A long time ago I dated a charming young man from England. We’ll call him Sandy. The first real date we went out on he took me to see a Michael Caine movie called Educating Rita.
Sandy had been a student of mine in a writing class. He had been hard-working, respectful, and animated in class discussions. He’d come to see me for help with his essays in a large room filled with old desks and a mimeograph machine (which even in those days was old-fashioned) where all us grad students held office hours. It was affectionately called “The Pit.”
I never suspected he was interested in me. But after he was no longer my student, I started running into him in between classes, or he would show up in The Pit, just wanting to say hi. One day he asked me out in that irresistible accent of his. In those by-gone times, since he was no longer officially my student, such things were considered okay. Stunned, and flattered, I said yes. I suddenly saw how cute he was.
My time with Sandy lasted only a few months, but there was an enduring sweetness to it that pervaded even the kind way we parted. Underneath our differences, we just liked each other. He had played rugby, and loved football and very fast cars. I preferred to walk on the beach with my dog, and was hard pressed to remember even the basics of either game he loved. On the food front, Sandy didn’t like any vegetables but white potatoes, or any nuts, or even any jam with pieces of fruit in it. His favorite foods were smooth milk chocolate and red meat. Even then, these tastes were such a stretch for me to appreciate (I tried to avoid both). And I began to see how this difference was going to be a significant obstacle. And like many young women enjoying a romance, I tried to ignore it.
I was a long way away back then from learning to recognize it was possible to educate myself to like and prefer the taste of foods that actually made me feel better rather than the taste of those that didn’t, no matter how pleasantly addictive they might be. To be fair to Sandy, I was as entrenched in steeping my vegetarian plate with eggs and cheese as he was intent on meat and milk. But somehow I instinctively knew I could never live on red meat, white potatoes and milk chocolate. A life without fruits and vegetables was hard to even imagine. And a day to day life with someone who had no interest at all in either seemed almost as hard to envision.
Maybe our old tastes are often like old loves that we know won’t work out, but we keep coming back to anyway, in different guises, hoping this time they will. I certainly did that repeatedly when it came to wheat and flour products, tweaking and hoping (and contorting my intestines in the process), trying to make it okay to eat what everyone else seemed to be eating and doing fine with. I now know it’s not true that everyone else is doing fine, but, like I said, old tastes don’t like to let go.
Or maybe it isn’t the tastes. Maybe the tastes are like Sandy and me, just knowing that though we enjoy this, we could easily enjoy something that was a better fit. The trick is getting to the place where we can see such change is possible. Food tastes themselves DO change over time. Some say it takes about two weeks, some say four. Maybe it’s more mysterious and less predictable a time frame. But when they DO shift, a sense of euphoria and adventure sets in. There’s almost a high that comes with really being able to taste things. I can remember sitting at the kitchen table eating slices of pink grapefruit and marveling that they tasted as sweet or sweeter, and more real than the pleasure of Squirt soda or Fresca once tasted to me. And were a bejillion times better for me. How could this be true? But it was. I was practically ecstatic.
In my euphoric enthusiasm, I often forget that the taste buds of those around me eating a more standard diet have not shifted their sensitivities away from salt, sugar, and fat. The apples from the tree down the alley that were so sweet to me tasted like cardboard to the friend and her husband who had helped me pick them. This truly confused me. Perhaps they just really did get ones that tasted like cardboard. But it reminds me I am now living in a different taste universe. I was reminded of it again when, graciously adventurous, they tried my pumpkin pie recipe for Thanksgiving. My friend had never cooked with fresh ginger root before. I had insisted she take some fresh ginger home to put in the filling, because to my way of tasting it “makes” the recipe, and I really wanted her daughter-in-law and nephew, the two who needed to be gluten free, to like the pie. I found out afterwards they had politely dubbed it “interesting.” Ah, well.
Another good e-mail pal astutely refers to experiences that reveal her old mental programming as “educational,” when she strives to replace it with newer, healthier thinking patterns. Perhaps the same endeavor can be applied to tastes as well. We recently had a humorous exchange about this possibility when she tried buckwheat groats for the first time. She followed the cooking instructions in my post to a tee, and wrote me they came out perfectly. But to her, they tasted like mothballs! We both got a good laugh out of this, since neither of us have ever actually tasted mothballs, of course. But somehow I knew what she was talking about. Did this mean I liked the taste of mothballs? We laughed again when she sent me a blog entry she’d found for hiding buckwheat groats in some yummy sounding muffins. The groats tasted like “dirt” to this blogger when she tried to eat them plain. Now the mothballs I can imagine somehow. But the dirt? That’s a stretch for me.
