope. That’s what Lidia had decided to do for him…for old time’s sake, as she called it. They had been on again, off again lovers for many years until Lidia finally gave up on him, realizing that he was too satisfied to do nothing. Took the old Italian adage, “dolce far’ niente,” way too seriously.

So if he was going to do nothing and get paid for it, Lidia reckoned, this would be the closest he could come to achieving it. If eating for a living was an achievement–which, to most Americans with false and naive idealizations of Italy, the most oppressive Western European country, it was–then this would be the height of Giancarlo’s so-called career. But being that even the slightest amount of effort was taxing on Giancarlo’s psyche, he was already complaining of the “far away” distance between Torino and Alba, which was only an hour and ten minutes by car–most were willing to commute further if it meant gainful employment in this country. Not Giancarlo…he was already asking if he could crash at Lidia and her new boyfriend’s house right there in town–she was in a prime location by the Duomo di Alba. Lidia posited that her boyfriend, similarly named Carlo, would not take kindly to this notion, and shut down the idea right away. “You can find your own place in town–if you get the job. You might even manage to fuck that up, too.”

Giancarlo took her insult in stride. She was just another gallina in a series of many that would flit in and out of his life, and maybe be useful somewhere else down the line. That’s really what his primary aim was in dealing with women at all, they were always so cumbersome and not even usually worth the orgasm–but if it meant wielding them as potential contacts for professional gain somewhere in the future, well, then, Giancarlo could justify the headaches. That he was attractive in that cliche dark, handsome way (sort of like a chocolate bar) only made him more powerful, more of a threat in his endless quest for doing the bare minimum. Because, if nothing else, he could always, fall back on the effortless charm of being good-looking. There was never a shortage of some poor, susceptible to beauty soul willing to take him in or offer him a kindness.

And yet, like one of the most nefarious characters in all of literature, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, Giancarlo had a telling foible in terms of sensory deprivation: he could not taste anything. He had never been able or willing to confess this shameful secret to anyone–made all the more shameful by the fact that he was born into a country where every facet of life was centered around food: a constant, nonstop 360 experience begging you to provare e giudicare. While he pretended to be capable of so doing, all the while he harbored his silent and lethal ignominy. At family events, gatherings with friends, in restaurants, Giancarlo styled himself as the ultimate connoisseur of all things food and beverage. So convincing were his displays of extremism–whether conveying pleasure or disgust–that he actually became known throughout the Piemonte region for his impeccable discernment in all matters gastronomical.

He was sure to mention this in his inquiry to Nocciola Inc., which Lidia told him to send after she had already chatted him up to her superiors for the role anyway. By the time he arrived, looking effortlessly smoldering as usual, at headquarters for his intervista, management was all but ready to hand him over the keys to the factory despite the fact that he was only going to be given one of the most, essentially, menial tasks the company had to offer. Not to say that the “sensory judge” wasn’t the entire foundation of the product that ultimately ended up going out into the world to be consumed by the less sensory perceptive masses. Though, of course, no one was less sensory perceptive for this job than Giancarlo, who was hired on the spot and put to work immediately on the front lines, with various samples of chocolate being shoved in his mouth for appraisal. After each bite, he was required to eat parsley so as to adequately cleanse the palate. He couldn’t help but snicker to himself when this was initially demanded of him, wanting to burst at the gills with his simultaneous superpower and shortcoming. That was the thing about most superpowers–their flipside always seemed to entail a shortcoming. In the present moment, however, Giancarlo was the lead sensory judge, never failing in his intuitive assessment of what tasted amazing versus merely adequate. He had learned a long time ago how to make these alimentary distinctions based on a combination of texture, color and overall aesthetic. If these three factors were at play in one piece of chocolate, he would concede to talking it up. If only one or two of the factors were present, Giancarlo would decry the product as not up to par with Nocciola Inc. standards.

Of course, this system was condemned to fail at some point over the course of his tenure there. One needed to taste for this highly gustatorial position. Intuition alone was never going to be enough. But as with most choices Giancarlo had made in his life, he wasn’t one for considering eventual outcome yielded. Like how it might jeopardize Lidia’s own position as a package designer as a result of referring him to the organization, or cause the release of an entire new line of chocolates that, in fact, tasted rather like shit. Which, as it was to turn out, would be only part of the problem to befall Nocciola Inc. later that year, after Giancarlo had praised the incomparable deliciousness of what they were to market as fazzoletti, a somewhat ill-advised name when taking into account that one wipes their ass with tissues and that chocolate looks like shit. But because of their handkerchief-like shape when draped in the slots of the box, this was the name that was approved.

