Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Acquired tastes

You know how some people get all crazy over gourmet coffee and French wines? Meet my crazy: root beer. My son and I consider ourselves root beer connoisseurs. We've tried just about every root beer on the market -- from Market Basket and Whole Foods 365 store brands, to the microbrewed and handcrafted beverages from Virgil's and Maine Root. Yesterday we were in Whole Foods buying another 4-pack of Maine Root (our favorite brew of choice -- perfect level of sweetness, no artificial/chemical taste and no, I haven't been paid to hawk it) and the cashier asked us if we liked root beer floats. Add ice cream to root beer? O and I looked at each other in horror. Hell no! We want our brew 1. icy cold* 2. straight up.

When we were out in the car with our booty of rooty, I mentioned that our relatives in Germany thought root beer tasted gross. O was shocked.

"How can they think that?" he asked.

"It's something of an acquired taste," I said. And then I had to explain what an acquired taste was, that the first time you taste some foods, they're disgusting, but if you keep tasting it over and over again, your tongue/brain starts to like the food. At this point, O may have used my cooking as an illustrative example. Brat.

I told him I can't think of a time I didn't like root beer; there was never a learning curve. We used to visit A&W Root Beer stands when I was a kid, and it was always a treat to eat there. I'm sure I always had a root beer with my hot dog or french fries. O says he can't remember when he didn't like root beer either. And as his mom, I concur because I seem to remember giving him some when he was three or four and he didn't spit it in my face.

Sometimes I let a mouthful of root beer wash across my tongue and there's part of my brain that understands why people wouldn't like its flavor; there's a medicinal undercurrent that can be disquieting to an unsuspecting palate.

So I've been thinking of all the all the flavors/foods we label as "an acquired taste." Certainly the British Isles have their fair share. On top of the list is Marmite (in Australia, Vegemite). When I was a kid I had a pen pal who sent me a couple sealed packets of this yeast spread and instructed me to spread it across toast before enjoying. My mother did the honors of toasting and spreading, then insisted on taking the first bite. I remember that she made this horrible face and spit it out, then forbade my brother and me from indulging, convinced it was poison, or at least a product one would use for fertilizing African violets.

Licorice is another acquired taste that's associated with Britain, but for me, it's one of the tastes of Scandinavia. My maternal grandfather, whose parents were from Norway and Denmark, loved licorice. He always carried a tin in his pocket filled with something called "liquorice pastilles" and I loved them from the get-go, no flavor acclimatization problems for me. Licorice tasted dark, sweet and earthy; even today, it touches that sweet spot on my palate that few other flavors can (wild mushrooms, perfectly ripe avocado). Salted licorice is another variation on this acquired taste, but sadly the application of salt doesn't work for me. I want my licorice straight up, thank you.

There are dishes like poutine (Canada), haggis (Scotland), and black pudding (northern England) one could call acquired tastes, but I put these in the loved-because-they're-national-dishes category. So I put it to you -- what has been an acquired taste for you? Do you like a flavor most people have a hard time understanding?

Mmm, just writing about root beer has me jones-ing for an icy cold one ... care to join me?


*Warm root beer = like drinking tepid groundwater from a Superfund site


  1. Love liquorice. Always have. Growing up in the U.K. one of my favorite ways to eat it was with a tube of sherbet. (Sherbet Fountain). The sweet powdery sherbet was the perfect combo with the black liquorice. I believe another acquired taste is Wintergreen. Personally, I can't stand it or the smell. Another U.K. favorite was a Turkish Delight bar. A purple colored jelly like center covered in chocolate. This may also be considered an acquired taste since the jelly has a weird taste. (According to my google search a rose essence). Thanks for the trip down memory lane. (Oooh, what about steak and kidney pie....I could probably keep going).

  2. Laughing at Tracey's reminiscing. Definitely a trip down memory lane. I will add Parma Violets to her list, which were tiny round sweets which smelled and tasted of lavender/violets. Very weird now that I come to think of it.
    Diet Dr. Pepper is about as close as I can get to the root beer taste, although as a child I loved a drink called Dandelion & Burdock, which I think had a similar taste.
    And Marmite is a must in my house, but you have to scrape it over the toast rather than spread it.


I love comments!