Loving strange food or: how I learned to stop being picky and love food

Like most Americans, I used to hold some self-evident beliefs about food:

The three dogmas of the food phobiac:

  1. There are foods I “like” and foods I “dislike” and I ought to stick to the things that I like.
  2. The better something tastes, the more unhealthy it must be and vice versa.  You must choose between a long life of disgusting food or indulge yourself and die early.
  3. There is a value hierarchy for all the edible parts of any animal. For example, top sirloin is the ideal for beef.  There’s a similar value hierarchy for animals themselves. Decisions about which animal and which part of the animal to eat are therefore a simple cost/benefit equation.

Two things completely changed by attitude on food: getting married, and moving to China.

The psychology of taste

Our perception of taste is closely associated with our memories of things such as the taste of past meals, our emotional states, and sensory associations with similar foods.  We come to associate foods with sensory reactions based on many factors such as familiarity, the quality of most meals, the people we were with, etc.  By dissociating taste as such from negative experiences we can learn to appreciate food for its inherent taste, without emotional baggage.  We can learn to prefer the taste of healthy foods by the same process.

Sensory integration therapy for food phobiacs

The first step to fixing food phobias is to recognize the problem: it’s not OK to exclude foods because of food sensitivities.  All the “most hated” American foods are delicious when prepared properly. Having recognized the problem, here is the program that worked for me:

The strategy is to gradually introduce foods in different settings, gradually building exposure and positive associations with certain foods.  For example, when my wife learned that I hated zucchini, she gradually introduced it into my diet starting with small amounts balanced by other flavors, and growing to having zucchini be the dominate ingredient.   Here is what she cooked:

  1. Stuffed peppers with zucchini and sausage
  2. Potato and zucchini frittata
  3. Roasted vegetable meatloaf with zucchini
  4. Grated zucchini topped with marinara
  5. Lasagna with zucchini noodles
  6. Zucchini gratin
  7. Zucchini latkes
  8. Zucchini fried in butter with onions
  9. Parmesan crusted fried zucchini

The same program was used for eggplant, brussel sprouts, avocados, cabbage, and okra.  Once I learned to appreciate food for its taste and texture of foods rather than negative associations and new textures, it was no longer necessary to disguise the ingredients.   When I have a negative reaction to something, I isolate the components of the food (source, flavor, smell, texture) and think about which aspect I reacted to. Oftentimes I react to negative memories and associations and not the food itself. Consciously understanding that a negative reaction has no rational basis is often enough to overcome it.

The importance of ceremony

The ceremonial aspect of dining is very important when learning to appreciate food.  If you merely try to inhale as many calories as quickly as possible, any unusual tastes will be an unpleasant distraction.  A proper sit-down meal is required to take the time to really analyze the taste of foods and form new positive sensory-conceptual associations to replace the old negative ones.

 A cosmopolitan attitude to dining

One of the main differences between the Chinese diet and the Western diet is that the entire animal is considered edible. Whereas Americans stuff everything other than “choice” cuts into burgers, sausages, and McNuggets, the Chinese proudly consume the head, claws, organs, and other miscellaneous parts of animals as delicacies. This is not because they’re poorer – the head and feet are the most expensive parts of the animal. Neither do they restrict themselves to a few “blessed” animals – the entire animal kingdom is on the menu.

The difference is that of the food elitist versus that of the food connoisseur. The elitist believes that only a narrow socially accepted list of foods is good enough for him. The connoisseur is an explorer, who uses his palate as the universe-expanding sensory organ it was meant to be.  The elitist lives within the small dietary-social circle he was born into. The connoisseur traverses the biological and cultural realms.

The approach I now take to eating new things now is exploratory one. Instead of responding with “like” or “dislike” I try to understand the flavor components and texture of food. I appreciate meals from many perspectives – sensory, anatomical, social, and historical, to fully integrate it with my worldview.

Note: I have found that  adopting a Paleo diet enhances flavor discrimination. For example, a carrot is actually quite sweet and delicious to eat raw, but a typical carb-addict wouldn’t know it.

None of this is to claim attitude alone will make everything taste good. Meals must be prepared skillfully to taste good. The notion I want to dispel is that taste is either genetic or set by undecipherable psychological factors we cannot affect. Human culture has a rich history of many culinary traditions and we ought to learn to appreciate them without emotional baggage or provincial bias.

1 Comment

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One Response to Loving strange food or: how I learned to stop being picky and love food

  1. Jason Ross

    An excellent post. I have applied a similar approach myself and now find that I am able to eat almost anything that is properly prepared. That being said, I continue to be surprised that you don’t seem to be compelled toward vegetarianism (full disclosure: I am a convert.) I am fairly sure that you do not have any religious dogma driving you to dominate the creatures of the earth, and while I know you are not a believer in “animal rights” (nor am I,) there is the quite different ethical concept of “animal welfare” which I would think might appeal to you– the notion that it is wrong to initiate force against human beings would seem to marry well with the notion that it is also wrong to initiate force against any living creature, especially when it is not required for survival. I imagine that you realize that eating meat is neither biologically necessary nor is it the most economical option; plant-based foods are far richer in terms of quantity and variety of nutritional value than animal foods, by volume, and also are considerably more energy efficient to produce and thus more cost effective and less wasteful. If you disagree with any of that, I’d certainly enjoy reading your argument. I will admit that I personally feel it is unethical to use animals for food or goods (what they do to dogs and cats for fur in China I think is entirely barbaric and intolerable, though that is as much an emotional response as a rational one.) However, I also accept that it is human nature and I don’t think that someone who eats meat outside of necessity is behaving immorally so much as that they are not embracing the full potential of the rational mind. If it is good to respect human life and human liberty, it should also be good to respect the life and liberty of weaker and simpler creatures, for once we were as they are. As you have quoted from the Tao Te Ching, “Mastering others requires force;
    Mastering the self requires strength”– should we not strive for the strength to master within ourselves and thus subjugate the need to exploit that which is weaker not only within our own species but beyond? I don’t think the two efforts can logically be divorced, though I respect that many a great thinker may disagree. I’d love to know what your thoughts are.

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