Never the Twain Shall Meet?

I’m a huge fan of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches. You need good bread, I’d say half wheat, half white, because whole wheat is a little too nutty and overwhelming, and smooth peanut butter (no reason not to use chunky, mind, I just don’t really like it and thus have no cause to use it myself), preferably without a lot of sweetener, so that natural, nutty, peanut butter goodness comes through. The bread needs to be toasted, and you slather a slice with peanut butter and then lay out some crisp dill wedges, and you put that top piece on, and you go to town. Do not use sweet pickles. Sweet pickles are an abomination and a grave offense to all that is good taste. It’s that interaction of the zest and salt and pickled goodness, the textures all layering each other, that makes a peanut butter and pickle sandwich so very divine.

My father introduced me to the peanut butter and pickle sandwich and he’s partial to them himself, obviously, or he wouldn’t have led me down the path of peanut butter and pickle righteousness. This particular family tradition seems to attract deep skepticism and fear, and it wasn’t until years after my first one that I learned the peanut butter and pickle sandwich is used as the butt of jokes, usually surrounding pregnancy, because it’s widely believed that people wouldn’t eat them unless they were experiencing odd food cravings. What normal person, I am told, would eat a peanut butter and pickle sandwich?

One interesting thing I observe about conversations involving food combinations people find odd is how rooted in culture they are, even as people claim a natural sense of aversion to particular combinations of food. This, of course, translates into culture-based food revulsion, with people declaring that dishes or entire cuisines are ‘revolting’ on the basis of the fact that they contain unfamiliar food combinations. I’m often reminded that many foods of Asian origin are ‘disgusting,’ for example, and it doesn’t seem to occur to people that some things white folks in the United States think are absolutely normal are viewed as equally unpalatable by people raised in, say, Taiwan.

The flavor combination, of sour, salty, and a note of sweet found in the peanut butter and pickle sandwich is one familiar to a lot of cultures, although it’s not commonly used in cuisine based in the United States. It intrigues me that many people exotify, say, Thai food and talk about how cosmopolitan they are for eating Thai cuisine, while turning up their noses at the peanut butter and pickle sandwich, which is based on the same flavour palette. I guess it’s ‘exotic’ and ‘intriguing’ when it comes from Asia, and horrifying when it’s not. Interesting.

Palates are acquired. They are trained. Children tend to have much more sensitive palates because they have more tastebuds, and they get primed for foods they eat later in life. Tastes later are very much determined by what you are exposed to in childhood, which is not the say that they don’t change in adults, just that, generally, the kinds of foods people are attracted to and interested in are usually set early. It’s a combination of what’s available to eat when you are learning about food, and about the lessons handed down with your food; this is trashy, this is a luxury food, this is disgusting, this is traditional, and you imbibe those right along with everything else, spitting them back up later when you announce that such-and-such a flavor combination is ‘disgusting’ and you can’t believe anyone eats it, that entire categories of food are deeply suspect and should be avoided.

I have a friend with a father infamous for coming up with very odd food combinations and enjoying them deeply. Sometimes we engage in competitions to see if we can come up with the most peculiar assortment, to discover if it is in fact possible to defeat even his widely adventurous palate, and so far, we’ve been unsuccessful. Whatever you throw at this man, he will eat, and he especially adores very strong, aggressive flavours of the sort many people seem to dislike. I consider my tastes pretty broad as a result of the kind of food I grew up eating, and I don’t hold a candle to this man; he’s eaten things that I gag just thinking about, that’s how deeply acculturated my ideas about acceptable food combinations are.

You see a strange thing happening, where at the same time people pronounce that some flavours are just wrong to them, there’s a tendency to fetishise food from cultures not our own, to make the Other exotic and fascinating, and it is a badge of pride to say you enjoy food from Over There, you’re willing to try That One Regional Speciality, you’ve eaten That. You know. That. Our attitudes about food and culture play out in so many strange ways; how can we simultaneously fetishise something and declare it revolting? Why do we take food from one region as representative of an entire culture’s cuisine, when we’d be livid if people did the same thing to our own food and culture? How do we reconcile seemingly conflicting attitudes about food and culture?

As we eat, as we learn what we like, as we are taught about tastes and palates, we’re picking up other lessons too, about the Other, and many of them are highly colonialist in nature; at the same time we wish to distance ourselves from the Other and remark on its primitiveness, we also want to show how savvy we are with it, how knowledgeable, how much we embrace it, how progressive and educated and interesting that makes us, as we slice and dice the food of other cultures to consume it just as we consume everything else about them, piecemeal and with vicious abandon.