It puts me in silly mind of one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite silly movies, an Albert Brooks satire of the hereafter called Defending Your Life. Daniel, the main character played by Brooks, has been hit by a bus and killed instantly. He finds himself in a place called Judgment City where it’s 74 degrees and sunny all day every day. People who die come to review their lives to decide whether they are smart enough to “move on” or if they need to go back to earth to learn how to deal with fear (People on earth are so busy dealing with fear they use only between 3-5 percent of their brains). One of the perks of Judgment City is that while humans are undergoing the “stress” of this review process they can eat as much of any food they like. It will taste like the best whatever-it-is they have ever had, and they won’t gain any weight or have any indigestion.
At his first meeting with the guide that will help him through the review process, played by Rip Torn, they go out to lunch. Daniel is munching away on roasted chicken, but he gets curious about the strange brown clumps on his “lawyer’s” plate. He’s told it’s “resident food” and he wouldn’t like it. But he’s so curious that his “lawyer” says he likes that about him and to go ahead and try it. He takes a bite and spits it out, exclaiming, “This is what smart people eat???” His “lawyer” laughs and says tastes kind of like. . well, you know what he says. Then he cautions him. “Until you get a little smarter and learn how to manipulate your senses, you don’t want to eat this stuff.” I sometimes get to laughing at myself that even though I seem like such a smart person, the food I’m now raving about looks (and tastes) closer to those “clumps” to people who haven’t made a taste bud shift away from their usual loves.
Nevertheless, there’s hope for all of us to educate our taste buds to work for us instead of against us, and love doing it. Even childhood aversions can change. For me, it was persimmons. Their texture was almost frightening to me. I also hated gooey dark sweet bread they were made into. Susan’s wonderful post about them Persimmons and Frozen Persimmon Sorbet came somewhere along the line of my plant-based learning curve, and like Daniel, I got curious. Now I’ll eat them plain, like candy, or cut up into my bowl of raw rolled oats and buckwheat groats and almond milk. Another childhood food aversion from a good friend comes to mind. I watched his Spinach Overcooked in Beer episode transform at my dining room table. As a little boy, his Dad had made him sit at the table until he finished it. Rather than eat the foul tasting overcooked spinach, instead he sat there until he fell asleep. He recalled this memory as he became amazed to discover how much he was enjoying my sautéed greens with sweet potatoes. He had not known they could look or taste any other way than the one his Dad considered “gourmet” but that he couldn’t stomach back then. We probably each have a story or two like this in our own food memory banks. The good news is that now we’re grown-ups, and can remake our taste bud destinies. We can learn to eat outside of the old processed box, and right out of the CSA box.
Sometimes, though, aversion is built into the actual taste buds genetically. As in the case of cilantro. Apparently some people have a gene that makes it taste like soap to them. No wonder they don’t like it. Perhaps some day we’ll find that some people carry a gene that makes buckwheat groats taste like mothballs. Or dirt. But until then, it’s probably not a bad idea to educate those taste buds back to as many fresh whole foods as we can, and get high on fruit that tastes like soda, or discover the subtle earthy sweetness in whole grains. I’d rather not keep my own taste buds in “mothballs” unless it’s absolutely genetically necessary.
I know I may sound like a smart ass, which, at times, I confess, I thoroughly enjoy being. It releases tension. But I’ve actually learned to accept that people have their own journey with their taste buds, and what tastes great to me may not be so great to them. As Rita (played brilliantly by Julie Walters), a lady’s hairdresser disillusioned with her clients and their wish to walk out of the salon a different person within a half hour, offers as a reason for why she’s come to university in Educating Rita, “If you want to change, you’ve got to do it from the inside, you know, Iike I’m trying to do.”
The teacher in me still hopes others will at least consider “tasting the rainbow” with those of us who are well into chomping away at it. Here’s a good soup from Susan, Eat the Rainbow Black Bean Soup, for starters. There IS a pot of gold at the end. I’ve tasted it.