Food Writers Spit Out Their Food Fears

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Most of us have foods that we’re picky about. Eggs scrambled soft. French fries extra crispy. Ice cream frozen – but not too frozen. But what about foods that we absolutely despise, and what about food writers, whose job it is to eat thoughtfully and open-mindedly?

I asked a few food writers what foods they hate or fear, and how it’s played into their lives. Here’s what I found.

For J. Kenji López-Alt, it’s the stench of bananas in a garbage container that crushed his hungry spirit.

He enjoyed bananas as a kid, when they were hugged by peanut butter and marshmallow fluff in sandwiches. But when his mom bought a hang-off-the-seat garbage bag for the car, things took a turn. His sister would leave banana peels sitting there for days, and the stench became unbearable for him. His hatred continues today, and though he tries a few bananas per year hoping to get over it, it hasn’t worked yet.

“It’s absolute and it’s an immediate trigger. As soon as I taste it, it makes me gag. My friend once tried to pass banana bread off to me without telling me about the banana and I almost had to spit it out,” he said.

The car garbage bag definitely had a moment in the 90s. Most of the “cool moms” had one that hung off the seat, as opposed to the flat, fake leather one my family had that was supposed to stick to the glove compartment. Whichever version you chose, the car trash could quickly become a stinky scene – and potentially ruin the magic of a boy and his banana fluffernutters.

J. Kenji López-Alt is Managing Culinary Director at Serious Eats and writes the Food Lab column. He is author of The Food Lab: Better Cooking Through Science.

For Chicago food writer Dennis Lee, it’s a Japanese health food that sets him off. Natto, or fermented soybeans, is often eaten at breakfast with miso soup, rice and fish.

“Natto is extraordinarily unusual in that when you stir it, it becomes extremely sticky, creating mucus-like strands the more it is agitated,” Lee said. “Its texture in your mouth is mouth-coatingly slimy, and it has the smell of sweaty feet and blue cheese that has been out in the sun for a while.”

He first tried it at Izakaya Mita in Chicago, and two other times afterward. It was the worst when eaten on its own, and the flavor couldn’t be mitigated by other foods on the table, he said.

“I also noticed an acrid bitterness to its finish that even some white rice and sake couldn’t eliminate. I hate describing food as unappetizing, since it’s part of a culture’s sustenance, but I just had an unusually hard time with it. I’m having a hard time thinking of it now!”

At least it steered the way for some food blog inspiration. For his blog the Pizzle, Lee made baked beans with natto. The blog focuses on culinary disasters, like juicing a surf-and-turf meal or making panna cotta from baby formula. Naturally, natto baked beans fit right in.

“It made my apartment smell fetid for days, and actually did taste like baked beans, but the bitterness was amplified after it had been baked,” he said. “I’m having disturbing flashbacks now and still can’t decide whether or not it was a success.”

Lee’s further fears include whole roasted birds served with the heads on. The terror and the guilt are a lot to have on your plate.

Dennis Lee is a food writer, owner of the blog the Pizzle, and creator of Spaghettios alla Carbonara. You can find him on Twitter: @fartsandwich.

Hetty McKinnon has been a vegetarian for 22 years. As a kid in a Chinese household, though, she loved tripe and often ate pig intestines. So it may sound strange that a fruit is what causes her culinary angst.

Durian is a unique fruit popular in Southeast Asia; some call it the “king of fruits.” It’s smelly and its spiky exterior seems to ward off potential eaters.

McKinnon was visiting Singapore as a teenager when she saw the signs at the airport: ‘NO DURIANS.’

“I thought, isn’t it just a fruit? Why no durians?” she said. “Later, I did smell it and I realized why. The stench was hard to pinpoint, but similar to smelly socks which had become toxic. Like something in the middle stages of rotting. I never did taste it. My nose wouldn’t allow it.”

Luckily, a visit to Morgenstern’s may change her attitude. Durian has been one of the ice cream shop’s most popular flavors since they opened, and now they offer a few durian variations like strawberry durian and durian banana.

“So my answer to whether I would try durian is yes – if it’s in the form of ice cream!” she said.

If we can work all off-putting flavors into ice cream flavors, maybe the world will be a tastier place.

Hetty McKinnon is founder of Arthur Street Kitchen, a salad delivery service in Brooklyn. She is author of the book Community: Salad Recipes from Arthur Street Kitchen.