Last Monday, someone remarked to me, “In the past two posts you talked about tasting your food. But mostly it seems that the CIA teaches skills and craft. What does it do to teach how food should taste? Also, how do you cook food well that you don't like? There's the guy who only eats burgers—does he know what foie gras should be like? I love to cook but don't like dessert. So: I just don't make desserts—problem solved. You don't have that luxury; you have to make what you don't like.”
I guess I need to make a confession of sorts. I’m like a lot of people—there are foods I prefer not to eat. Given a choice between eating a red (or green) pepper and not eating it, I’ll usually take a pass. Raw onions? Yeah, okay, but I’d prefer they were cooked. I’m not a fan of food so spicy your ears start to sweat. Brown rice? Well, if there’s no Carolina, basmati, or jasmine available…
But those are simple likes, dislikes, and indifferences. My skin won’t seize up at the thought of eating those foods. And I routinely eat peppers, onions, and brown rice without any resentment. In fact, I made a vegetable risotto in class that included red and green peppers which, when paired with Portobello mushrooms, took on a fairly sensational flavor.
On the other hand, I do have a couple of aversions. Both of them are real pains in the ass, too.
An aversion is something beyond reason, something that burps itself up out of your subconscious murk. It’s not a phobia—nowhere near as intense. Rather, it’s a knee-jerk response that, in the case of food, pretunes your palate to—no matter what the thing actually tastes like—broadcast an unpleasant white noise.
So my confession:
I hate fin fish.
And I hate almost all cheese that isn’t used as an ingredient and cooked into something.
The texture and flavor of most fish turns to trash in my mouth. Salmon and bluefish, in particular, both induce a low-grade, opaque nausea. Mackerel doesn’t sit so well, either.
Last night our friends Astrid and Erik were over and they brought with them several cheeses that stank alternately of vomit and putrescence. The more corpse-like the scent, the greater their enjoyment. Nelly, who doesn’t eat as much of the substance as she’d like, mainly because of my disgust, was delighted. The taste of the stuff, which I do distinctly remember trying as a kid, is (to me) a too-intense flood of dairy. Way more creamy than I can really handle. And, of course, with accents of rot.
But here’s where irrationality flexes itself: I love shellfish. I love mollusks. I will eat them raw or cooked, in any form. I like sushi. If you bread or batter a piece of cod, flounder, halibut, etc., and deep fry it, I will enjoy it with great pleasure.
And more: I made fresh mozzarella in class Thursday night and it was pretty damn good. I’ll liberally shave parmesan over any number of foods. I was really proud of an onion soup I made several weeks back. If there is cheese in a dish, melted and mingled, it usually tastes better with it than without it.
None of this makes any real sense. And it’s really a drag: those are two foodstuffs you run into with circadian frequency.
I read a piece by cranky Jeffrey Steingarten last summer that said it takes only 8 to 10 encounters with a food for a little kid to dismantle an aversion to it. As an adult, would it take more or less? Is it possible after a certain point?
My third dinner at school found me in the Banquet and Catering dining room, a full service cafeteria where waiters in vests and ties serve you your food, three courses of it, and attend your requests for iced cappuccinos, espressos, or iced teas with simple syrup. You don’t really have a choice what you eat, though. That night, I was confronted with a plate of broiled salmon. I drew the tines of my fork through the fillet’s flaking outer layers of pink flesh, and cut a chunk off. I would start nipping this aversion right here and now. I ate it. It tasted like mud. I got through six more bites before I admitted defeat.
A few nights later, I did battle with a plate of gravlax, later still more salmon, then sea bass, and tuna. At no point did any of them hum on my palate. They just didn’t taste good to me. In fact, they tasted pretty awful.
And then, of course, the time came when I had to cook them.
The initial engagement: a filet of salmon. It was to be poached in a court bouillion (water, wine, vinegar, bay leaf, carrot, onion, garlic, celery) and served with a sauce béarnaise.
Okay, I thought. No big deal. Just cook the thing, serve it, get evaluated, and go get something to eat.
One of the mantras that gets chanted ad infinitum at the CIA is simply: taste, taste, taste, taste, taste. Taste your food as you’re cooking it. Adjust seasonings. Do not let a stage go by in your cooking wherein it is not tasted. I made the bouillion and set it to simmer. Then I started the béarnaise: beat egg yolks with a vinegar-shallot-cracked peppercorn-tarragon reduction. Ladle in clarified butter. Beat the hell out of it with your whisk. Hold it over hot water until you’re ready. When the bouillion was set, I tasted it. It was pretty much all you can expect from water, vinegar, wine, etc. I tasted the béarnaise. A little rich, a bit thick. I thinned it with a few drops of water. Then I tasted it again. I added some more salt.
The bouillion was now at about 175 degrees. I figured the heat would drop ten or so degrees when I added the fish, which would still be in bounds for proper poaching temperature. I laid the fillet in, gently, and let it poach. Killing time, I stirred the béarnaise. I waited 10 minutes, watching the salmon fillet float dumbly around the liquid. The color began to fade and turn from red to pink. At some point near the 11 minute mark, it just looked done. I removed the salmon from its bath and blotted it dry. I poked it with my finger; it seemed to have the requisite amount of give. Then I put it on a warm plate, sauced it with the béarnaise, grabbed a couple of utensils, and carried the whole thing over to the Skills Chef.
“Hey,” he said, tipping the plate back and forth. “Nice consistency with the sauce.” He cut the filet open. It had the same appearance as the salmon that had defeated me at those dinners. He tasted it, chewed, and looked at me. “Okay, take a bite.”
“Do you need a fork? Here.” He handed me a fork.
“No, I have one.” Another couple of silent beats went by.
“Well, the clock’s ticking—let’s go.”
I reached over, cut a piece off, and put it in my mouth. I wrinkled my face.
“Well,” he said. “What do you think?”
“Oh, man,” I answered. “It tastes like…” Shit? Yes, it does. But no, you better keep it clean. “It tastes like mud.” He looked distressed. He leaned in with his fork and speared another bite.
“No, no, no,” he said, chewing. “It’s not that bad. Okay, you need a little more tarragon in the béarnaise, but it’s not the end of the world. Don’t beat yourself up. The salmon’s done really nicely. It’s not mud—you did a nice job.”
I thanked him and walked back to my station. I paid close attention to the color of the fish. I started poking it again and again with my fingers, just to remember the texture of it—for next time.
But as for how the palate gets trained, that’s up next.