From “Gross” to “Gimme More”
“There’s a near-universal conviction that it is not possible to learn new tastes and shed old ones. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.”Bee Wilson, First Bite
I figured I didn’t have the black licorice loving gene. As a kid, I traded away any black licorice I got for Halloween, ate around it on gingerbread houses, and said, “Ew, no thanks,” when my Dutch next-door neighbors offered it to me. And as an adult, I only drink anise-flavored like ouzo, sambuca, absinthe, pastis, and aguardiente if I had no other option.
But then I researched the science of taste for the blog. Every book and article said the same thing: Food preferences are learned, not inherited.
So maybe I could learn to like black licorice flavor?
Doubtful but intrigued, I gave it a shot. I tried every trick from the books and articles I read to see if I could acquire a taste for black licorice.
How to Acquire a Taste for a Food You Don’t Like:
My Black Licorice Experiment
The seven strategies I tried in my experiment to acquire a taste for black licorice:
Strategy #1: Take It Easy
1.1. Don’t Overdo It
I nearly puked on day 1 of my mission to acquire the taste for black licorice.
My mistake: Eating a dried star anise pod. I’d found a jar of them in the spice rack of the house we were quarantining at in South Africa. Or maybe, I thought, the jar found me. I hadn’t noticed it before and the first thing I read on the back label was that Chinese people like to chew on it for so-and-so health benefit. Bonus!
I plopped a star in my mouth and chewed.
Then I very nearly spit it right back out. The taste was intense. My throat was filling with saliva to drown it out, and my brain was screaming, “What are you doing you idiot?”
But I powered through, mentally repeating the mantra, “Taste is learned, not inherited.” It wasn’t helping. My stomach started involuntarily pumping. But I powered through, closing my eyes and thinking to myself, “One day you’ll love this…”
Or maybe not. My overzealousness almost certainly set back my mission to acquire the taste of licorice. Negative moments like I just went through have a powerful effect of telling the brain, “Avoid this at all costs,” and can cause lasting aversion.
1.2. Baby Bites
You’ve probably heard that to acquire a taste for a food like olives or beer takes just 8 to 10 exposures.
That can be true. But it can backfire, too. Forcing yourself to swallow something unappetizing then chasing the nasty flavor with something else is more likely to train yourself to like the new food less and the reward food more.
The trick I learned through Bee Wilson’s book, First Bite, is “Tiny Tastes.” Take pea-sized portions so unsubstantial your body has nothing to fear.
So I restarted my experiment to learn to like licorice this way instead. I cut black licorice into mini morsels that were so small they couldn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth. Eating them was easy.
Too easy. After a few days of baby bites, I wanted more. (A sure sign it was working.)
But first, I wanted to build up the anticipation.
Strategy #2: Respect Your Enemies
“The surprising thing was what got me to do it in the first place — that something that tastes so bad becomes [people’s] favorite food.”Cultural psychologist and disgust expert, Paul Rozin, on learning to like hot chili peppers
Any food you hate is probably another person’s favorite.
That’s certainly the case for black licorice. My dad loves it. Kim’s dad, too. So maybe it’s a Baby Boomer dad thing? No. Apparently, it’s the #1 candy in the Nordics.
They’re tasting the same thing as I am. And I don’t think they’re masochistic maniacs. So what do they see in it that I’m missing?
Rather than settle for my instinctive, “Bleh! Me no like,” reaction, I took the advice of a Redditor and thought, “This is how it’s supposed to taste.” I tried to open-mindedly decipher what it is about the flavor that appeals to them. The almost smokiness? The aftertaste that doesn’t seem to go away? Licorice flavor is certainly unique…
I googled “licorice is delicious” and read a bunch of articles, listened to a good podcast episode on its background. Licorice loving, it seems, is a bit of a cult. Similar to spicy food, which I love. I felt myself brainwashing myself to want to be part of it.
Strategy #3: Surround It With Friends
You know how they say you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with? Well, according to my research, food preferences can develop in the same way. Surround a small dose of a food you don’t like with some of your favorites. Eventually, your brain will consider it to be one of the cool kids, too.
Five friendly foods aren’t necessary, either. One highly influential friend is enough. That’s how we learn to like the bitter taste of beer (thanks to alcohol) and black coffee (thanks to caffeine).
Calories are another influential friend. We’re wired to want more of any food that brings big bursts of energy. That’s why bundling low-cal broccoli with butter or cheese sauce works so well. As you know, they make broccoli’s bitterness more palatable. Equally importantly, they trick your brain into thinking it’s more energy-dense than it really is.
Cheese sauce or butter on licorice didn’t sound appetizing. Instead, I introduced it to my gluttonous good friends from trail mix—salty nuts, dried fruit, and chocolate. They went surprisingly well together. (Try it!)
