As I think I’ve made pretty clear, I was a picky child who would eat only hamburgers and junk food for about the first fifteen years of my life. I was thinking about this when I was trying to coax my own children into eating something other than chicken nuggets and hot dogs the other day. While trying to get the tunnel to open so the choo choo could go in, I was remembering how I came to be won over by certain foods. I realized the process of learning to like new foods can be pretty odd. I don’t remember when I discovered that pizza was tasty, or learning to like steak or lettuce, but my first experiences with some foods are so distinctive that I remember them with startling clarity.
I tried broccoli, for example, in an effort to get a child to eat it. I was babysitting a little girl, and her mother had made her dinner to use as a distraction while they were leaving. It worked, but the child was dead set against eating the steamed broccoli her mom had served. In a trick that would never work with my own kids, I said, “How about if I eat a little, and then you eat a little?” Clearly I was desperate, because I loathed broccoli at the time. Talk about making sacrifices for your work. I took the tiniest bit of a stalk and put it in my mouth. I breathed through my mouth the whole time I was chewing, to avoid tasting it. Once it was chewed up and swallowed, I breathed normally and of course I could taste a little of the “aftertaste.” It wasn’t too bad, really. I ate a slightly larger piece to get her to try a little more. This time I let myself taste it. It was pretty good. I liked it! I liked broccoli!
This discovery led to my tasting cream of broccoli soup. I loved this too. Somehow a high school friend and I stumbled on a place in The Shops and National Place in downtown Washington, DC that sold what I considered to be the best cream of broccoli soup there was. We’d make special trips downtown to get it after school let out for the day.
The same friend was also responsible for my introduction to Ethiopian food. This was before “When Harry Met Sally…” came out, so I couldn't back out of it using Billy Crystal’s joke “I didn’t know they had food in Ethiopia…this should be easy: I’ll order two empty plates and we’ll leave.” My friend talked me into going to a place called Zed’s in Adams Morgan. We ordered a sort of sampler platter that came with the bread (which immediately struck me as looking exactly like a Nerf ball that had gotten into an unfortunate situation with a steam roller). The restaurant was dark, and my friend gave me a quick rundown of what everything was that I didn’t really take in. In this case I did the culinary equivalent of holding my nose and walking off the high dive (which, for the record, I’ve done only twice, and both times it was under protest—I don’t like heights). I tore off a piece of bread, scooped something up, and ate it. I don’t remember now much of what I ate, except that there were potatoes involved, and red lentils, and that I was surprised to find that I liked it all.
Those red lentils on that Ethiopian food platter led to another revelation. Lentils were good. From that day on I was no longer averse to pulses, and this led me to a willingness to try various legumes as well. I now love white beans, both in soup, and as the puree that is the low carb fad replacement for mashed potatoes. I tolerate kidney beans (they’re so big and coarse-looking that they intimidate me sometimes, but I can handle them in chili). I really don’t care for chick peas much. Maybe it’s their name. Peas aren’t my favorite vegetable. Also, I find them to be sort of grainy.
There are other foods I’ve learned to like by forcing myself to try them. One year we spent the New Year’s holiday with my in-laws in Northwestern Massachusetts. After two days with my father-in-law, both my husband and I felt the need to get out of the house (indeed, out of the state) and spend some time alone. On New Year’s Day we drove into Vermont to a little town called Manchester. There we went to lunch at a tavern, in a hotel called The Equinox. On the menu that day was cream of mushroom soup. Maybe I was subconsciously reminded of my experience many years earlier with cream of broccoli soup, or maybe I just figured that anything made with butter, flour, and cream couldn’t be bad. In any event, I remember saying to myself “THIS year I’m going to learn to like mushrooms. I’m an adult now—I need to stop shying away from them.” I ordered the soup. My rationale didn’t fail me—anything made with butter, flour, and cream is worth taking a chance on, and I liked the soup. Now I can eat mushrooms cooked, but I still have difficulty with them in their raw state. The resolution was largely a success.
