Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Stinky Feet Cheese"

For a long time, I have wondered about foods that are politely viewed as an "acquired taste." Or impolitely classified as "stinky" or worse, like the "stinky feet cheese" on the tables in an Italian restaurant that kids teased about when I was much younger.

Once you acquire a taste for Italian cheese or blue, ultra-strong coffee, Vegemite, caviar, fermented fish sauce, sauerkraut, raw blubber, peanut butter, or many other distinctive flavors, you might really savor them. But people who grew up with different tastes and different foods probably find your choices unappetizing or disgusting. I've been observing lately that certain tastes are really hard to acquire and they really disgust people who don't share them. It seems to me that these flavors are very frequently the result of fermentation -- Korean kim chee or British Marmite, for example.

A very wonderful book titled What the Nose Knows by Avery Gilbert offers an explanation into this question I've been thinking about. He says that acquiring these challenging tastes is a signal of belonging to your own national or ethnic group:
"Every culture has a foul-smelling food for membership. You are not really Taiwanese unless you eat 'stinky tofu' (chunks of fermented soybean curd). You are not really Icelandic unless you eat harkarl (rotten shark meat). Real Japanese eat natto (a gluey mass of fermented soybeans that smells like creosote). Then there is the fabulously stinky durian, or jackfruit, of southeast Asia. Singapore being Singapore, one is allowed to eat its sweet, custardy innards, but it is illegal to carry it on public transportation. I’m personally a big fan of kimchi, the national condiment of Korea. It’s made from fermented Chinese cabbage, garlic, fish sauce, and lots of red pepper. It packs a punch— a bottle of it once exploded in my refrigerator. Its postingestive consequences are spectacular: the humorist P. J. O’Rourke described them as 'a miasma of eyeglass-fogging kimchi breath, throat-searing kimchi burps, and terrible, pants-splitting kimchi farts.'" (What the Nose Knows, Kindle Locations 1634-1641).
Michael Pollan's book Cooked agrees with this idea, pointing out that "as much as a third of the food in the world's diet is produced in a process involving fermentation." He names "coffee, chocolate, vanilla, bread, cheese, wine and beer, yogurt, ketchup and most other condiments, vinegar, soy sauce, miso, certain teas, corned beef and pastrami, prosciutto and salami," and says "Fermented foods are typically both strongly flavored and strongly prized in their cultures." (p. 304) And he elaborates:
"What's curious is how culturally specific so many of the flavors of fermentation turn out to be. Unlike sweetness or umami these are not the kinds of simple flavors humans are hardwired to like. To the contrary, these are 'acquired tastes,' by which we mean that to enjoy them we often must overcome a hardwired aversion, something it usually takes the force of culture, and probably repeated exposure as a child, to achieve. The most common term children and adults alike will use to describe the fermented foods of another culture is some variation on the word 'rotten.' A wrinkle of the nose is how we react to both rottenness and foreignness. Many of these foods occupy a biological frontier -- on the edge of decomposition -- that turns out to be a well-patrolled cultural frontier as well." (Cooked, p. 309)
I like this explanation of acquired tastes very much, and feel as if it answers the question I've been pondering, about why people so often hate the fermented foods of other cultures than their own. And more generally, I've enjoyed reading both of these complex and fascinating books, which offer a vast number of insights about food, aromas, tastes, cooking, and chemistry. Obviously there's far more to learn from them than just what's in these brief quotes.

Also, by the way: the "stinky feet cheese" that my friends teased about when I was a kid -- it was grated Parmesan in a shaker. As I said, the local Italian restaurant where we encountered this cheese was the place where we were all also acquiring a taste for pizza. You might be astounded to hear that most of our parents had never tried pizza, so eating pizza was a sign of membership in our own adolescent peer group. That was long ago, now pizza is practically global.

Well, sort of global: millions of people in China think that ALL cheese is disgusting food for westerners and that the western diet makes them smell funny if not downright bad. Or as Pollan states it: the Chinese regard stinky cheeses "so disgusting as to be utterly incomprehensible as food." (Cooked, p. 369)

But the cheese in those shakers? By Italian standards, it was rancid from sitting out on the tables of the restaurant for ages after it had been grated. Real freshly-grated Parmesan isn't stinky like that at all. Or at least I don't think so -- maybe it wasn't rancid but I'm just used to it now. Tastes change, right?

1 comment:

Debra Eliotseats said...

That is funny about the parm connection. The Hubs stated he hated Parmesan cheese until I introduced him to the REAL kind. :) Great post.