Why do we like and dislike certain foods, crave some whilst turning up our noses in disdain at others? Is there a twist in a gene that determines whether we gorge on cheese or refuse to eat fish? OK, maybe its nothing to do with genes, but instead is the result of conditioning, of what was dished up to us when children. As a parent I don’t think that stacks up. One infant can lick the bowl clean of one mushy mixture whilst another can have fun raspberry blowing it at everything within reach and cementing the strands of his hair with it.
It seems an accepted truth that children hate greens, and despite Popeye-like exhortations that spinach, cabbage and broccoli are good for them, much more fun is to be had by chucking around than by swallowing them. Do greens have a distinctive taste that renders them unpleasant to delicate palates, a whiff of iron, or a flavour of earthy minerals? Perhaps. Though I can’t remember any of my own offspring refusing greens. The ubiquitous onion was the vegetable that caused me to gurgle strangled screams.
Son number one didn’t like onions. If soup was liquidised he would eat it with relish. But when stew or mince was dished up, then every last shred of onion would be tracked down by him, chased around the plate, and piled meticulously at the side. It became something of a standing joke that he didn’t like onion, though he never complained about its inclusion in food, at least not that I remember. With infuriating patience he just tracked each morsel down and picked it out.
I suppose he would have been in his mid teens the year we spent Christmas and New Year in Malta. Between festivities we enjoyed driving around, and one day we headed for Gozo, the small island to the north. In a little seafood restaurant, son caused hilarity when he ordered fish soup and it came with assorted bits of fish swimming in onion-infested liquid. Not translucent slivers of onion, but generous quarters that came up for air like humpback whales each time he dipped in his spoon. Turn up his nose at it? Not at all. It was slurped down with relish as the rest of us sat, disbelief gouged on our faces, and watched him.
His response? These onions didn’t taste the same as the onions I dished up at home.
When into their late teens, nut allergies raised their heads. Walnuts made second son feel ill, whilst daughter developed a frightening allergic reaction to pistachio nuts. As allergies can hardly result from an insistence they eat their mince and tatties, perhaps there is something to my twisted gene theory. Though the same son’s immediate reaction, when young, to drinking undiluted orange squash did point our fingers at tartrazine colouring which numerous foods contained, including child medicines. So perhaps nuts are sprayed with chemicals and the reaction is to that.
Fish was my bugbear. In my early childhood fish was urged on me. Fish was good for you, made your hair curly (or perhaps that was the black crusts of what was quaintly called a ‘plain’ loaf as opposed to ‘pan’ which was more upmarket). Fish was also cheap, especially if your father caught it on a line dangling from a wee boat in the Clyde. In those far-off days of my childhood, fish was still plentiful in the river and no-one raised the question of pollution. The asbestos and war surplus dumped nearby in the Clyde was ignored, perhaps not even known about. Only when the Americans came with their depot ship and submarines did worries grow over pollution and its possible effects.
Fish had bones that stuck between teeth and in the roof of your mouth, or even in your throat, necessitating the eating of a chunk of the aforementioned ‘plain’ loaf and black crust to dislodge it. To this day, I still regard fish with suspicion. Prawns, smoked salmon, tuna, all are fine. On a recent meal at a restaurant I ordered prawns in garlic butter with chilli. What was placed before me was a bowl of langoustines, meaty and deliciously mouth-tickling that will remain in my memory. Marinated herring is even on our menu, but otherwise I steer well clear.
Teenage summers spent on a jetty, seated on an upturned pail, shelling cockles for fishing parties, ensured I would never view cockles, mussels or any such marine fare as food that would pass my lips. The remembrance of those happy days of friendship and laughter, is still tinged by the clinging smell of buckets of ‘matured’ cockles.
It appears our enjoyment, or otherwise, of food is not merely based on taste but on other senses. In a fit of bravery I once tried octopus, or it may have been squid. It wasn’t so much the taste, or lack of it, I found off-putting it was the slimy leathery texture Ugh! The smell of mackerel is enough to make me run from the house, though I have to admit to a liking for husband’s mackerel pate. But, like my son and onions, that tastes different to the actual fish.