The Tricks Our Food Fears Play On Us

A few weeks ago, Mister MA and I got a last-minute invite to tag along with a group of tourists taking an oyster boat excursion on the Puget Sound.

The group, from the Philadelphia area, was on a week-long culinary tour of the Pacific Northwest with their cooking teacher, Susan DiBonaventura.

It was an oyster booze cruise of sorts, an opportunity to sample several kinds of raw oysters, pulled right out of the surrounding waters by the folks at Taylor Shellfish Farms, the event organizers. The booze in question was a Pinot Gris from Oregon which paired beautifully with the briny bivalves.

For many of my travel companions, the wine was more intriguing than the oysters. An oyster is meant to be fried, I heard someone say. How will I chew it, I heard one woman complain.

And then there was Helen, who was clearly on the fence. As she surveyed the gorgeous array of glistening oysters -- as fresh as they come – she cringed at the thought.

Her younger sister Mary, who was happily enjoying the oyster bounty, staged an intervention, much like the Life cereal commercial with Mikey and his siblings.

“Helen, you’re 50 now!” Mary exclaimed, holding Helen by the forearms. “You’ve got to try this!”

The sisters turned around and faced the oyster bar, Helen wincing, as she clutching her wine. “No, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head. But what I did notice is that Helen never really walked away. Perhaps there was still hope.

I suggested to Mary offering Helen a Kumamoto, a Japanese oyster about the size of a quarter, a manageable size for most first-timers. The sisters walked over to the Kumamoto display, and Helen agreed. She’d do it.

With an oyster in one hand and her wine in the other, Helen closed her eyes, tipped the shell towards her mouth and let the oyster pass her lips. A few seconds later, she opened her tear-filled eyes and said, with a smile, “That’s pretty good.”

Ever have a Helen-oyster moment? I remember the trepidation I felt eating sushi for the first time in college or when I had my first taste of Ethiopian food. Once you get over the fear and anxiety of the unknown, the feeling is liberating -- even if you hate the stuff -- because now you know. Right, Helen?

Editor's Note, Oct. 6, 2008: A clarification: The oyster boat excursion mentioned in the text was an oyster tasting paired with wine. The words "booze cruise" were meant to be alliterative, not literal.

By Kim ODonnel |  October 3, 2008; 8:00 AM ET Discoveries , Kitchen Musings
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I was a fussy eater for years and years, and regularly said "Oh, I don't like X food." When I was in college, I realized I said that a lot without even knowing if I'd ever tried it. So I set a personal rule: I can't say I don't like something if I can't remember trying it. It was quite liberating. Except for the time I tried chitlins and asked what they were just before biting in. I've never really recovered from that...

Posted by: Eggplant | October 3, 2008 9:20 AM

"An oyster is meant to be fried, I heard someone say. How will I chew it, I heard one woman complain."

How are you going to go on a "Culinary Tour" and have thoughts like this?
Not to get all food snobby, but I would rule out the opinion of anyone who thinks a fried oyster tastes better than a raw one.

Is this is a Philly thing?
I'm pretty sure New Yorkers, Bostonians and DC folk are cool with raw oysters.

-Loyal Seattlite

Posted by: Frank | October 3, 2008 11:28 AM

Hey Frank: My point here is that at some point in our lives, we all have one of these Helen-esque moments. The key here is that she overcame her fear, no?

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | October 3, 2008 12:09 PM

my husband is a very picky eater & my son is just like him. there are many many things that husband does not like but he has slowly stepped up to the plate & actually tried new things. some of it, i think, has to do with the a person's comfort level or sense of adventure. i have a much greater sense of adventure than my husband has. husband has texture issues. whether he has lost his sense of adventure because of his texture issues or not, i can't say.
i am also willing to acquire a taste for something & husband won't. he sees no need to "learn to like" a food.

Posted by: quark | October 3, 2008 12:32 PM

I went to pre-Vatican 2 Catholic schools as a child and Fridays in the cafeteria always meant overcooked, dried-out fish sticks. My mother would compound the problem by serving the same thing for dinner. Occasionally she'd switch to fresh fish, or frozen filets, but the overcooking was a constant. I think it was because she would use the cooking-times-and-temperatures given for oven-cooking, but she would use an electric frying pan. And then add fifteen minutes just to be safe. Consequently I... Couldn't. Stand. Fish.

One day I was over at a friends, and his mother was in the back yard with a camp stove, a frying pan, and a batch of freshly caught rainbow trout his father had brought home. The smell was heavenly. His mom managed to convince me to try some, and my whole outlook on fish changed.

