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kottke.org posts about Amanda Mull

Confessions of an Adventurous Picky Eater

posted by Jason Kottke   Feb 20, 2019

Amanda Mull on How to Stop Hating Your Least Favorite Food:

I’ve never had a traumatic barf experience with cucumbers, so my aversion is probably just an innate dislike. And the culprit behind my long-term cuke hatred might be in the vegetable’s smell, more specifically than its taste. “What we call ‘taste’ is really ‘flavor,’ which is a mixture of taste, smell, and texture,” Sclafani says. People lose olfactory sensitivity as they age, which is a big reason that many people seem to outgrow childhood aversions: A food that might have been overwhelming to a kid will read as more mellow to an adult. I’m in my 30s, so there’s a decent chance that, were I to give cucumbers a fair shake, I’d hate them a lot less than my childhood memories have led me to believe.

In recent years, I’ve come to the grudging conclusion that I am somewhat of a picky eater (with a couple of caveats that I’ll get into below). I grew up in the Midwest in the 80s, which meant I mostly ate meat & potatoes, pizza, and various things on white bread when I was a kid. Campbell soups were wielded by Midwestern parents to super-charge supper casseroles like Escoffier used béchamel or hollandaise. Vegetables were shunned and feared.

In my 20s and out of the Midwest, I started eating a wider variety of foods and some of my least favorite things — broccoli, mushrooms, beets, onions — are now among my favorites. The flavors of Japanese food (sushi, ramen) took a long time to get used to, but now I love them. Other foods — mustard, raw oysters, eggplant — I have repeatedly tried and failed to appreciate as others clearly do. Part of my problem, as I found out around that time, is that I’m a supertaster. That sounds cool, like I’m Spider-Man or something, but it really means that I’m an oversensitive taster, with a proclivity for bland food and sensitivity to bitter tastes (helloooo vegetables).

I’ve also realized that a lot of the food I ate as a kid wasn’t particularly fresh or well-prepared. Tacos were hard-shelled and flavor-packet-based, fish was in stick form, and Chinese food came out of a can. Canned mushrooms aren’t that great in comparison to fresh ones, and there’s a wonderland of flavorful mushroom varieties beyond the button. In the winter in rural Wisconsin, you couldn’t even buy fresh out-of-season vegetables like tomatoes in the grocery store in the 80s.

The weird thing is that I’m actually a pretty adventurous eater. If something is well-prepared and fresh, I will eat it. I never order anything “on the side” at a restaurant or ask them to skip an ingredient I don’t care for.1 My answer to a server’s “do you have any allergies or dietary restrictions?” is always “no”. I eat a lot of things that many other people won’t: tongue, liver, brains, tripe, sweetbreads, etc. When I am drinking alcohol,1 I will consume just about any kind of bitter digestif you can throw at me. The key for me, as Mull notes in the article, is that “gentle, steady exposure” can overcome many food aversions. Eventually, the adventurousness wins out over my picky palate. Except for raw oysters…I don’t know that I’ll ever eat them and enjoy the taste of low tide in my mouth.

  1. The only real exception to this is mustard because if there’s a smear of mustard on, for example, a Katz’s pastrami sandwich, it completely overwhelms the taste of the pastrami and rye bread for me. The “no mustard” thing has brought me a lot of ridicule over the years from hot dog and hot sandwich purists, but it can’t be helped.

  2. Which I am currently not, a topic that probably deserves its own post sometime.