It is a natural condition among food-eating people that their preferences regarding food will vary. The spectrum of taste is infinite. In my own experience I’ve known people who detest mushrooms and mayonnaise, turnips and tuna, avocado and eggs. (About eggs, sometimes they’ll eat whites but not yolks or yolks but not whites. It’s a crazy situation out there.)
The commonest response from these folks, when you ask them the reason for their distaste, involves something vague like, “It’s just…icky,” or, “I just…don’t like it.” In acute cases, words are not generated at all and the subject merely tenses and shudders like little Danny Torrance did in the film version of The Shining when he went into one of his trance-things.
(I neither know nor care much about the origins of people’s distaste for particular foods, especially when it involves an aversion to mayonnaise because that is utterly silly and ignorant and due possibly to an ignorance-induced notion that Miracle Whip is mayonnaise, which it most definitely isn’t and which you’d know if you ever read a damn label or maybe a book now and then.)
In my own childhood I loathed many foods:
- Raw tomatoes
- Celery in any form
- Black-eyed peas
- Lima beans
- Butter beans
- Garbanzo beans
- Kidney beans
- Navy beans
- White beans
- Black beans
- Pinto beans (I could usually manage to force down some refried beans but I think that was a lard-related accommodation.)
- Swiss steak (In truth it was only Mama’s Swiss steak that I detested. Hers was tasteless, and its appearance and texture brought to mind a disassembled Bass Weejun, flattened out and smeared with brown-tinted library paste. The Swiss steak I was given in restaurants and cafeterias was generally fine.)
- Brussels sprouts (Dispensation was granted if the little orbs were blanketed in cheese sauce, or warm orange goo described on the box as cheese sauce, as was often the case with Birds Eye and Green Giant frozen vegetables. The Boil ‘n Bag was and still occasionally is my friend.)
Tastes can change. Perhaps the physiology of taste buds themselves can change (no need to email me links to articles from The Lancet or National Geographic because I don’t care) and perhaps the nature of our psychological relationship with food can change. We might, for example, come to like something once we’re free to encounter it on our own terms instead of having it force-fed to us while young. (My dad has never, however, shaken off the yoke of his mother’s baked mashed rutabagas, which I doubt he has consumed since 1946.) We also might appreciate certain foods when we realize they can be prepared better – er, in different ways – than our mothers could prepare them. This was the case with me and many of the items on the list above.
Enlightening it was to learn the joys of sautéing, braising, breading. It was only a few short sidesteps, it turned out, from Mama’s Swiss steak to a delectable Carbonnade à la flamande. (Don’t try to tell me there was no beer in the house when I was little. There was beer and a lot of other things, too, but Mama sure as hell didn’t use it for cooking.)
Another kind of aversion has to do less with the taste of food, or its appearance or texture, than it does with the idea of what it is. The internal organs of mammals fit into this category, though only for Americans does the hate occur in a near-universal sense. In most of the world, livers and kidneys and stomachs and brains are as common in the diet as mammalian musculature, but something mysterious happens along the 49th parallel and in the middle of the Rio Grande that renders that which the foodservice industry amusingly calls “variety meats” so disgusting to most of us.
In the same vein, most of us Americans eschew insects as nourishment. It doesn’t matter to hear that they eat beetles in Borneo or spiders in Surinam; we just don’t do that.
As my travels and culinary intrepidity over the years have exposed me to new things to love and loathe, my no-go list has evolved. Peas and spinach are AOK now. I’m good with tomatoes unless they’re the supermarket kind that taste of styrofoam. I eat calf’s liver in Europe, and once a year or so I get a craving for chopped chicken livers. (Here is an excellent recipe, one I love partly because it tastes good but also because of the delicious irony of chopped liver prepared with bacon. If you are special to me and very lucky you have eaten this in my home or received it as a gift.) Brussels sprouts are just the best when butter or cream appear in their warm proximity.
I do better with beans now than in years past. White beans rise to unctuous heights in cassoulet, and pinto or black beans make good sense adorning a plate of enchiladas. (To be fair, I can now drink margaritas, which I couldn’t do as a kid, and that might well be part of the reason I tolerate those particular legumes these days. I can tolerate a lot when there’s a margarita pitcher on my table.)
New Year’s Day is still rough, however, because it reminds me of my early years in Texas, where Mama claimed that eating black-eyed peas on New Year’s Day would bring good luck. I didn’t believe it then and I don’t now. It was an ordeal; I’d pinch my nostrils together with one little hand while clutching my Dr. Pepper, my salvation-in-a-glass, in my other. (No ice, for crying out loud!) Mama would shove the little mound of bitter, brown-black sandy mud into me while I grimaced and whined.
I learned decades later, once I took up residence with Calvin, that the addition of pork in several forms can render black-eyed peas somewhat palatable. Calvin has a better touch with black-eyed peas than anybody I know. Then again, if you were to cook a couple of Qiana shirts and a deflated volleyball in lard with a smoked ham hock and chopped bacon, you would likely have something palatable, something you could eat without pinching your nose shut.
Here are things that, as of 2015, I do not eat:
- Eyeballs. That is, I won’t eat the eyeball of anything bigger than a smelt, and then only if the creature is fried quite crispily.
- Raw celery. In Nutrition class in culinary school they told us that raw celery is something called calorically negative, meaning that you burn more calories by chewing it than you get from ingesting it. If ever there were a thing that made no sense, that was it, plus it tastes bad.
- Lima beans. Still. No way, no how, no matter how much butter or bacon might be included in the deal. It would be more desirable in my view to receive four anesthesialess root canals simultaneously while the dentists (there would have to be four in the room, now, wouldn’t there?) played tapes of Sarah Palin speeches on the tv screen mounted on the ceiling than to eat a single bite of lima beans.
- Raisins. If you press me about raisins I will acknowledge than my attitude is devoid of logic. I like dried cherries, cranberries and currants. I’m ok with dried apples and apricots. Dried figs are troublesome but Fig Newtons work. But raisins are absolutely the food I detest more than any other. A raisin is a wrinkly, warty bug full of many smaller bugs. It’s an evil thing. If fruits had numbers, the number of the raisin would be 666. What I said above about the root canals and lima beans also goes for raisins, except that while the dentists were giving me the root canals and making me watch videos of Sarah Palin speeches there could also be a chorus of six-year-old girls singing “It’s A Small World” in the hallway and an ice cream truck parked outside the window playing “Turkey in the Straw” on loop and I still would take that over a raisin. (I said earlier, by the way, that my relationship with raisins doesn’t make sense, and proof thereof lies in the fact that I think raisin bran is swell. Give me a bowl of raisin bran any old morning.)
That’s how it is with food. Sometimes you take it or leave it but mostly you love it or hate it. And what I hate, I really hate.