Monday, September 12, 2005

My Food Story - Part I: Learning to Eat

(note: This is the first installment in a five-part series of posts, all on the ways I've come to love food which is, ultimately, the reason I started this blog. This post is on eating. Future posts will be on shopping, traveling, reading and cooking.)

In the first chapter of The Man Who Ate Everything, Vogue foodwriter Jeffrey Steingarten tells of his first days as a food writer. He was determined not to be one of those picky, unfair critics who pan any dish that happens to include ingredients that the critic just doesn't like. Steingarten pledged to be the most democratic of all critics: a complete omnivore.

In his research, he learned that most children are born ready to eat anything - taste is an entirely learned attribute. If you try to feed a baby something, they'll likely reject it the first or second time, but by the eighth time they try it, they will have developed a taste for it. Some people do have heightened sensitivity to certain taste functions, but that's not especially common.

Clearly, though, people can develop an appreciation for new foods later in life. I, for one, was not fed sweet food until I was over a year old (and then it was a neighbor, "Cookie Lil", who did the honors, not my mom). Doesn't stop me from loving just about everything sweet today.

And people's tastes evolve. Until I was about 4, I was so obsessed with green beans that my nickname actually was "Green Bean." But then school intervened. Sometime in between four and six, I developed a severe aversion to all things green - especially green beans and spinach. And sometime between 18 and 21 my taste buds fought back.

In the years since I graduated from college, my repertoire of taste has expanded dramatically. As a picky elementary school student, I wouldn't even consider trying crazy foods like avocados and artichokes. I detested asparagus, to the point that I cried when forced to eat it. Then, one day, I changed my mind. I could eat all three once a day for the rest of my life and never get bored.

But I'm still at the tip of the iceberg. Four years ago I discovered omelets. Only this year have I learned to love tomatoes, once considered the most evil of all red foods. Today, I can't wait for my upcoming trip to Paris, where I can try authentic escargots. By this time next year, who knows what I'll be eating. While I might never get over some of my food aversions - like the one to store-bought mayonnaise (my skin crawls) - I, like Jeffrey Steingarten, am on my way to being almost truly omnivorous. Just because I'm willing to try.

And Steingarten? He got over most of his food phobias. But he still hates Indian restaurant desserts. I guess you can't win them all.

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