By Larry Levine –

Is there something you wouldn’t eat unless it was the last thing between you and starvation? And even then you would gag as it crossed your lips.

That’s the kind of question one asks if one is a food writer with too much free time. Like when sitting in the noon-time quiet on the deck of an idyllic house a dozen steps from a cliff rising above the Pacific at Cayucos CA. Sunlight dancing like shards of glass on a gently rolling sea. Morro Rock looming close enough to touch. Cattle, black and brown, dotting the hillside. Contrails of jet planes crisscrossing an infinite blue sky. A plate of Italian meats on the table and a glass of Antinori Chianti Classico in hand.

Perfect for a food writer to think about food.

I don’t recall how it started, but I found myself running a mental index of things I’ve eaten that others might choose to avoid. Things like calves heart or cows brains, which I first tasted when my age still was counted in single digits. Why not? My mother ate those things. Compared to them, clams on the half shell or raw oysters would be tame. Escargot. Frogs’ legs. Liver. Menudo. Steak tartar with a quail egg yolk nested on top. Anchovies. Haggis.

About the only thing I’ve shied away from that I actually had an opportunity to eat has been rabbit, not because bunnies are cute but because they’re rodents. When I see saddle of rabbit on a menu or in a meat counter it recalls the worm-ridden, diseased critters my friends and I shot in the deserts of northern Los Angeles County when we were in high school two-thirds of a century ago.

Next my mind wandered to wonder what many of my friends and relatives would answer to this question. So, I sent an email to a couple hundred people and asked: Is there something you wouldn’t eat unless it was the last thing standing between you and starvation? No, not some off-beat thing like chocolate covered grasshoppers or fried crickets, although I know people who have eaten each of those. I’m thinking of stuff closer to the mainstream dinner table.

Then I realized there was another side to this coin and added a second question: what is the thing you eat that others might find difficult?

Research at Arizona State University has revealed some of the reasons people have aversions to many foods. Mostly, it comes down to either taste or psychology. And the taste barrier can be formed before birth.

From the time we are born we have a natural dislike for things that are bitter or sour because that steers us away from things that may be poisonous. This, of course, is not universally true as proved by a grand daughter who, at two years old, would pick lemons from the tree in the back yard and chomp into them.

In most instance a child will eat almost anything presented up to the age of about two. After that they will start to reject new tastes and textures. Any of us who have put a spoon full of Gerber’s into an infant’s mouth and then were rewarded with a shower of pureed green peas might debate this one. That same two-year-old, however, is likely to become accepting of new foods as he or she traverses the teen years.

Some food aversions are created by a survival mechanism. Something made us so violently ill we can’t stomach the idea of ingesting it again. A bad oyster. A youthful indiscretion with red wine. Changing body chemistry that suddenly rejects even the smell of the roasting duck we once loved.

Psychology certainly plays a role. Recall the rabbit. A child who is offered a variety of flavors and textures or one who grows up with parents who enjoy different foods has a greater likelihood of being an adventuresome eater. Also under the heading of psychological is the cuteness factor. Bunnies and lambs are cute. Cows aren’t.

Whether in the womb or while nursing, or later through an array of exposures and experiences, what we like and don’t like largely is learned. I never tasted curry until after I met and married Jennifer. She ordered curry in a restaurant one night. I liked the smell and asked for a taste. Now, I cook curried lamb, chicken or shrimp at home. As we frequented Indian restaurants, I learned to appreciate other flavors. Jennifer didn’t like avocados when she first tasted them. She kept trying and now eats avocado several time each month.

I suppose it doesn’t matter so much why a person likes or dislikes certain foods. If a friend likes kale and you can’t stand it, so what. Just don’t eat it. How many of us have told our children, “Try it. If you don’t like it you won’t have to have it again.”

Sometimes cultural issues enter into it. Entire cultures don’t eat beef while others won’t eat pork. We just need to be alert to these things when hosting a dinner party. Problems can be avoided simply by asking.

I count myself fortunate. Mom ate brains and heart as well as clams on the half shell. She ate shav (sorrel soup) and made egg plant salads. Dad loved the meats in Jewish delis. Mom made the best gefelte fish anywhere. So I ate them and can’t understand why others won’t. I had enough wonderful oysters before I came across by first bad one to just brush that very unfortunate experience aside and go back to relishing the good ones. No one has offered me crickets or grasshoppers. But under the right circumstances, I probably would eat the, although I won’t go out of my way to find them.

Now, let’s get back to the questions that launched this whole discussion.

By far and away, the single most mentioned thing was liver. Many said they wouldn’t eat it and many others said they do eat it and imagined others would not. So both were correct.

One friend wrote: “What I eat that others might not like? Liver, as in liver and onions?” That same person listed biscuits and white gravy as a no (“it’s the white gravy I can’t stand”) and then added, “I would rather starve then have to taste or smell a truffle.”

