There are many adventures in life that come with some risk. Sky diving, zip lining, travel to some foreign countries and race car driving come to mind. Yet, there is one adventure that is not only risk free, but ultimately can be a huge eye opener, and that is food. Short of eating a poisonous mushroom or Japanese Fugu (the puffer fish, which only a few sushi chefs in the world are licensed to prepare because it is highly toxic and potentially fatal if incorrectly prepared), eating food has no risk. The worst thing that could happen is that you don’t like something, but the potential reward of discovering something new and delicious to eat far outweighs that risk.
Jeff and I find this to be the most wonderful kind of adventure. In fact, the first thing either of us does when we are planning an evening out or a future trip somewhere is to research the food and restaurants we want to try. We both live by the motto that there is no such thing as bad food, just bad preparation of a food and therefore it is always worth giving something a second or third go around. We always say, taste first, ask later. Often one’s perceptions get in the way of the potential enjoyment of a new food because of a bad past experience or preconceived notions. What you don’t know can’t hurt you sounds cliché, but it sure does work when it comes to food.
Sure, I draw the line at a few things; for example, domesticated animals are a taboo food to me, but by and large, I will try anything. Hey, maybe elephant grubs are tasty? How would I know since I never had one before, right? Next time I am in Papua, New Guinea, I’ll be sure to remember that. I’m sure there are some cultures that would view moldy cow’s milk as pretty gross too, but blue cheese can be a revelation in the right context. Don’t knock it until you try it.
Ultimately an individual’s food preferences are a product of their culture, which is why I find gastroanthropology so intriguing. One’s life experience has much to do with what one will or will not try when it comes to foods, but the greater cultural history of a group of people is perhaps even more important in terms of how one approaches food. A specific culture’s history of food is inseparable from factors ranging from religious observances to diffusion from other cultures that have conquered the land to the ecological individuality of a specific place. All these factors can create a fairly homogeneous approach to food among a group of people who grew up in the same place. Yet individual preferences may still exist — these being largely attributable to individual genetic variation, including things like how many taste buds are on your tongue. I will now get off my cultural anthropologist soap box.
That being said, the world is becoming a smaller and smaller place thanks to the Internet, television and social networking. What once was a world of isolated cultures is now a global community where food patterns are rapidly adapting and becoming more and more integrated. Hardly a country in the world doesn’t have a McDonald’s or a Subway — a fact about which I will reserve judgment for another time. So it is no coincidence that more and more people are defining themselves as “foodies,” and more and more people seek out the unique opportunity of trying new foods as a means of exploring not only the world, but the limits and/or endless boundaries of their individual palates.
When I teach a cooking class or am planning menus here at the inn, I have to walk the fine line between presenting foods that are recognizable yet will present our guests with the opportunity to discover new flavors. The fact that I use largely locally-grown foods helps me achieve that. Yet, it always amazes me when I hear a guest say something to the effect of, “That was delicious. I never would have ordered it if I had seen it on a menu, but I loved it!” I wonder how many amazing foods some have missed out on tasting because they were afraid to try. So give food a chance. Step out of your comfort zone. You never know what amazing thing you may discover that will change your life.
Monika Sudakov is the chef and innkeeper at the Chestnut Street Inn in Sheffield. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.