Cucumbers are gross.
I already know what you’re thinking: But cucumbers are so refreshing! They barely have any taste! Don’t you love when they put a slice or two in spa water? To that, I say to thee: Nope; they taste like garbage; and the only way a cucumber might end up in my spa water is if a slice falls from my facial mask.
I know I’m not alone in my hatred. Samuel Johnson, the 18th-century British dictionarian famed for always speaking his mind, once wrote, “A cucumber should be well sliced, and dressed with pepper and vinegar, and then thrown out, as good for nothing.” Amen, brother.
Given my antipathy toward this water-based tubular vegetable (botanically a fruit), you can imagine how I felt a few weeks ago when I was assigned to taste different gazpachos for a Required Taste feature, in which we deconstruct unique dishes. Gazpacho, if you’re unfamiliar, is a cold, raw soup that is traditionally made with tomatoes and — even in modern versions that focus on, say, peaches or watermelon — almost always includes cucumbers. Being the professional I am, I held my nose and sucked it up. Or more like slurped it up.
Needless to say, I didn’t particularly enjoy my lunches that week. However, I do believe I was able to separate my writing about the soup from my disdain toward one of its main ingredients. Holding a spoonful at a time in my mouth, I could pick out the acidity of the tomatoes and vinegar. I noted which samples might benefit from salt or an added kick, and I pointed out which had higher cucumber concentrations, for all the crazy cucumber lovers out there.
My belly full of an ingredient I just don’t like, I started wondering: How do actual critics and restaurant reviewers do this, day in and day out? Granted, picky eaters probably aren’t getting into the food criticism biz en masse, but everyone has their thing, right?
Right, said Stefanie Gans, dining editor at Northern Virginia Magazine. Her hangup? Peas. “You know how it takes seven times to like something?” she asked, citing an old wive’s tale about getting picky kids to eat their vegetables. “I’ve eaten peas way more than seven times, and I still hate them.” Come each spring, she’ll find herself sampling racks of lamb with pea garnishes or pea-infiltrated pasta carbonara. In fact, there have been so many pea tastings that she said, “I understand what’s a good pea and what’s a bad pea” and can write about them more or less objectively: “They were firm,” “not mealy or wrinkled,” etc.
It’s all about the readers, said Laura Hayes, a freelance food writer and photographer in the District. “Try to put yourself in their shoes,” she suggested. A lot of readers like mayonnaise, for which she harbors a hostility akin to my cucumber contempt. “Back in college, I basically selected my roommate based on who would not put mayonnaise in the fridge,” she said.
But for her readers, she’ll sample crab cakes and aioli-topped po’ boys with the best of them. “I appreciate that it adds moisture to things, that it has a purpose,” she said. Her trick? Pretend to be a mayo connoisseur. “Go to a special place in your head,” she said, and tell yourself, “I love the crap out of mayonnaise!”
Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema said that’s just part of the gig: “Food critricism is about transcending personal taste, after all.” For example, he’s not keen on black licorice (me neither, Tom!) due to an unfortunate childhood upchuck incident. However, he said, “do you know how many dishes include licorice/anise/fennel notes? A lot! But eat them I do.”
For Cori Sue Morris, co-founder of the Web site Bitches Who Brunch, the sticking point is pickles (or, as I call them, the only way to eat a cucumber). “I don’t think I’ve ever had a pickle. I just know I’d hate it,” she said. Fortunately for Morris, pickles rarely find their way onto brunch menus. But if one did, she would try it if she were writing a review: “I think it’s really important to order the dishes the way the chef intends them to be served,” she said.
Meredith Bethune, associate editor at EaterDC, says it’s all about the preparation. “I’m very hesitant about some foods, like scallops,” she said. “But I can enjoy the dish if a restaurant does it well.” Having an open mind does wonders for a food reviewer, she said. It might even lead to surprises: “The best thing is trying something you don’t like and then you end up saying, ‘Oh, this is pretty good.’ ”
That must have happened constantly while Washingtonian dining editor Todd Kliman was honing his craft. “I don’t really dislike anything,” he insisted in an e-mail.
Or perhaps he grew up around people who really loved all types of food. “If you’re eating something you don’t like, but the people around you are eating it and liking it, it has some effect on you,” said Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. A relaxed, pressure-free environment doesn’t hurt either.
It can help to pair an ingredient you don’t like with something you find delicious. For example, Rozin said, “black coffee is not liked by a lot of people, but if you put a lot of milk and sugar in, it becomes quite palatable.” Gradually, your need for six Splendas may decrease, until one day, you’re able to drink straight what you once found too bitter. Most of all, he said, the more you eat something, the less terrible it will taste.
That could explain why I enjoyed my final gazpacho order the most. It was one of those rare sunny, yet un-humid D.C. summer days, and I had scored a sidewalk table outside Jaleo, where many of the other patrons were drinking their gazpacho straight from the glass. I ordered mine on the side of a Serrano ham and Manchego cheese flauta, or mini sandwich, because salt is not something I dislike. Sampling the soup, I picked up on the subtle flavor of fresh tomatoes and the deep tang of the sherry vinegar.
No, I don’t suddenly like the taste of cucumbers. I don’t think I ever will, but that’s okay, according to Alexa Logue, who wrote “The Psychology of Eating and Drinking.” She told me, “You’re detecting a chemical in cucumbers that other people aren’t detecting, and that’s why you don’t like it.” The most important thing, she said, is to realize that “what you’re tasting is not exactly what I’m tasting.”
So I’ll continue accepting assignments to eat dishes with cucumbers, because I get it: Many people must like them. The same goes for licorice and beets. I’ll try them all, but I won’t promise to like them. And I reserve the right to think that people who do are crazy.