I have a secret—a dirty one that condemns me to the culinary hall of shame. A proud omnivore, I cannot admit it without blushing and avoiding eye contact.
I hate olives.
What kind of food critic abhors this beloved bar snack? Don’t get me wrong—I’ll eat the buggers. If you feed me the finest tapenade or pasta puttanesca, I’ll devour every bite for politeness’ sake, but you won’t be able to win me over with the fruit’s slightly acidic, briny flavor. Especially peculiar, I know, since I love capers.
This poses professional challenges. How can I critique an olive-laden dish fairly? Truthfully, I can’t. Luckily, olives aren’t ubiquitous in dishes, and menus are usually large enough that I can skip over the Greek salad and dirty martini. If it’s a must-get specialty, I’ll try it, hoping to be converted to the other side. But it’s unlikely to make it into my review, since my impartiality is clouded.
This prompted me to wonder—New York’s other restaurant critics must harbor secret food dislikes, too. But what?
“Definitely brains,” reveals my colleague Robert Sietsema. “Animal brains look like human brains.” But he still orders them because he relishes the encounter. “You don’t go to a zombie movie because you like to see people killed. You go because it makes you squeamish.” Other no-nos? Raw green peppers, cooked carrots, and the decidedly repulsive Scandinavian lutefisk. “It tastes like butthole. That’s not even a good metaphor. It’s like garbage mixed with death mixed with sewer in a Third World country.”
Other critics shun more prosaic fare. “I don’t like Miracle Whip or Diet Coke,” admits Sam Sifton, the New York Times’ restaurant critic. “Luckily for me, I don’t see much of either on the menus I face. Everything else, pretty much, is fair game, with the exception of farmed salmon, which I think tastes like mud.” Jay Cheshes, Time Out New York’s restaurant critic, largely concurred. “I don’t like processed foods or mayonnaise. That’s the big one. . . . I couldn’t eat a tuna salad with mayonnaise or deviled eggs.”
“The only thing I really don’t like is cottage cheese,” says Gael Greene, formerly of New York and now running the website Insatiable Critic. “The whole thing makes me cringe. Everything about it. But the wonderful thing is that you never see it anymore.”
As a teenager in Russia, Bloomberg critic Ryan Sutton developed a visceral disgust for headcheese. Only years later, while dining at Le Cirque with his boss, did things change. “My editor looked at me and said, ‘You’re not allowed not to like anything.’ That was the end of the conversation. He put the headcheese in front of me, and I ate it, and it was life-changing.” But Sutton still can’t abide chicken cartilage, cupcakes, or okrosha—the cold, tangy Russian mixed-vegetable soup that’s often made with the fermented beverage kvass.
So what’s a critic to do when faced with funky foods? Often, sheer willpower must prevail. “I never liked ramps much,” explains Sifton. “But it is impossible not to eat ramps in Manhattan restaurants in the spring. If Manhattan chefs don’t serve ramps in spring, the thought police come and take their farm-to-table badges away. . . . I have learned to enjoy the ramps. They taste to me of the season. They taste of duty.”
Sietsema, though, doesn’t believe in training oneself to love a food. “I could eat 5,000 bushels of brains, and I still wouldn’t like eating them.”
Yet the good thing about taste is that it constantly evolves. “As a child,” says Greene, “I didn’t like beets or olives.” Now, though, she adores both.
Olives! Maybe there’s hope for me after all.
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