Reflections on Taste Socialization

Joan Gross

While reading a story to my two grandkids over Skype, I was struck by how tastes become culturally normalized.  It was a Sesame Street book and they became most animated around the character of Oscar the Grouch and what he was eating. Oscar is a prototype of a dumpster diver, only he actually lives in a garbage can, as well as eating from it. His pseudo ID card in volume 3 of the Sesame Street Treasury lists his favorite food as a sardine and spinach sundae and his favorite drink as pickle juice. “Yuck!” they both exclaimed with their tongues hanging out in pure disgust. (Only they actually said “Beurck!” because French is their mother tongue and sounds of disgust are not universal.) The five year old repeated “sardines and spinach on ice cream! That doesn’t go together,” showing that she already knew what kinds of foods could be acceptably combined. These kids have nothing against sardines or spinach, but at the ages of 3 ½ and 5, they know that in their world these ingredients don’t go with ice cream.

I remember reading a long time ago about some Alaska Native children who would eagerly line up to get their spoonful of cod liver oil in boarding school and even sneak back for a second helping. Meanwhile in the lower 48, most kids were repelled by the taste. I hated the taste before I ever tasted it because it was so often used as an example of a bad taste. Speaking of bad tastes, who can stomach the taste of soap? Hopefully, it is no longer being employed as a punishment for children who use inappropriate language. But I remember when my son, who was about a year old, reached for the soap in the bathtub and put it in his mouth before I could disarm him. He made a face, but went right back for more, as if the taste was strange and curious, rather than bad or disgusting. His son did a similar thing when we gave him blue cheese at around the same age. He scrunched up his face and shook his head a bit, but then went back for more. In the first case, my son received negative feedback seeing the look of disgust on my face and telling him not to eat soap and to my knowledge, he stopped experimenting with that taste. In the second case, my grandson received positive feedback as we all smiled and gave him attention. He watched the rest of his family eat blue cheese and must have felt that he was a member of the group—the strong cheese eaters.

Eating what others around you eat is an important part of socialization. I was shocked to see 5 and 6 year old Mexican and Kuwaiti boys eat hot peppers that I wouldn’t dare touch. When a child doesn’t like a signature food of their culture, families will often attempt to alter those taste preferences. So it was with Abdel in Morocco who didn’t like fava beans. His mother noted that he always left them on the table and ate everything else. Then one day, he showed up at the table and all there was to eat was fava beans. She opined that if he was hungry, he would eat them. He did, and eventually learned to like them, or at least to tolerate them. This was a clear case of shaping the child to the environment, rather than shaping the environment to the child. I took the latter path when we accepted to have the teenage son of a Spanish family we knew spend a school year with us. He announced that he hated onions, so I scrupulously removed all onions when cooking for him, but found it very annoying since onions are so much a part of my basic cooking. I visited his mother (who is a wonderful cook) a couple years later and asked her about the onions. It turns out that she took a sneakier third path, disguising the ingredient. She said that she just chopped them up very finely and cooked them in a variety of dishes and he never knew the difference. I kicked myself for not having asked sooner.

This reminds me of another vignette concerning onions, a mother, and a son. The incident occurred soon after a local food organization that I was affiliated with had started featuring a vegetable every month in the public schools. The organizer would tell about the vegetable and then prepare a tasting. In the grocery store, I overheard a boy about 9 years old asking his mother to buy onions. She replied, “but you don’t like onions” to which he responded, “I like them now because we tasted them in school.” What better validation for a school food program!

Taste preferences do change over time, sometimes encouraged by parents and sometimes by public education. People also train themselves to like certain tastes, even if they are repugnant at first, such as the first taste of coffee (without cream and sugar) or an alcoholic drink. I don’t remember my own early adventures in tasting, but I do remember an incident from my early teens. Today, I am a huge fan of fermented milk products like yogurt and kefir and I like them best unsweetened. I’ve been making my own kefir for about 7 years and have given kefir grains to numerous people. However, I had never tasted unsweetened fermented milk when my family moved to Turkey when I was 13. We had met a family in a village and they invited us to their home. They gave each of us a tall glass of ayran (a yogurt drink). I was pretty sure that I could choke down anything in order to be a good guest as my mother had taught me, but I could not stand the ayran. As everyone’s ayran disappeared, my glass was still full except for two or three sips that I took trying to convince myself that I could finish it. I really felt that it would make me vomit. I knew that it would be terribly rude to say that I didn’t like it, so I had to think of a plan. I began scratching my arm until red welts appeared. I then declared that I must be allergic to ayran. The mother quickly took my glass away. I was glad that I had figured out a way to avoid ayran, without offending the family. Thinking back on the incident, I would be surprised if our hosts would have been offended by a 13 year old American not liking ayran and I doubt that my fake allergy fooled anyone. Years later, as an adult, I was in Berlin and went immediately to a Turkish food cart and ordered ayran. I drank it right down and it was delicious. Maybe next time I’m in Portland, I’ll order some pear and blue cheese ice cream at Salt and Straw. Maybe I’ll even suggest that they try a new flavor with sardines and spinach.

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