Day 904: Acquiring A Taste For Acquired Tastes

originally published June 22, 2014

Earlier today, someone suggested to me that I pen an article about surströmming, which is a northern Swedish delicacy. As with any food that is considered a delicacy of a very specific region, yet has not made the official menu of well-known cliché ethnic foods from its nation (in Sweden’s case that would be meatballs, lingonberry sauce and whatever that whacky Muppet is cooking up), I knew it would sound gross. And it does. Surströmming is a fermented Baltic sea herring whose odor is allegedly so horrendous it has been banned from two major airlines and the Stockholm airport.

It’s an “acquired taste”, I’ve been told. This is a puzzling psychological concept to me, and would make for a more interesting kilograph than some terrorist cousin of the anchovy family.* There are foods I have tried and loved from the first bite – Kobe steak tartar, key lime pie, crème brulé, among others. But it’s true that sometimes a particular gustatory journey requires baby steps before the palette can truly hit its stride. Why is that?

Even beer. When my beloved aunt and uncle gave me my first can of O’Keefe’s Extra Old Stock (my father passed on this rite of traditional bonding; he was more a drinker of wine and A&W Cream Soda), I hated it. Maybe that was because it was crappy beer, but I really think my tongue just needed some training wheels before it could appreciate what hops and malt could become. It’s a curious thing.

Babies are born with a predilection for sweet foods and a natural disdain for bitter or sour stuff. We don’t generally lean toward salty eats until about four months, but once we leap off the boob into a heaping bowl of solid foods we become suddenly very adventurous. This might explain why those little two-nub pieces of Lego can so easily find their way into a toddler’s gullet (though I suspect Freud would say that has more to do with a penis obsession, the sick bastard). Not long afterward, neophobia sets in.

Here’s a word you can use to smack down anyone who doesn’t want to hear that new underground avant-garde noise-music band you just discovered, or someone who won’t check out Breaking Bad because it seems too “weird”. Neophobia is a fear of novelty, and in the food world that means the fear of trying anything that might slap our taste buds into unknown waters. As we drift into our teens we usually overcome our neophobia (to some extent), and are willing to unleash a little morsel of the unknown into our masticating repertoire now and then.

This is around the time some people discover they are supertasters, those fortunate few who can pluck the essence of cumin from a sauce or isolate that dash of paprika that ties together grandma’s meatloaf. A supertaster is someone with an astounding sensitivity to bold tastes, and depending on their personal groove and personality they might gravitate toward exploring those eclectic global tastes or avoiding them completely, finding their intensity genuinely painful to experience.

And that’s part of the puzzle. Your personality could influence whether or not you ever warm up to the mighty bite of imported olives. Since the supertaster gift can also be a genetic inheritance, you might have your ancestry to blame for your inability to acquire an appreciation for those bizarre and brash flavors. Repeated exposure might work; it took me three or four high school parties before the sting of a lager’s bite became music to my mouth. Since then, I have swum down Kolsch canals and lambic lagoons, exploring all corners of the beer world – not merely for professional research (I moonlight as a copy writer for one of the truly great Canadian brew-makers), but because I love it.

Other foods which are staples of our deviant western culture are also considered to be acquired tastes. Coffee doesn’t hug everyone’s soul – worldwide it takes an eternal backseat to tea as the warmed-up cup o’ choice. Goat cheese, which I find to be creamy, rich, and not unlike the flavor equivalent of sliding into a toasty hot tub after a brutal day of labor, repels some folks. Caviar is another, and while I’ve only sampled it a half-dozen times, I have found half of those experiences to be rather pleasant.

Olives are a mighty deal-breaker; I have yet to encounter a soul who is indifferent to those little blobs of boisterous intent. Some love plucking them from their tiny portable pools of gin or their luxurious landscapes of Greek salads and popping them into their mouths. Others – and I count myself among this bunch – might enjoy lobbing them across the table into friends’ mouths for sport, but we despise the notion of actually eating one. It’s an acquired taste, sure, but for us it would also be a reversal of passions.

But passions – and tastes – can change.

You can do it the hard way if you want. Bite into that canned surströmming and pretend to like it. Mimic the responses of others who actually do. Embrace your attempt at conformity and realize it’s not entirely a bad thing. This is often how foreign travelers – in particular those who plan on residing in another land for an extended stay – have to do it. Eventually you’ll either reach the point where even the sight of a tin of surströmming will force your uvula to reach down your throat and induce vomiting, or you’ll realize you’re starting to fancy the little guys.

Chemicals can do it too. A 2005 study by Smit & Blackburn found that adding caffeine and theobromine (both of which are active compounds in chocolate) to a drink that participants tried several times yielded positive results. They measured this against another identical drink to which they added a neutral placebo, and there was a distinct preference for the chemically-treated stuff. This could be because those little chemicals found in chocolate stimulate the same mind and body effects as chocolate without altering the flavor. We can learn to love a food if it feels good.

So maybe any of us could learn to love surströmming. It’s often served in a sandwich form, stuffed between two slices of a thin, square crispy bread called tunnbröd (which I imagine tastes something like matzo, the stuff we Jews torture ourselves with every Passover), with butter, boiled and sliced potatoes, thinly-diced onions and a strong cheese like Västerbotten. On second thought, it might be smarter to acclimate oneself to surströmming on its own first. That’s a lot of mighty Viking flavors vying for the conquest of my tongue.

Or maybe not. Some souls are simply not inclined to be adventurous in their consumption. It was a proud day for me when my son dared to stray from the blasé beef ‘n peapods dish and sample the zesty Szechuan chicken from our favorite Chinese place. Yet my 17-year-old daughter still often orders her burgers barren of anything more adventurous than burger, bun and cheese.

And bacon. Of all the tastes out there to be savored, bacon should be the easiest to acquire. That’s just common sense.

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