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Conquering My Food Aversions

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.

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  1. PJ says:

    Ha ha ha!! I love your take on eggs!

    I’ll share a little story with you… the Everyman also will not touch eggs under any circumstances, and it all apparently stems from the fact that as a child his father used to pretend that he was the one that laid the eggs. It traumatized him so badly that to this day he still can’t eat them :)

    I was working on a Foodie 13 post of my least favorite foods a few weeks ago, but jettisoned it due to the similarity in context to that exact chapter in Jeffrey’s book that you mentioned, but I will share with you here; my least favorite food that tops all of those categories of his are oranges.

    And really, greek food? I know it’s heavy on the starches, but have you never had a really nice roasted leg of lamb or agvolemono soup (I know that’s probably spelled wrong)? There’s a stand in the St Lawrence market on the lower floor that sells braised lamb shanks that would probably change your mind.

  2. Greg says:

    Great post – I hope you get lots of answers.

    It’s not exactly a common food – at least not in these parts – but I’ve tried and re-tried okra over the years.

    The perennial conclusion: Do not want!

    Other than that, I can eat just about anything, and usually do!

  3. foodwithlegs says:

    PJ: Thanks for the comment. I was about to ask whether you don’t like orange juice and point out that it seems like a pretty unavoidable drink. That actually reminded me of one of my earliest (and possibly repressed if I didn’t think of it when writing this post?) aversions: I can’t stand apple juice. Love them out of hand, in
    desserts, and even cider but hate the juice that kids get served.

    On my criticism of Greek food, any cuisine has high points and examples of dishes that I like from time to time. I think the best way to sum up my aversion to Greek food is to say that if I had to live in a single cuisine environment (e.g. rural village) for a month, Greek would be my last choice from the cuisines with which I am familiar.

    Greg: Thanks for the input. Agree that okra is not an automatic like for a lot of people. I should really give gumbo another spin sometime soon.

  4. Kat says:

    Having lived with “food with legs” for about 6 months now..I am sure you will all get a chuckle out of the fact that canned tuna is a love of mine and has been since I was a little kid. “food with legs” won’t even so much as enter the kitchen when I open the can and more or less refuses to do the dishes I used to eat the tuna with.

    My own food aversions really stop at white onions uncooked. This is a strange one for me because I like red onions, LOVE caramelized white onions, enjoy green onions as a garnish, think a minced shallot on almost anything is great and have even been known to eat raw garlic. If anyone can help me understand my tastebud’s I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  5. sock says:

    I used to have an aversion to, ahem, food with legs. No joke. I guess you could include shrimp, lobsters and the like in that category. But, I have gotten over it.

    My most extreme and longest standing aversion was to mushrooms. It started when I was camping when a guide said not to eat any mushrooms one finds in the woods because they could be poisonous and you would die. I figured, just to be safe, I would avoid them all together. Also, when I heard they were grown in manure, it was a put off because if they grow in our waste, they can’t possibly be good stuff. Finally, I think canned cream of mushroom soup and canned mushrooms put me off, especially on pizza. The taste of the former and the texture of the latter didn’t seem redeeming.

    I have made baby steps into the fungii fold, though. If they are cooked in something like pasta sauce, they are fine with me, or fresh ones sauteed with butter and garlic.

    There’s probably plenty of things I would never eat under normal circumstances: testicles, brains, other people. But, on a desert island, I would eat anything. Including you. You have been warned.

  6. foodwithlegs says:

    Thanks for the comments Kat and sock. Kat’s right that the canned tuna thing is a big one for me. I wonder if the pouch version would be any better?

    Sock, do you mean that your aversion was to all food that once had legs or just to food like lobsters that have recognisable legs on the plate? Were chicken legs a no-go?

    Mushrooms are definitely a common aversion. I had always thought that it was just the texture and “woodsy”/”muddy” taste but your story about avoiding them because of an early established safety warning makes a lot of sense. Very similiar, I think, to why a lot of people don’t eat blue cheese.

  7. [...] Food With Legs – What foods are you averse to? [...]

  8. [...] Man Who Ate Everything and It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten: I’ve written before that I can’t stand Steingarten on tv but in print he is entertaining and engaging.  I love [...]

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