Fortunately, I was out of the Catholic school by then. My mom, however, never did learn to cook fish correctly. A few times when my parents were over for dinner I served salmon, and she would always wonder how I made it come out so moist and tender.

Posted by: fudd | October 3, 2008 12:48 PM

Not exactly an "overcoming food fear" moment, but nonetheless an "aha" of the first times I ate dinner with my now-in-laws, they served steak. My dad is of the school that everything should be very well done, and I'd never had steak another way. What a revelation that steak could taste so good when it wasn't, ya know, shoe leather! Interestingly, MIL cooks a beautiful steak, but miserable pork chops (it's that extra 10 minutes, just to be safe thing) and DH had never had good pork chops until he ate with my family.

Posted by: librarylady | October 3, 2008 4:20 PM

I LOVE trying new things - be it raw oysters or Ethiopian cusine. I just jump right on in. With oysters, it started as a seafood appetizer at a really upscale place. It was Mom's 40th birthday, and she wanted to be taken out to a really nice place. Forget the gifts, she wanted only lobster. Dad ordered a mix of chilled seafood for the table and on it was some raw oysters. My brother said "Ewwwwwwww". Well, that's a challenge. Nothing like a little sibling rivalry to get me to try something! I asked Mom how to eat them, and down it went. I was expecting it to be gross, but it was pretty good! Now it is one of my favorite appetizers. I seek them out all the time because they are a tasty treat and still leaves me room for dinner.

A "Helen" moment came the first time I had blue cheese salad dressing as a teen. I hated the stuff as a kid - too strong! I ordered a salad with ranch and it came out with blue cheese instead. I didn't want to make a fuss, so I just decided to eat around it because I knew I didn't like it. I accidentally got some and... that's really good! Really, really good! As in my favorite dressing ever good!

Posted by: DC Cubefarm | October 3, 2008 4:36 PM

Figs. Fig Newtons were fine, although from time to time that seedy crunch bothers me. But something about fresh figs, I don't know (I have other soft-fruit-with-seeds issues--strawberries took me a while). But I was served them at a fancy dinner and realized they're tasty! That said, I'm pretty sure if I bought some, they'd sit in the fridge and I somehow wouldn't get around to them . . .

Posted by: Marianne | October 4, 2008 12:54 AM

Brussel Sprouts!
I saw a Brussel Sprout for the first time when I was in college. My parents never served them when I was growing up, and I've always avoided them. So, I was 40 years old and making "Ick!" faces at the Brussel Sprouts at my office cafeteria. The chef saw me and told me he'd buy me lunch if I ate one. I'll never pass up a free lunch, so I tried one, and now they are my favorite veggies! I bought the chef lunch! I eat the baby sprouts steamed and buttered (some time with a little Parm cheese) just for a snack! My husband complains that the house is always "sprout stinky!"

Posted by: Jess | October 6, 2008 8:01 AM

I have a friend who said: learn to eat everything; it makes life easier!

Posted by: Shirley | October 6, 2008 11:22 AM

I'm a pretty daring eater and love trying new things. However, in grad school I worked right next door to an environmental microbiology lab and... well, let's just say it was way more than you would ever want to know about oysters. I'll eat steamed clams, I'll eat fried oysters, but raw? Um, no thanks. I have tried them, and have no plans to ever do so again.

Posted by: Reine de Saba | October 6, 2008 12:08 PM

My I-don't-believe-it moment was at the Fish House Restaurant in JoBurg when I first tried fried calamari. It was great! Just wish I could find some that tender and tasty here.......

Posted by: Frederick | October 6, 2008 1:03 PM

The only thing so far in my adult life that I have turned down was putrified shark in Iceland . . . although I did hate canned beets, canned green beans, and "salad dressing" (which Mom used instead of mayo) as a kid.

Posted by: Mary G. | October 6, 2008 4:58 PM

I'm a big fan of try everything once. It got me re-introduced to fish and reinforced my belief that pickled beets are nasty.

The only food I have ever turned down was jellied beluga whale meat, offered to me with mustard, while stranded for 6 hours on a mud flat with... a live (and also stranded) beluga whale. It was not his meat, and it had been obtained legally, but call it dehydration from overexertion, but I wasn't ready to try it without anything to wash it down.

And the best part about oysters is squeezing lemon on them -- if they're fresh and opened just right, they wiggle.

Posted by: NC2 | October 7, 2008 4:45 PM

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