Giancarlo, feeling on top of the world for all the accolades he was getting for very much just doing what most humans do on a day-to-day basis (eat hollowly to feel some kind of satisfaction that can never truly be attained), was further experiencing an “untouchable” sentiment because he had managed to work his way through most of the single girls in the factory, each one swooning every time he passed or was offered a taste from their spoon (the innuendo is almost too Italian in implication). This confidence was to be his downfall. His ageusia was about to catch up with him, for all along, at the sidelines, was the CEO of the company, Umberto, a balding and rotund 51-year-old man, who had heard all about this golden boy taste tester. He, being the man responsible for the success of the business, was naturally curious to find out more about this mysterious Giancarlo.

Setting up a lunch with him in his office, Umberto happened upon a strange occurrence he never could have anticipated stumbling upon. The coffee that Umberto’s assistant (who he had, naturally, hired based solely on looks) had made was doused with salt instead of sugar. A classic mistake that anyone slightly lacking in the skills of common sense and detailed appraisal has suffered. But before Umberto tasted the mistake, Giancarlo downed the contents from his cup like a shot and insisted, “Mm, delicious!” Taking his comment in stride, Umberto was stunned to find that his espresso was a salt lick, but decided to hide his disgust at the last second, not wanting to tip Giancarlo off to the fact that he was suddenly very aware that something was amiss with his star taste tester.

When the lunch had concluded, and Umberto had led Giancarlo to believe that he was just as taken in by his “grandeur” as everyone else at Nocciola Inc., he began to strategize what to do with his classified information. Feeling that Giancarlo had betrayed them all, he wanted to get, dare one make the pun, sweet revenge.

He thought and he thought, night and day, while fucking either his mistress or his wife, while in the sauna, while in the car, how to get back at Giancarlo for his egregious lie. His blatant duping of a company that had placed endless faith in him. All so he could laugh behind their backs over their stupidity–their unbridled trust. Well it was time for Giancarlo to pay the piper. Or the candyman, in this case. And that candyman was Umberto.

As the holiday season approached, the most important time in the business, the fazzoletti were being rolled out with anticipation-building ads. What Giancarlo didn’t know was that he was given a sample that would target his lack of umami discrimination. It was laden with the most horrendous filling, which Umberto had told the others was merely a liqueur. In fact, it was a combination of chicken broth, meat fat and cheese curds. Umberto was prepared to sink his ship if it meant cruelly getting rid of the dead weight on board. He knew he would fool Giancarlo into approving overzealously of the concoction, which would make any ordinary person vomit.

And that it did. From the instant Nocciola Inc. distributed the fazzoletti into stores throughout Europe, reports of E. coli outbreaks–even diphtheria–and general food poisoning symptoms were quickly reported throughout the continent (thank God it took a lot more red tape to get food distributed in America, which is ironic considering Americans will eat any hormone-injected slop if you tell them it’s food). The fazzoletti were recalled the same day they entered the marketplace. It was a massive financial loss, and a boon to hospitals and pharmacies. As the details of the unprecedented faux pas unraveled, the truth about Giancarlo came out, shocking both those few that were close to him and the complete strangers that he betrayed for minimum wage and the old school charm of being able to say he was a chocolate taster.

Maybe Giancarlo had no taste in a literal way. But it was Umberto’s more abstract lack of taste that caused many fine, chocolate-loving Europeans to love chocolate just a little less after that Christmas season. And all because an ugly man was jealous of a beautiful one, wanting only to cut him back down to size. To remind him of his place. And Giancarlo was reminded, exiled from the country, in essence, over the shame of the revelation about his ageusia–and still callously applying for a job entirely contingent on hyper-sensitive taste buds. One supposes the sordid tale of Nocciola Inc.’s loss of credibility (for no Italian company can ever truly sink because of a scandal) was an all-around instance of two men with unpalatable morals. Incidentally, it was reported some years later that Giancarlo found a wealthy woman (no doubt once again thanks to his irresistible handsomeness) to help him open his own chocolate factory in Ghent, where candy production will likely never be the same.

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