What does a subway station taste like? If you actually dared to put your tongue to one–and you’re a braver gourmet than I am if you’re willing to do so–the probable flavors are dirt, blood, vomit, or worse. But when James Wannerton, 54, rides the London Underground, he doesn’t have to lick the platform to taste the stations. His mind involuntarily licks them as they whiz by, tasting roasted chestnuts and peppermints, hard-boiled eggs, and Ritz Crackers from the sound of their names alone. Wannerton has synesthesia, and he has mapped the way the name every London Underground station tastes to him in a remarkable new subway map.
Best described as blending of the senses, Wannerton’s synesthesia takes the form of involuntarily converting sounds into taste. When Wannerton hears different words, his brain reacts as if a small, invisible wafer of some edible (or, if he’s less lucky, some not-so-edible) morsel had been placed on his tongue. Ever since he was a boy riding to school on the tube, he has thought of riding the subway as a gastronomic experience. Wannerton can even navigate the London Underground by taste alone, just by remembering which course follows which in the endless subway smorgasbord.
“There are quite a few nice-tasting tube stations,” Wannerton tells me. “For example, Baker Street has the taste and texture of a Jam Roly-Poly pudding. Another personal favorite is Paddington, which tastes to me just like a Flump, or pink marshmallow. And Blackhorse Road tastes just like a black Fruit Pastille that is slightly hard on the outside, soft in the middle, and has a lingering aftertaste of burnt sugar.”
Starting when he was 16, Wannerton began trying to formally catalog the different tastes he experiences hearing the name of London stations read aloud. Since there are over 350 tube stations in the London Underground, the project took him the better part of 38 years to complete. He tasted his final station in February of this year (it tasted like onion rings covered in HP sauce). What took so long?
“At a certain point, it became a minor obsession in that I had to visit each stop to see if the general ambiance of the station itself actually altered the taste and texture I experienced if I was just reading the name of the station on the map,” recalls Wannerton. “Unfortunately for me, the taste did change slightly for a few of my earlier entries, which meant I had to visit every one before I could feel satisfied that the map was an accurate representation.”
Wannerton’s favorite stops include Tottenham Court Road, which he describes as having the taste and texture of an English breakfast, “sausage and a fried egg done just right!” Some subway lines also have stations that complement each other perfectly, while others offer strange, mismatched combos like crispy bacon followed immediately by condensed milk.
There are also a few stops with tastes that could best be described as repugnant. “One that immediately springs to mind is Bond Street, which has the horrible nasal taste and texture of hair spray,” says Wannerton. “Or Bethnal Green, which tastes very strongly of boiled cabbage. Another is Cannon Street, which tastes like 3-in-One lubricating oil. “
It’s important to note here that Wannerton is not necessarily in the habit of chugging down lube and hair spray. Although Wannerton describes the process by which he tastes a word as “totally effortless and requiring no thought whatsoever,” it can sometimes be difficult to articulate the synesthetic taste he is experiencing into a flavor description that other people can understand. In addition, some London Underground stations have a very weak taste, which can be similarly difficult to articulate.
Believe it or not, Wannerton’s map of the London Underground isn’t just an idle curiosity. Researchers can use taste maps such as these to study the links between taste synesthesia and the acquisition of language. And Wannerton hasn’t stopped with London: He has also been compiling similar taste maps of the Toronto subway and the MTA.
As for the future? “I’m convinced the Paris Metro would be a great subway system to taste,” says Wannerton.