It’s strange that I don’t watch more Iron Chef America. The host, Alton Brown, was an early inspiration for my choice to become someone who actively cooks. Mario Batali is one of my favourite television chefs. I think a lot of my negative reaction to the show has to do with its most frequent judge, Jeffrey Steingarten. When in the judge’s seat he’s a curmudgeon, rude to the other judges and pretty much an all-round asshole. To my surprise, over the past few months I have come to consider him one of my favourite writers about food.
In the first chapter (available here through the New York Time book review, log-in required) of his first book of essays The Man Who Ate Everything, Steingarten sets out to make himself a better food critic by wiping the slate of his phobias. Obviously, I’m not writing for as wide an audience as Vogue reaches but I still think that it is a useful activity for those of us who write about food to identify what we don’t like (or just won’t try) eating to establish a context for our writing about food.
Thankfully, I’ve left many of my food aversions behind in childhood. As a kid I couldn’t stand having different foods on the same plate touch each other; precociously responding to my Dad’s suggestion that “everything mixes together in your stomach anyway” by pointing out that I don’t have taste buds in my stomach. On a family vacation to the Maritimes when I was ten or eleven I ate chicken fingers while my six-year old brother ate mussels and lobster. Pate, canteloupe, liver, blue cheese, and coffee among others were all persona non grata on my plate (or in my mug). Thankfully, I’ve come a long way and now eat roquefort and raw oysters with relish. I’ve managed to whittle my list of food aversions down significantly and will borrow Steingarten’s structure for naming the ones that are still with me:
1. Foods I wouldn’t touch even if I were starving on a desert island:
I’m at a loss to think of any. JS names insects but, though I’ve never had the opportunity to test this theory, I think for me eating insects would be pretty easy.
I wonder, is cannibalism considered too obvious an answer?
2. Food I wouldn’t touch even if I were starving on a desert island until absolutely everything else runs out:
Steingarten’s are kimchi, dill, swordfish, anchovies, lard, desserts in Indian restaurants and a handful of others. Except for swordfish and the Indian desserts I’d say that these are all foods that I enjoy eating and would even go out of my way for.
Tofu. One aversion of mine does closely parallel a member of that list. I hate the highly-sweetened tofu-in-water dessert sometimes served in authentic Chinese restaurants. I can’t get past the cloyingly sweet taste or the half-solid, half-liquid texture. The little cubes of tofu that float in generic sushi joint miso soup are another of my dislikes. I have no time for tofu’s recent tendency to try and imitate animal protein. Bacon comes from pigs and chili should have beef in it.
Canned tuna. I like a barely grilled cube of tuna loin especially if it’s marinated with Alton Brown’s soy, sesame, and wasabi mixture and tuna is one of a sashimi plate’s highlights for me. But, with the exception of the premium oil-packed Italian version, I can’t stand the canned variety. Between the soul-crushing rainbow of choice on the grocery shelf (flake, chunk, albacore, water-packed, blah blah blah) and that oppressive cat food smell it makes me wretch.
“Oysters”. Not the ones with shells, the ones that have the words “rocky mountain” or “prairie” at the beginning of their names. I freely admit that I have never tried these (supposed) delicacies This mental hangup is just that strong.
3. Food I might eat if I were starving on a desert island but only if the pantry was filled with nothing but tofu, canned tuna, and bull’s testicles:
At this point my aversions start to line up with Steingarten’s as he yellow-cards Greek food, clams, and blue food. I like feta and baklava, would rather marinate grilled meats in Asian spices, and could do without oregano so it seems that pretty much deals with Greek food. Clams are my least favourite shellfish (they seem to always be grittier than their bivalve cousins, I imagine because they are more likely than mussels to be wild), and it was only within the last few years that I started to enjoy blue cheese.
Rhubarb. I’m working on this. Eating pounds of rhubarb for dessert at this time of year seems to be a necessary step towards getting one’s locavore merit badge. More importantly, rhubarb’s tartness seems like it would bring some welcome variety to dinner’s last course.
Zucchini. Grilled in a rather specific fashion I enjoy its sweetness but any time they’re cooked by a wetter, slower method I still react negatively to the bitter mushiness of the summer squashes.
Eggs. This was a big one for me. Except for hard-boiled I didn’t eat eggs on their own (i.e. scrambled, fried, poached versus in pancakes or the like) for breakfast until I hit my mid-twenties. Not long after turning this corner I asked a diner waitress what she would recommend in response to her “how would you like your eggs?” Apparently, one is supposed to know the answer to this question. Everyone else had a good laugh at my expense.
I still don’t like scrambled or poached eggs but since this is, I think, a matter of (over-cooked) texture I hope to control this phobia by precisely timing their cooking.
I’ll eat almost anything. Over the past ten years of gradually expanding my culinary horizons my biggest discovery has been that preparation matters when overcoming food aversions. Someone for whom a big chunk of cambazola on a cracker is revolting might enjoy a blue cheese sauce on pasta. Maybe I can find a way to make peace with tofu (a strongly flavoured marinade for large pieces of grilled firm tofu seems like a good candidate) and with the right preparation and enough distraction I think I can handle a prairie oyster or two. At least I’m going to try.
I look forward to hearing what common foods everyone else can’t stand.