A life breaks down into epochs, with bright dividing lines between them. There’s the period of impotence and innocence before a driver’s license, and the insurance premiums and speeding tickets after. There’s pre-mortgage, when a landlord handles plumbing emergencies, and post-mortgage, when you’re on your soggy own.
There’s beet aversion, and there’s beet adoration.
At least there was for me, and my embrace of beets didn’t come with my deliverance into early adulthood, when picky eaters routinely turn bold. It happened all the way into my 30s. Suddenly, what had once seemed slimy now seemed silky, and a shade of crimson previously lurid to my eyes was positively gemlike. I began to lust for beets, no doubt partly because chefs were serving them with cheeses like Cabrales. You could crumble Cabrales on Brillo and I’d have seconds.
There was a lesson here, and I heeded it, reconsidering other foods that I had tried and rejected as a grown-up and had consigned, perhaps foolishly, to the compost heap of history. Oysters, for example. For a long, sad stretch of time, they did nothing for me. I find that mystifying today, at the age of 49, when I could have an oyster omelet for breakfast, an oyster sandwich for lunch and an oyster roast for dinner. My only gripe would be the absence of oyster gelato for dessert.
Are there really foods that we don’t like, or just foods that we haven’t liked yet? And are we cheating ourselves as we ceaselessly expand our culinary horizons with new tastes by not circling back to old ones? I increasingly suspect that the greatest pleasures-in-waiting aren’t in some foreign land or fringe neighborhood. They’re right in front of us, if only we’d be adventurous enough to give the ingredients we’ve exiled a chance to return to our plates.
Too few of us do that. I know because I’ve long dined out with a diverse cast of characters — I did that with particular frequency as The ‘ restaurant critic — and the arrival of menus typically prompts a drawing of boundaries.
No cauliflower for him. No broccoli for her. This Mary won’t have even a little lamb. That Larry won’t touch skate. All of them assume that their predilections are as rooted as redwoods, as fixed as eye color. And all of them are wrong, because appetite isn’t just or even mainly physiological. It’s psychological. Emotional. It’s a function of expectation, emulation, adaptation.
"We’re built to be wary of something novel, but once it’s not novel, we can develop new food preferences into old age," said Gary Beauchamp, an expert on the science of taste at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Precisely as a child’s diet broadens, so can a 40-year-old’s or a 50-year-old’s, because in every instance, Beauchamp said, "it’s not about something that’s going on in the mouth or the taste buds but something that’s going on further up in the brain." Our palates matter less than our perspectives, and over those we have some control.
What set me to thinking about all of this was coconut water. Remember when it came into vogue three or so years ago, with Rihanna promoting it on posters everywhere? I bought a carton. Took a sip. And was immediately convinced that I’d gotten a bad batch. It had a vague sourness that didn’t seem right to me and a faint, flickering sweetness that remained maddeningly out of reach, a cruel tease. I threw the bulk of that carton away.
About a year later, persuaded by a friend who worships coconut water, I gave it another chance. This time I was braced for the sourness, so it didn’t throw me. It intrigued me. I settled into it. And with a third and fourth sip, I realized that the muted sweetness was less frustrating than tantalizing, a refreshing departure from cloying colas. Coconut water was like some painting with brush strokes and patterns I simply hadn’t picked out on first view. I’m a slavish fan now.
I started asking around and easily found people who are enamored of drinks and foods that they once detested and that they even defined themselves in opposition to.
Until Eddie Gehman Kohan was about 35, she was a hater of mushrooms, any and all mushrooms: chanterelle, shiitake, portobello. It wasn’t that she hadn’t been properly exposed to them. For much of her 20s, she worked as a cook in a restaurant. No matter. "They disgusted me beyond all words," said Kohan, who lives in Washington and edits the website Obama Foodorama.
About 15 years ago, though, mushrooms became ineluctable. Like James Franco, only fungal. "I couldn’t dine out without something having mushrooms in it," she recalled. Tired of fighting them, she cried uncle, and opened her mind as she opened her mouth. Now, at 50, she’s a thorough mushroom convert. A mushroom evangelist, even. She cooks with mushrooms at least three times a week.
