In the first essay in his highly entertaining The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten writes that before he took a job as Vogue's food writer he was determined to learn to like foods he hated, which included insects, kimchee, anything with dill in it, swordfish, anchovies, lard, Indian desserts, miso, mocha, chutney, raw sea urchins, falafel, Greek food, clams, and a half dozen more. If he did not, he feared, as a food writer he "could be no more objective than an art critic who detests the color yellow."
When I first read the book six years ago I found this idea stunning. Without examining the assumption, I’d thought a person was born with specific food tastes. Although, thinking about it, I didn't start out liking beer; that only happened because at 20 I couldn't afford super-sweet cocktails. And a can of Natty Boh, at 20, looked cool in a way that it really doesn’t now. And then there was the spicy pizza incident: I had a low threshold for heat that made me a target of friendly ridicule. One day, my former boyfriend heated up a Red Baron pepperoni pizza and I rejected it because the pepperoni was too spicy for me. He looked at me, mouth agape, and then started laughing. Then he told all his friends about it. I made it my mission that day to learn to tolerate more spicy foods. I started adding cayenne and red pepper flakes, grains at a time, when cooking. I stopped automatically ordering “mild." Today I can handle up to two pepper icons on a Thai restaurant menu, provided I have enough tissues.
I've always thought of picky eating as a character flaw, and have tried to be adventurous both in cooking and dining out. My mother was an adventurous cook so I learned early not to fear organ meats or "cute meats"—rabbit, lamb, venison—but I still have some serious hangups that I’d like to shake. After reading The Man Who Ate Everything I decided to make a list and knock things off. I'd take two or three things a year and learn to love them. Baby books say it can take up to 20 tries to get a small child to accept a new food; I would just treat myself like a baby! My list included: shellfish, raw tomatoes, blue cheese, olives, green peppers, cauliflower, eggplant and mushrooms.
Thanks to a bouillabaisse at Baltimore’s Martick’s, a now-defunct French restaurant, I learned to love shellfish. The mussels, clams and shrimp and chunks of fish were perfectly cooked, which is so important to enjoying seafood, and the richness of the soup cut the faint, lingering taste of iodine that I found objectionable. By Christmas I was eating raw oysters. Next I tackled tomatoes, with less success. Much of my problem with tomatoes comes from the supermarket variety. Romas with ethylene red skins and anemic tennis ball flesh are really lousy. I pick them out of salads and sandwiches. I still don't really like raw tomatoes. There's something faintly metallic about the taste that bothers me, and I find them unpleasantly squishy. But I will keep trying.
I learned that with eggplant and cauliflower, it's more about the handling of the ingredients that’s objectionable than the taste; mushrooms are best in rich sauces and beef stews.
I've been less successful with blue cheese and olives. Blue cheese still tastes like rot and mold to me, green peppers are so improbably bitter it’s unaccountable why anyone would like them, and the smell of olives makes me feel nauseous. I ate one olive that didn't make me want to die last year; it was a fresh green one from a restaurant that brined their own. So maybe there's hope.
But take up this challenge: make a list, pick one item, and keep trying it in various ways. You don't like mayonnaise? Take a deep breath, remind yourself that it's just oil and vinegar whipped up with eggs; salad dressing in a different coat. Don't like organ meats? Go to b in Bolton Hill and order the fried sweetmeats and you'll see that not all organ meats taste like liver. Afraid of ethnic food? Go to an Indian buffet, or get a combination platter at an Ethiopian restaurant and just try things. Why limit yourself?