Traveling can force you into compromising your food habits, especially the bad ones. Sometimes you have no choice but to choke down cold pea gazpacho so you don’t appear rude to your Dutch hosts. Sometimes your parent may lie to you about what you’re eating to keep from hearing your complaints. Traveling while doing a limited diet, such as Paleo or Whole30, will force you to get creative and surprise yourself at what you become willing to eat. It was only while doing an elimination diet in 2016 that I discovered I loved Brussels sprouts. I love them so much now that I ate four different preparations of them at four different restaurants in one day in Asheville. If they’re on a menu, I will almost always order them. How did I make it into my 30s before I made this discovery? Because one time, in my youth, I either saw or smelled or tasted boiled Brussels sprouts and boiled Brussels sprouts are disgusting, so every time I saw the word anywhere else for the rest of my life, I shook my head. No. Hard pass.
How many other things have I stupidly said no to throughout my life?
(Well, this will be embarrassing.) Sandwiches that weren’t peanut butter and jelly. Fish. Tacos. Fish tacos. Kale, spinach, and most green food besides broccoli. Fruit in my salad. Mango salsa. Nachos. Mexican street corn. Herbal tea. Sushi. Octopus. Anchovy butter. Indian food. Empanadas. Kombucha. Pesto. Butter chicken spring rolls. Whipped feta. Bacon wrapped dates, bacon wrapped shrimp, bacon wrapped ANYTHING.
I’m still kicking myself for not eating (non-fried) seafood until college. I grew up in FLORIDA. Now, every time I go back, I make sure I get fresh sea food during as many meals as I can. I just wish I could travel back in time and force-feed Younger Me some swordfish or crab fried rice or grilled octopus so I could make this discovery earlier in life. This cautious approach to cuisine applied to drinks as well. I was 34 before I realized I love gin. And then I got pregnant before I could even really explore the world of gin cocktails. (I’ve since made up for that.)
Choosing to Learn to Love Food
Food is such an integral part of travel, another experiential dimension that I was totally missing out on. How many flavors did I forgo the year I lived in Paris? What did I not taste in Italy? What restaurants did we skip because I wouldn’t eat at them all those times I’ve gone to New York? Watching shows like Top Chef or Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown always made me wrinkle my nose in distaste — “They’re going to eat that?!” — but at the same time, I was envious of people who were unafraid to taste almost anything. I wanted to embrace a similar sense of adventure. I wanted to be unafraid. So, a few years ago, I made a decision to work on my relationship with food and be more culinarily curious. Do I still fall back to easy, comforting things like Caesar salad, salmon, pizza, and bread? Yes. Those are delicious. But I also have new comfortable go-to choices for when I’m not feeling adventurous, like certain sushi rolls, Brussels sprouts, and Pho.
Since embracing more foods and flavors, I’ve discovered how fun it is to eat our way through a city. You meet people, you eat things, you hear stories, you learn about culture; spending time in a city’s restaurants can give you a real sense of a place. Some of our best travel memories have happened at a plate-covered bar in a restaurant. In fact, my entire recollection of San Francisco is a string of bars and restaurants, and one of my fondest memories from our Hawaiian honeymoon was eating squid in at least one form every single day.
The night we splurged on the tasting menu at the Catbird Seat here in Nashville was unforgettable. No, I never want to eat fish sperm or sea urchin again, but it was so much fun trying the unthinkable flavor combinations and bizarrely plated food. I’d never even heard of a quince before (it’s a kind of fruit). But shad roe porridge was surprisingly delicious and I unexpectedly enjoyed duck tartar. Younger Me would never have even considered such a venture! As weird as it was, I actually would love to go back for another culinary adventure (without being pregnant though, so I can do the wine pairing too).
Horse Heart Carpaccio and Other Things I Still Won’t Eat
For the most part, I will now try anything, with a few notable exceptions:
- Red meat. I wasn’t raised on red meat, so I never developed a taste for it and my body never learned to digest it. The smell and appearance are less than appetizing. And most nutritionists will say that you’re not missing much if you skip the red meat, so I don’t feel like I’m missing out.
- Too much dairy. Most of the time, I want to eat as few inflammatory foods as I can, which includes most dairy products. Growing up, I believed I was lactose intolerant so I avoided many of them and never developed a taste for cheese. While I don’t mind cheese in or on things, I will never be a person who just eats hunks of cheese. Sorry, France.
- Mushrooms. I keep trying, but y’all, this is a texture issue. The flavor doesn’t bother me, and I really like the mushroom/quinoa croquette I tried recently and the mushroom milk that E +Rose makes, but the texture of cooked mushrooms is just unappetizing.
- Horse heart carpaccio. I considered it, but I wasn’t brave enough. Justin ate almost all of it though.
- Anything that is super soggy, mushy, soft, or gelatinous will make me think twice. As I’ve been experimenting with more food and learning why I like or dislike things, I’ve realized that TEXTURE plays a huge role in my tastes. Thinking back to my childhood when I disliked most food, texture was the reason I didn’t like vegetables; I thought they came from cans and were always mushy. Who knew green beans could be crisp?! <<mindblown>>
- Oysters, sashimi, poke, crudo, really just any raw seafood I can’t do. The flavors don’t bother me, but every single time I even consider putting some in my mouth, I gag. The mouthfeel of those foods just doesn’t work for me. I do wish I liked sashimi, and since I have discovered that I love sushi, I’m hoping I can convince myself over time to get over the texture. One day. That day is not today.
- Im still trying to like soup. In concept, it makes me gag, but the many health benefits of bone broths make me want to like them. So when I’m sick, I eat chicken noodle soup and if bone broth is an option, I’ll take it. I’ve even come to love chicken or pork pho. But I can’t do blended soups or bisques.
A Work in Progress
It’s okay not to like things. I will never, ever like tomatoes, nor will I ever voluntarily choose to eat peas, and I’m okay with that. But I at least want to try something before I make a decision about whether or not I like it instead of letting my assumptions and fears make that decision for me. And now that I’m a parent, I want to practice what I preach by modeling this behavior to my son. I don’t want my son to miss out on the fun when he travels with us. And I think it’s especially important to expand our palettes for foods that nourish us, like vegetables. I am not a fan of carrots, but I continue to eat them, trying them in different preparations, exposing my taste buds to their flavors in their many forms. Because I may not like them now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t in the future! (Like fish. And tacos. And fish tacos. UG!)
I spent so much of my youth looking for the blandest, most boring menu items that I made it to my thirties without knowing what I liked — or even knowing what I didn’t know I might like. I empathize with those who stick with the familiar; it’s safe, comforting, easy to stay in the shallow end. But sometimes we have to be willing to venture into the deep end, to try something we’ve never considered or can’t even pronounce. Because that’s when we discover things not only about the places we visit but also about ourselves. (Like me and Brussel sprouts! Seriously. What was wrong with me?)
My palette is a work in progress. So if you ever cook me dinner, as long as it’s something that won’t make me physically ill, I’ll try it. Unless you put ketchup on a club sandwich, in which case you can take that sandwich and shove it. (I’m looking at you, Belgium.)
So what about YOU? Are you an adventurous eater or culinarily cautious? What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever eaten? What’s something you love to eat now that Younger You would be appalled by? What food advice would you give Younger You?