Somehow a restaurant environment is safe for trying new things. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to eat it, and no one is offended. Restaurants were my introduction to a number of things, including more exotic Chinese foods (Mongolian Lamb that I had at a Chinese restaurant in Sydney, Australia, which so far is the best Chinese dish I’ve ever had in my whole life; I’m guessing the quality of the lamb had something to do with it, although the restaurant itself was a total dive), and olive tapenade that I tried at a restaurant in Georgetown with the same friend who turned me on to Ethiopian food (clearly this friend has been responsible for a lot of my culinary awakenings—thank you, Reese).
A restaurant was also where I learned to like calamari, about five years before the deep fried rubber bands started showing up in every restaurant in North America that had a deep fryer in the kitchen. On my way to Australia, I stopped for a day or two to visit my uncle in San Francisco. The first night he took me to a tapas bar he liked. This was also before the “little plates” craze hit this country; my uncle had spent a number of years in Spain and had stumbled on this tapas bar near his house. He ordered for us, and among other things, they brought out a little basket of deep fried cone things. I started eating, and the cone things weren’t bad. I ate a few more. He asked me if I knew what they were. I shook my head. He told me they were calamari; did I know what calamari was? Again, a response in the negative from me. “They’re squid,” he said. I remember pausing for a moment, teetering between OK with it, and grossed out beyond belief. After a minute, I went with OK. Hey, they were pretty tasty, and since at the time I wasn’t 100% sure what a squid looked like, I let it go. It was just that word. Squid. It sounded so ooky—like something slimy and slithery. Since then I’ve come to believe that if you want Americans to eat something, you deep fry it and give it a slightly exotic sounding name and you’re in business.
An old boss and I used to get to work very early, and spend an hour or more just talking before everyone else got into the office. At one point we were talking about food we liked, and food we didn’t. We had both heard or read that the human palate changes every seven years or so. What you tasted at seven or ten years old and hated, you might try again at twenty or twenty five and find you loved. I had this experience myself with cream cheese. I must have been about four when my mother took me to a baby shower for one of her coworkers. They had something on the food table that looked like slices of chocolate cake with white icing on them. Right up my alley, of course. I asked my mother if I could have one. She responded with a sentence that I’ve sworn never to say to my children: “Yes, but you probably won’t like it.” Talk about self-fulfilling prophecies. I’m not saying that I would have liked the pumpernickel bread with cream cheese on it if she hadn’t said that (I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t have—when you’re counting on chocolate cake and you get pumpernickel bread, you’re bound to have a moment of disappointment, and are probably more inclined than not to hold a grudge), but I refuse to automatically assume that my kids will dislike something just because I don’t think it’s something a juvenile palate will appreciate.
As a result of this experience, I actively disliked cream cheese for many, many years. Finally at age twenty, I was working in a catering kitchen. On a whim, I tried something that we made as an hors d’oeuvre—it was called a mascarpone torta, and it was supposed to be made with mascarpone cheese. We made it with equal parts butter and cream cheese (clearly, a low fat offering), whirled in a food processor. This was then spread into a mold in two layers, with a layer of pesto and chopped walnuts in between, and served with slices of French bread. I have no idea what actually inspired me to taste this, unless I didn’t realize it was made with cream cheese (probably the case). I loved it, and when I was told how it was made, I thought that maybe cream cheese was worth giving another chance. I’ve been eating it ever since in every state known to man—cheesecake, on bagels, in dips, you name it.
There are still things I really don’t like: eggplant, pomegranates, avocado, okra, grapefruit. Maybe one day I’ll try some or all of those things (well, probably not the pomegranates—sorry, Reese) and discover that I do in fact like them. After all, my palate will keep changing, albeit more slowly as I get older. As my old boss and I used to say to each other, “When was the last time you tried it?”