Picky eater, Stephanie Lucianovic, retrains taste buds

Brussels sprouts, tomatoes, rice pudding, anchovies, cilantro.

What do these foods have in common? They inspire passionate reactions.

For every person who adores rice pudding, there is someone who cringes and quivers at its slippery texture and saccharine taste. Certain foods seem particularly contentious, but for every foodstuff you can name, there's probably someone who feels nauseous at the thought of it.

What makes us dislike foods? Is it a genetic disorder? A moral failing? Are some foods actually just disgusting?

Dinner party protocol

When inviting someone new over for a meal, it's a good idea to get a sense of what they do and don't eat. While people who have allergies or follow special diets usually feel comfortable being upfront about their needs, many people are more wary of sharing foods they just really dislike. But if the goal is to serve a meal that everyone will enjoy, Ms. Lucianovic suggests the following guidelines:

• Ask people if there's anything they don't eat. If it's something like celiac where cross-contamination is an issue, that's something I want to know, but in general, I don't care why people don't eat something.

• If someone asks to bring a dish (to make sure there's something they can eat), let them.

• If possible, serve food family-style, so people can take what they like and avoid other things. And if someone skips over a dish, don't call attention to it.

• If someone hates a food that you love, don't take it personally.

In "Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate" (Perigee Trade, 2012, $15), Stephanie Lucianovic tries to answer these questions and a few more. She consults scientists and kindergartners, picky eaters and dentists, chefs and sword swallowers (it's all about conquering the gag reflex).

Taste, it turns out, is a complicated and fascinating subject. At the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Ms. Lucianovic learns that scientists have begun to locate many of the genes that control taste and smell, but they're still a long way off from understanding exactly how those genes work.

For example, they've located 25 bitter taste receptor genes, but they don't know what substances activate most of these genes, so they can't predict whether someone will like brussels sprouts but hate grapefruit by analyzing their DNA.

Genetics definitely affects how we perceive smells and tastes, so part of how we experience foods is out of our control. But we're not completely slaves to our DNA. If we were, how could Ms. Lucianovic have gone from being an extremely picky eater to a professional food writer? How could she have hated okra one day, then loved it the next?

Context and experience have a tremendous influence on how we feel about what we taste.

She pinpoints the beginning of her transformation to when she began dating her husband. "His parents were foodies, and I knew this, and I wanted to be interested in some of the things they were," she said. "I didn't want them knowing I was picky. I didn't want Mark knowing that either."

So when she was taken to dinner at his parents' house and they served peaches for dessert, one of her most hated foods, she screwed up her courage and ate them, forcing herself not to gag. After a few bites, she realized that not only was she eating the peaches, she actually kind of liked them.

The more foods that she was able to "learn" to like, the easier she found it was to try new foods. She still hated plenty of them (succotash, raisins, oatmeal, dates, stews, dill, cooked cherries and anything wrapped in grape leaves, to name a few), but by trying foods repeatedly, she also moved many more to the "sometimes like" or even "love" categories.

While researching her book, she learned that this experience of trying a food again and again until it goes from being aversive to enjoyable actually has a name -- a "pattern reset."

Like Ms. Lucianovic, I have experienced pattern resets. Raised a vegetarian, I didn't try meat or fish until I left home for college. When I decided I wanted to start eating them, I was careful to try new foods in situations where I was most likely to enjoy them -- at good restaurants, not the dining hall.

As I learned to enjoy dozens of new proteins, I started to think about the other foods I would have said I didn't enjoy -- beets, for example. If I could learn to like liver and sweetbreads, I wondered, couldn't I learn to like beets? A few beet and goat cheese salads later, I was hooked.

My pattern resets were relatively simple, because I had never suffered from a serious food aversion. Still, as I read about Ms. Lucianovic's conversion, I experienced a conversion as well; only mine was about people, not food.

Picky eaters, I realized, were not trying to drive me crazy. They really couldn't help hating the food they hated. Eating a piece of squid or a mushroom might not kill them, but it would cause them serious distress and discomfort. And whether I'm eating in a restaurant with friends, or having them for dinner, I want them to enjoy the food and the company, not practice suppressing their gag reflex.

So whether you're dealing with a toddler who won't eat anything green or a friend who picks the mushrooms out of your risotto, try not to take it personally. Just because they don't like your favorite food doesn't mean they don't like you.

China Millman: 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com. Follow her at http://twitter.com/chinamillman.


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