Food & Drink: A bad oyster from the barrel

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ONE'S ordinary distastes in food are not entirely rational, although we may seek to rationalise them. Madame insists, for instance, that it is ill-bred to serve offal of any kind, even the most delicate calves' liver, to guests; to which I reply that this may be so in her French family, but I have often been served it in discriminating Italian houses. Is this not a simple and irrational prejudice?

She replies that one of her best friends, who suffers grossly from athlete's foot, will not eat mushrooms because they, too, are fungous in origin] So much for rationality.

There is no doubt that we all have certain things we do not eat, and a wide variety of reasons for which we do not do so. Some motives are very high-minded and rest on philosophical principles as well as taste - for instance, vegetarianism. Then there are individual religious prohibitions, many of which - such as the Semitic prohibition on pork - were originally rooted in dietary common sense. Quite often, the reason why we do not eat X has to do with the fact that we have had a bad experience with it in our past.

I remember well Madame preparing her lapin normand for a celebrated writer only to be told, when we sat down at table, that he had once been violently ill from eating rabbit and simply could not face repeating the experience. Luckily she had a supply of a navarin printanier (lamb with vegetables) left over from her son's earlier dinner and was able to supply the same to our guest.

But I know the feeling. After one of my two experiences with a bad oyster - this one from a barrel in a back- street cafe in Mexico City on the way home from a football game - it took me a year before an oyster and I could look each other in the eye. After the second experience - in a run-down resort in the Transkei - I decided the occasional bad oyster was, like the occasional honest stockbroker or car salesman, one of those things one simply had to accept. Life is hazardous; there are occasional bad surprises; and, more rarely, good ones.

I have very few things I do not like; and to my knowledge, there are none I will not eat. I may have recounted the story of Lalage Pulvertaft but it bears repeating, because it shows that hospitality may go wrong despite the best intentions. On this occasion we were being offered dinner in Miss Pulvertaft's father's apartment in the Inns of Court (I seem to recall her father was a judge) and her appetisers were sticks of fresh celery, her opening course, perfectly conventionally, grapefruit slices, and her pudding, baked bananas. In one meal she had contrived to offer me three things I do not much like, for I am fussy about my grapefruit, which must be pink, very fresh and sweet, I like celery only cooked and bananas only raw.

The point is that one cannot know what others do not like. Having recently hosted a dinner for 85 (for commercial, not personal, reasons) for which a rather fine young chef, Tony Ambrose, had fetched up genuine spring lamb and cooked it superbly, I saw that 10 per cent of my guests did not eat it. On inquiry, I determined that one or two did not like lamb (this being in the United States, where lamb is a minority taste, I presumed this was a case of unfamiliarity) but half a dozen or so thought it was, being pinkish, uncooked - for there is a proportion of people anywhere who will not eat meat unless it is charred beyond recognition.

But to return to Madame's concerns about offal, I have a strong suspicion that many of our distastes originate not with the food but with texture, the feel of the food in the mouth. This was an obstacle in my schooldays with tapioca pudding, a dessert that has all but disappeared from most menus. On the plate, it looked like albino frog spawn; in the mouth it neither slid nor admitted chewing. Okra, especially when overcooked, has been known to produce a similar revulsion.

I am very fond, for instance, of pig's feet in particular or brawn in general, but I can understand that the mix of cartilege and slime is not to the taste of all. Then to texture one must add a whole set of mental images which are also powerful deterrents. Language being what it is, central to our distinction within the animal kingdom, there is something that impedes many from eating the tongues of one's fellow creatures. For associated reasons, both pancreas and brain are no-nos. As for tripe, which in its Spanish rather than French form, I adore, I have known people to compare the experience of eating it to seeking to cook and eat a Michelin tyre. Their loss, I say.

My ultimate judgement on distastes is that one should test them regularly; that one should not impose them on others or seek to disgust them with conversation ('Yuk] How can you eat that?'); and children should be trained from an early age to treat food as an adventure which, if not always to one's taste, is still worth having been through. Experience shows that what one may once have disliked (in my case, wine and coffee) can readily pass from aversion to addiction.

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