This apparatus occasionally goes haywire. In 2007 BBC Television chronicled the struggle of David Nunley, a strapping 28-year-old father of two, to overcome a lifelong inability to eat anything but cheese, chips, and white bread. After four weeks of therapy and nutritional counseling, he managed to add salad to his diet; hot food still made him gag.
You don't have to be as compulsive as Nunley to feel similar dread. History is full of stories of ordinary people who refused to eat unfamiliar food. The first colonists to America faced this predicament, myths of the first Thanksgiving to the contrary. They "had come upon a land of plenty," according to Eating in America, by Waverley Root and Richard de Rochemont. "They nearly starved in it." Why? Because among other things, they "could not or would not adapt themselves to the foods available locally...and elected instead to depend on supplies from England." Close to death, many awaited shipments of English beef rather than swallow a morsel of lobster or a clam. The few among them who trusted the natives eventually provided a bridge to these strange new forms of sustenance.
It sounds perverse, until you consider what you would do if you washed up on the shores of Cheju island and were offered a meal of sautéed silkworm pupae. You, too, might bide your time, hoping for a box of Cap'n Crunch to float in on the waves.
Yet, clearly, diets aren't set in stone. We constantly add new things—goji berries, lemongrass, Splenda—and reject others—chicken nuggets, say, after seeing Food, Inc. "You can think yourself into an aversion," says Capaldi. And most of the time, you can think yourself out of one.
Fuchsia Dunlop did. The English author of two Chinese cookbooks and a memoir, Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper, she went to great pains to get past her revulsion to some of the foods she was fed in China—including goose intestines, pig brain, scorpions, bee larvae, and tendons from cows' throats, which she describes as "just like rubber bands." Because the Chinese truly relish these foods, she wanted to learn to like them, too. It helped to realize that Chinese cuisine, which has been evolving for thousands of years, celebrates variety in textures—slimy, chewy, gelatinous, crunchy—the way French cuisine champions complexity in flavor. "In China, the sensation of a thing in your mouth is part of the pleasure of eating it," says Fuchsia. "In the West, if you get a bit of cartilage in your mouth, it's the rubbish, but in China it's the good part. It's fun to try negotiating your way through a chicken wing with your teeth and tongue."
Still, she admits that overcoming certain aversions required an iron will. Take "thousand-year-old eggs," made by submerging raw duck eggs for three months in a brew of ash, lime, tea, and salt. "The white turns into brownish jelly, and the yolk is a dark creamy thing edged in moldy green-gray." At first Fuchsia found them revolting, but now she eats them with abandon, having decided to "think of them as the egg equivalent of blue cheese."
I can't say how I'd react if served a thousand-year-old-egg, but, like Fuchsia, I see aversions as obstacles worth fighting to overcome. I've been this way since I was a kid and vowed to taste an olive and an oyster every year until I grew to like them—an outcome I had utter faith in.
But I must confess that my tolerance for odd foods sometimes makes me intolerant of other people's aversions to them, and that's not fair. Much as I'd like to coerce my husband into eating delicious, slow-cooked beef tongue, I have to accept that only he can decide what to him is delicious, and what remains banished forever to the land of utter yuck.
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