Erick Castro, a 35-year-old bartender in San Diego, was 27 when he first tried a Negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, Campari). It shocked him with its bitterness, overwhelmed him with its sweetness and turned him off altogether, a party guest with a voice too loud and a manner too aggressive. That’s what he grew to love about it: its stridency, its swagger. It’s one of his favorite cocktails. He just had to wrap his head around it.
And papaya is one of his favorite fruits, although in his early 20s, "I thought it tasted like socks," he said. "Dirty socks." Then he traveled to Central America, and those socks popped up as an unrequested side or garnish to many of his meals. As the region and the trip worked their way into his heart and his happy memories, so, miraculously, did papayas. They became dirty socks with blissful associations: a whole new hosiery.
Our attitudes toward, and responses to, certain foods can be altered enormously by the contexts in which we encounter them, the number of other people we see eating them, the way they do or don’t dovetail with the diets we mean to maintain.
Consider my brother Mark, 50, who lives in the Boston area. In his 20s, 30s and early 40s, sushi did nothing for him, even spooked him. "I tried it once and wrote it off," he said recently. "I think a little of that was because of the circles I was running in. It wasn’t something I needed to be interested in because the people I hung out with were big meat eaters." Land animals suited them just fine.
But his circles changed, or maybe the carnivores in them did. "I saw people I knew eating sushi and enjoying it, and it made me think," he said. "These were people with good judgment and taste."
He revisited sushi, trying more types of it, making sure to have it in restaurants that took care with it. He began to appreciate its variety, cleanness, leanness and condiments. Besides, as he was getting older, he was getting more watchful of his weight and energy, and sushi allowed him a fix of flesh and an array of flavors without piling on too many calories. It was a good fit that evolved into a treasured habit. "I have a favorite sushi place that if I don’t get to every couple of weeks, I get frustrated," he said.
My brother’s story, like Kohan’s, demonstrates the degree to which people can will themselves into liking something. That’s a phenomenon anyone who’s been a food writer can relate to.
Tom Sietsema, the longtime restaurant critic for The Washington Post, always had a thing — a bad thing — about fennel. But it emerged as a fine-dining staple, so he muscled through his negative feelings. Now he genuinely enjoys fennel, which he compared to "a person you broke up with and years later reconnect with and see in a new way." With herbs as with lovers, reconciliation is never out of the question.
Conch and calf liver, rhubarb and walnuts, tofu and brussels sprouts: all are latecomers to my eating life, grudgingly allowed in but ungrudgingly relished. Of course today’s brussels sprouts — crunchy, caramelized at the edges and not infrequently mingled with bacon — are nothing like yesteryear’s, and there are two important morals in that. First: An ostracized vegetable may simply be a vegetable that hasn’t met the right cook or cooking method. Second: Bacon redeems everything. You could pair it with Putin and he’d be in the running for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Granted, there are foods that will, for a given individual, always be a bridge too far. And the reasons are in fact an affirmation of the capriciousness and thus the malleability of our inclinations, which can be about the idea of the ingredient, not the actual experience of it. I won’t do grasshopper tacos, though for all I know I’d be crazy about them.
My friend John Magazino, who imports and distributes specialty foods for the Chefs’ Warehouse, has traveled in his adulthood from crab skepticism to crab euphoria, beer indifference to beer exuberance. And he’s inched his way into organ meat. "I’ll eat liver," said Magazino, 44. "I’ll eat spleen. I’ll eat sweetbreads until I’m blue in the face. I’ll even eat Rocky Mountain oysters." Those are bull testicles.
But, he said, he won’t eat heart or brain. They seem somehow sacred to him. When we talked recently, he was preparing for a trip to South America, and he joked: "If I’m taken by cannibals when I go down to the Amazon, I have no issue if they eat my arms and legs. But not my brain. Not my heart. They can have my liver instead."
I’d recommend a side of beets.