Spicy, salty, sweet, bitter flavors layered over sweeter notes; flavors tell a story. We understand change as part of life, but taste can also be a measure of change. Like many other areas of my life, my preferences for food, likes and dislikes, have evolved. I grew up in a house with a very limited palette. Dinner was usually some variation of a casserole. We had apples and bananas, but very few other fresh fruits; all vegetables were frozen. I recall I didn’t like very many foods. Like many kids, I was picky about textures and tastes.
When my older sister’s boyfriend starting coming for Sunday lunch, he asked for ground pepper. We had to buy it. Up to that point, we had two salt shakers on the table. I preferred sweet. I ate peanut butter and honey sandwiches. Jelly was weird; gloppy with traces of fruit! I loved the divinity, fudge, and chocolate crinkles that my grandmother made. Pumpkin pie was better than apple because of the smoother more predicable texture. We had a jar of pickle slices in the fridge. I would put exactly three on my burger when my dad grilled. My mom later let me know that she never checked the date, and since I was the only one eating the pickles she was certain the jar had been expired by years. Even in the land of the bland, I was an outlier.
All of this changed, slowly, but it started with my friend’s restaurant. Her family’s Chinese restaurant slowly introduced me to new tastes and textures, starting with Orange Chicken and Sweet and Sour. Because she was enthusiastic about food, she sought out new places to try and my world expanded into Korean, Thai, Japanese, Greek, and more. I quickly discovered I was one of those people for whom cilantro tastes like soap. I spat out an entire mouthful at a Korean restaurant to everyone’s embarrassment. I discovered the spiciness of jalapenos and of curry. It turns out spice wasn’t evil, it was actually fun, thrilling even.
As I traveled and expanded my world, my palette grew. Mediterranean, Mexican, Indian, all of the spices and vegetables, meat, seafood, and breads pushed me to expand and accept new flavors, new sensations. One of my favorite meals of all time was in a Northern Indian Restaurant in New Delhi. We were served an endless variety of breads and honeys and yogurts along with the spicy dahl and veg. You never wanted to stop.
I drink my coffee black, very bitter. Same with tea, but I do enjoy lattes and I’ll have the holiday flavor du jour. When I think about how my palette has evolved, I can trace it on a map, where I went, who I was with, who introduced me to their favorite thing and how I was challenged or inspired, delighted or disgusted. Taste is not fixed, but changes over time weaving together associations with memories and places. I still like sweets, but on a hot day I might crave the snap of a cold pickle instead. No worries about expirations, they don’t last that long in my fridge.