And maybe at the same time as the trail mix team raises licorice’s reputation, licorice would slightly tarnish that of trail mix so I’d be less addicted to it. Win-win!
Strategy #4: Play Brain Games
If you expect a food to taste good, it will. At the very least, it will taste better than if you had thought it would only be so-so.Brian Wansink, Mindless Eating
Mentalist, illusionist, and author Derren Brown reportedly used his tricks on himself to learn to like various foods, like pepperoni. When he ate it, he moaned and groaned with glee as if he were tasting the best thing ever. The more he did it, the less he had to pretend. Eventually, he didn’t need to act at all.
I couldn’t find any science to back this approach. But others reported it worked for them too and it seemed easy and fun, so I started doing it every time I ate black licorice. Even in public, I’d pretend. And on the rare occasion black licorice or anise came up in conversation, I “lied” that I love it.
Who knows how much effect it was having. I can say for certain the ridiculous act of pretending in itself made every bite a more pleasurable experience.
Strategy #5: Give the Food a Fair Shake
“If you don’t find a food disgusting, all you need is the right recipe to get you loving it.”Amy Fleming on training yourself to like healthy food in The Guardian
Just as is the case with meeting people, food first impressions matter. And we tend to mess these crucial connections up. We catch vegetables on a bad day by eating low-quality, poorly-prepared versions of them.
To give a food you don’t like a second chance at a first impression, food scientists recommend ordering it at a high-end restaurant. Expert chefs are like master makeover artists who can make any ugly food into a marvel.
Or give a vegetable a second chance by seeking it out when it’s in season from a farmers’ market then cooking it well with other delicious ingredients (see: Strategy 3).
For my daily black licorice tastes, I bought the finest licorice I could find. And for one special evening, I also enlisted the best chef I know, darling Kim, to prepare a lovely licorice dessert.
6.1. Make It a Ritual
Rituals like tea ceremonies and blowing candles on birthday cakes make those foods taste even better. Maybe a pre-licorice ritual would do the same?
Or maybe rituals have the opposite effect for foods we don’t like? The added delay might make things worse, like waiting at your desk while the exams are passed out.
I decided to risk it. My simple ritual was to go to the pantry after lunch and dinner, open up a Tupperware I hid my licorice in, and treat myself (see: Strategy 2) to two small pieces. I’d eat each piece in two bites.
Soon enough, I found myself looking forward to these little desserts. It worked!
6.2. Make It a Hero
I fasted for 3-days and broke it with a couple of sticks of licorice.
And you know what? I think it did the trick! The licorice was legitimately good.
Strategy #7: Want It
Getting a reluctant kid to acquire a taste for a food they won’t eat is one thing. These strategies can work. But they won’t work on yourself if you don’t want them to.
I experienced this first-hand with Kim. Simultaneous to my licorice experiment, Kim intended to try to learn to like blue cheese. But her heart wasn’t in it. She routinely forgot to do tiny tastes, did a half-assed acting job pretending to like it, and made no progress.
You have to want it. “If you believe you can achieve” is a bunch of bologna for self-help, but it’s the most important ingredient for teaching yourself to acquire a taste.
It’s been about a month since I started my experiment to learn to like licorice.
Trying all of these taste acquisition strategies has been more fun than I expected. I like licorice way more than I did before, but I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan (…yet). I’m nowhere near the stage of wanting to try eating another star anise pod and don’t anticipate spending more of my hard-earned blog bucks on licorice candy or anise-flavored booze.
But if anyone offers me some in the future, I will happy and hungrily accept.
Just Try It
Maybe these taste acquisition strategies aren’t worth the effort for trivial tastes like licorice, but I strongly recommend them for any food aversion that causes headaches for you or your friends.
What’s the harm? It costs you a few bucks buying food you don’t like. Boohoo. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and, if it works, it pays off big time.
Think of how much more pleasurable life would be if you appreciated the taste of every ingredient that exists. On that note, I’ll leave you with words from New York Times writer Frank Bruni:
I increasingly suspect that the greatest pleasures-in-waiting aren’t in some foreign land or fringe neighborhood. They’re right in front of us, if only we’d be adventurous enough to give the ingredients we’ve exiled a chance to return to our plates.
- A Taste You Hate? Just Wait, from the New York Times. Entertaining and inspiring tales of people learning to like various foods.
- How to Change Someone’s Mind: The Belief Makeover Technique, from The Unconventional Route. Refer to it if you hope to convince someone else to give these taste acquisition strategies a try. This post gives you simple steps to increase the odds they agree.
- First Bite, by Bee Wilson. I’d consider it a must-read for any parent who wants to raise an unfussy eater, or for any adult fed-up with their own fussiness.
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