Possibly the thing for which I am most grateful to my parents is that I was encouraged from a very young age to try all sorts of different foods and textures. The only time that there was a "kids' meal" as opposed to an "adult meal" was when they had a dinner party for which we would be in bed. Those were gala occasions for us: we'd have some sort of microwave dinners or fish sticks and French fries, and thoroughly enjoy every overly-salted, bland bite for the sheer novelty. We never ate at fast food restaurants, so French fries were a very rare and very welcome event! As a child, I ate everything from brie to pickled herring (yes, large chunks of raw herring and sliced onions pickled in brine...don't knock it 'til you try it) to Italian roasted red peppers to salami to geitost ("YAY-tos", cheese made of caramelized goat milk) and enjoyed (well, nearly) every bit of it.
I did have some violent dislikes. Raw cucumbers topped the list: just a whiff of one would make me gag. Brussel sprouts came a distant second, though I maintain to this day that very few children like them anyway. I could only stand them if they were covered in gravy. I enjoy them now, but then? *shudder* I also loathed hot dogs. I mean loathed them. For some reason--perhaps because they were cheap and easy to prepare?--we ate a lot of them when I was a child, and by the time I was eight or so I utterly detested hot dogs, especially if paired with baked beans. I can eat a hot dog once in a while now, but I'm still not at all a fan and have to be in the right mood and place.
We had a family who lived across the street from us in which the mother was Polish and the father Russian. We played with their daughter a lot, and would sometime stay to dinner. This broadened my palate even further, as Basia (the mother) would make meals that were quite Polish in nature. I remember predominantly a red pickled cabbage that I was not especially fond of (I'd like to try it again now and see what I think) and a red currant drink we'd have in lieu of juice. I seem to remember it was made from a red currant syrup added to a glass of cold water...very tasty and refreshing to me then, though unusual.
Living near Yale and its international community, we lived in a world of food which I only understood to be rare after I left it. The mother of the family who ran the convenience store a mile away ran her own Greek catering business, and made the best spanakopita in the world, though the frozen stuff they carried at the convenience store (yes, seriously) was very, very good, too. Just down the street from them was an Italian delicatessen, redolent of sausage, fresh mozzarella, and fresh bread. There were kosher delis, too, with fantastic bagels.
I did not realize until I was an adult that eating this way was not all that common. When we moved to Illinois when I was in high school, I just assumed that everyone ate the way that they did ("Fifty-Seven Things to Do With Cream of Mushroom Soup!") because there weren't any really good food stores around.
Then I moved to Texas, and to Fort Worth, which has several excellent groceries, many fantastic ethnic restaurants, and even an honest-to-goodness New York style Jewish delicatessen. When I bit into my first pastrami-on-rye there, I nearly cried. It was that good, and I hadn't tasted that sort of food in about seven or eight years. If you're ever in Fort Worth, try Carshon's Deli. It's in a not-so-hot area of town, but you won't care. Believe me, you'll be so happy when you leave there that you wouldn't mind if you did get mugged--which really won't happen since the place closes at about 3 in the afternoon anyway.
I met a lot of people in Fort Worth, some of them "foodies," some of them just fond of food...and some of them totally intractable from their One Meat Two Vegetables way of thinking about food. Most of the latter category would occasionally have some "Tex Mex" if they were feeling really adventurous, which usually involved a pathetically greasy taco shell filled with underseasoned fatty ground beef, wilted iceberg lettuce, a giant heap of preshredded cheddar (?!) cheese, and an obligatory dash of hot sauce. Gag me with a forklift, thanks.
One of the latter was a coworker of mine. We got along very well, and I'd occasionally bring in a cake or some cookies for the office. She's always love those sorts of things, but just watching me eat some of the non-sweet things I'd eat would disgust her to no end. Over the years, I brought in gjetost, boeuf bourguignon, Lebanese kafta, and, last but not at all least, lox.
Oh, lox, how I love you.
I got her to try the gjetost, which, in hindsight, was a poor idea since she never had dealt with flavors that strong. The boeuf bourguignon was dubiously accepted as "tasty but unusual." The kafta was declared a bioweapon and my life was threatened if I ever heated any in the office microwave again. To be fair, kafta consists of lamb, beef, onions, garlic, and lots of herbs and spices, so the microwaved result was...pungent. But tasty. Very, very tasty.
Lox, however, just about made her sick even thinking about it.
I admit that on the face of it, cold raw smoked salmon on a bagel with cream cheese doesn't sound like breakfast food. But it's one of those things you have to try without thinking about it too hard, and then you'll Understand. You may imagine the look on her face when I came into work one morning with what appeared to be a bagel and cream cheese breakfast sandwich. "Oh, so you're eating something normal for breakfast?"
"Absolutely, if you're in New York."
I then explained about lox and its incredible glory. She was...not amused.
Anyway, I was feeling adventurous today, so I stopped at Kroger on my way home and picked up some remarkably good bagels and lox. The bagels are real bagels: shiny on the outside, properly chewy throughout, not sweet. The lox is quite good: smoky and salty and paired perfectly with the creamy cheese that went between it and the toasted bagel. Life is gooooood.
The whole palate thing makes me wonder, though, about what it's like to live life in a colorblindness of flavor. I honestly can't imagine it, but I know a lot of people who aren't at all adventurous in flavor and yet enjoy certain foods very much. Come to think of it, my husband will try most things once, but he simply doesn't get excited about most food and tends to view it more as fuel than anything else on a daily basis. Me, I crave different textures, sensations and flavors the way that many women crave chocolate. Not that I'm above that craving--far from it, I assure you!--but if given the choice between a meal of, for example, excellent bread and butter, perfect Italian peppers and artichoke hearts, perhaps some cheese and a bar of good chocolate, I'll almost certainly pick the meal over the chocolate. It's odd. So many people live quite happily without tasting all kinds of foods, and others aren't happy unless they have lots of variety. I imagine that being exposed to lots of different foods as a child is part of it, but I know some people who were and still would be perfectly happy living on spaghetti for the rest of their lives, anyway. Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would say.