Most, who scorned liver, dismissed it with just one work – “liver” – although one friend said: “Liver. Can’t do it, no matter how smothered in onions.” He then said he likes corn meal mush but doesn’t eat much because he usually goes with grits.

This from a Brit: “I could never bring myself to eat haggis. Just the thought brings me out in shivers. Yet, I love liver and kidneys, something most people I know find disgusting.”

There’s a word – disgusting – that appeared in many answers.

“Two things I eat others find difficult. One is a peanut butter and Swiss cheese sandwich. I’ve been eating this since elementary school. My kids and grandkids ask, ‘Are you really going to eat that? It’s disgusting’.” That same person tells of a Chinese New Year’s banquet “where a whole roasted pig with an apple in its mouth was paraded around the room on a platter. Quite a sight to behold. Later, the pig was sliced and plated for each table. When it arrived at our table it was easy to picture where on the pig the slice came from. We were unable to even take a portion, let alone eat it.”

Many answers included a personal story:

• “Once, in my ill-spent youth, when I was thrown into an Austrian jail with a group of Army buddies, the slop they served us was disgusting. Kinda grey. Sorta like soup with something heavy in the center. We were there for three days and my buddies couldn’t eat it. I ate mine and theirs and I gained weight.”

• “I would never eat Brussels sprouts or eel. I remember being in a fish market as a child and seeing a lady buy this dark, wiggling snake. I asked mother what it was and why she would buy it. I was told it was to eat. I still gag at the thought.” Then she added she loves sushi and has friends who never would eat it. Of course, there’s eel sushi.

• “Kimchi,” wrote another friend. “When my husband worked in Korea Town, he would frequent Korean restaurants for lunch. I always knew he had been eating kimchi. He literally sweated it out of his pores. I wouldn’t allow him into bed until he showered. I wouldn’t let him kiss me unless he brushed his teeth. I’m afraid the day may come when a Korean friend invites me to a meal and expects me to eat kimchi. I’ll probably take a small portion and pretend to enjoy it.”

• From that same person: I would absolutely never eat head cheese, which is not cheese at all, but a cold cut made of by-products of animal heads, held together with gelatin. My German-American husband brings this home from the deli, and I always turn it down. He doesn’t seem to mind. More for him.

• “We were guests of the Chinese in a factory. One of the dishes they served had distinguishable white fried worms. For good relations, we had to eat them. Our hosts were watching. After, they all applauded, but we didn’t have to finish the dish.”

• “I can’t bring myself to eat snails. I would probably rather eat bark from a tree, preferably boiled. I eat beef cheeks and think other people would have a hard time with that.”

Here’s a sampling from some of the other responses:

– “Can’t eat tripe, haggis, or chicken feet. But I like black licorice. (I can hear the groans.”

– “No on liver but I love Peeps.”

– “No internal organs. No rabbit, deer or anything to do with frogs. No mayonnaise.”

– “Fried eggs, Yecch.”

– “I cannot bring myself to eat tongue. Just to think it was in an animals mouth with saliva all around it, or licking something makes me want to retch. The thing I love that other people might not eat is pickled herring and fish roe.”

– “Pigs’ lips, an ingredient in chorizo. I read it on the label many years ago, before chorizo was on every restaurant menu. I’m not sure if it’s still an ingredient. I haven’t checked recently. But chorizo sure is popular.”

– :I tried crickets once. They were crispy. Not many things I might not eat if I was starving. Snakes, rats. Definitely no animal parts like hooves or heads.”

– I won’t eat brains – cow, lamb or any other kinds. I tried it once and didn’t like the texture. I also didn’t like eating insects. Crickets tasted like spicy dirt.”

– “Shrimp and shell fish. As a good Catholic boy, I was forced to eat them every Friday.”

– “I’m with you on the rabbit. I had hare at a very high end restaurant back in the 80’s and found it to be tough and gamey. Next is brains. Count me out unless it’s all there is and I’m literally starving.”

– “You ate haggis with me nearly every day in Scotland and you can’t stomach RABBIT??? I get it. For me, it’s a Japanese dish called basashi (horse-meat sashimi, a delicacy at Japanese ski resorts). HARD PASS on eating that again because it tasted exactly like what it actually was. In the realm of more normal foods: goat cheese. My dear mother once subbed that for ricotta and made lasagna. That huge first mouthful of goat cheese turned me off it for years (forever?).”

There you have it. The highlights of what friends and relatives had to say about their culinary likes and dislikes. Quite an eclectic group. Then there’s the wag who said, “Thing I would have a hard time eating: tripe. Since I’m such a picky eater, I can’t think of anything I eat that would be difficult for others. Although, who doesn’t enjoy a good eye of newt.”

In the end, there’s one important thing that came out of all this. I suspect I will be more willing to try rabbit at my next restaurant opportunity. It probably will come somewhere in England, where I first ate wood pigeon. Maybe this summer.

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