Everyone has foods they love and certainly foods they detest. What I am wondering is why I seem to remember the preferences of others, especially foods they dislike, even though I don’t necessarily know the people involved and am not likely to invite them to dinner. This is especially true for those no longer with us. Roald Dahl, a favorite writer of mine, has written brilliantly about chocolate, which was a passion of his. So I was surprised to learn that he hated those little Cadbury chocolate eggs with the squishy centers and colorful foil wrappers that turn up each year at Easter.
In “Memories With Food at Gypsy House,” he complained, “Every year, between Christmas and Easter, Cadbury’s sell 200 million of these revolting fondant-filled horrors … I won’t eat them. Nobody I know eats them …” To test his judgment of these confections, I dropped by my local Rite-Aid shortly after Easter and, sure enough, found a wall of unsold Cadbury creme eggs on sale at half price.
What grips me about Dahl’s writings are his stubborn aversions, and that, I suspect, is one of the things that attracts me to Jeffrey Steingarten’s essays, which also are delightfully full of resolute antipathies. He confesses to disliking Greek food in general and Indian desserts in particular, so that I think of him whenever I am in restaurants specializing in those foods. As a food writer, Steingarten felt he was obliged to overcome past prejudices. But, that is hard to do. I, for instance, have never liked almond paste and know I never will because I find its taste irredeemably disagreeable. And its existence is made all the worse because it is hidden away and pops up unexpectedly in beautiful-looking pastries from which I never get past the first bite. When that happens, I find myself ruminating over the remarkable difference in taste between roasted almonds, which I love, and that paste, which I loathe, realizing once again that life is filled with imponderables.
Nature versus nurture
I wonder whether our food prejudices have to do with genetic disposition or one’s upbringing. My maternal grandmother was famous in the family for disliking rich foods, especially those made with cream or butter. But I did notice that her daughter, my mother, had no problem eating ice cream sundaes and fine chocolates. Since I was aware of this discrepancy as a child, I came to think that disliking rich foods was related to aging, and assumed that when my mother got older she too would start to hate them.
I remember the moment when I was disabused of this notion. I was around 10 years old and sitting at a department store soda fountain where I observed an elderly woman diving into a strawberry shortcake with relish, smacking her lips over a mountain of whipped cream. At the time, the scene struck me as unnatural, but it prepared me for the fact that my mother never stopped loving hot fudge sundaes. Yet I do recognize my own hostility to cream-based dishes and sauces rich with butter and can only conclude that my grandmother’s preferences live on, having skipped a generation.
There are also the environmental factors that lead to taste preferences. Being the youngest member in a family where everyone else preferred the white meat of the chicken, I was automatically served the dark meat and grew to love the thighs in particular. When I was able to snitch a bite of a chicken breast, I was struck by its blandness and could only conclude that I was getting the better of the deal in my family. And to this day I prefer those juicy second joints of chickens and turkeys and love roasted duck. We can chalk this up to social engineering.
Learning as we go
Sometimes food preferences come along with experience. When I buy fresh salmon, the fishmonger will assume that I want the thickest part of the filet because most people do, but I always go for the tail end. I find the thick parts are uneven, often fatty and harbor tiny bones, whereas the tail end is leaner, boneless and, because it is evenly thin, requires less cooking time with better results.
Experience has also taught me that I can transform supermarket breads and rolls whose crusts have been ruined by plastic bags into something respectable by popping them into a convection oven. Happily, my standby toaster oven has this feature, allowing me to turn flaccid ciabattas into crusty and delicious wonders.
I could go on about which foods I and others love or hate, but I still wonder why we care and even remember. Maybe it’s because food is such a great communicator and creates bonds. Why else do cilantro-haters join together online to swap rants about this herb they so despise? And how many times have I engaged in conversations with people I barely know that grow lively if not intimate when we get onto the subject of food.
“What are your favorite products from Trader Joe’s?” is one of my favorite inquiries, and the answers inevitably lead to engaging chats and useful information. Unlike political discussions which can lead to angry disagreement, conversations about food likes and dislikes are constructive and pleasant and only make me wish that the political leaders of our world would so engage.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Cadbury eggs line department store shelves.