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January 18, 2013 8:59 AM   Subscribe

I have a very utilitarian relationship with food. I want to have a sensuous relationship with food.

I like food and eating. I have no known food allergies. There are very few foods I wouldn't be willing to try. I like reading restaurant reviews in the paper, I like inoffensive cooking shows, and I've been enjoying Adam Cadre's occasional notes on food and cooking for the past 8 years. He generally describes himself as "anhedonic," but he seems to have a lot of fun eating things.

The problem is that I've never been "wowed" by food, never had a "food orgasm," or experienced any of those other hyperbolic things people say about food sometimes. I'm completely unable to, e.g., rank my 5 favorite burgers. A burger is a burger is a burger. Some are bad, others are not bad, but I wouldn't ask for one on my deathbed.

I do have a reasonably keen sense of taste. I can distinguish herbs and spices, identify ingredients, and so on. But when I'm eating out, it's usually very easy to notice that something is delicious because it's saltier than I would make it at home, or it's deep-fried, or it has more sugar in it — not because it's somehow intrinsically delicious or interesting.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. There is music that can drive me to tears. I find certain smells almost intoxicating: the scent of irises, tomato plant stems, lanolin, a pine forest in the summertime, the inside of a beehive, etc. I see no reason why I shouldn't be able to have a similarly intense experience with food.

Potential obstacles: I was raised in a family that had a very utilitarian view of food. My own time is quite limited, so my home cooking is often very simple and perfunctory. I go to white tablecloth restaurants very rarely. I hope this doesn't eliminate the possibility of the experiences I'm seeking, since people report having them all the time at food trucks, market stands, pizza joints, and sandwich shops.

Actual questions:
  1. Do you have intense, positive, "revelatory" experiences with food? Describe them.
  2. Compare the intensity of the pleasant experience of a really great meal to, say, a beautiful piece of music or a breathtaking landscape view.
  3. What should I focus on to maximize the likelihood of these food experiences? (For example: eating at higher-end restaurants, exploring new ethnic cuisines, experimenting with new ingredients, etc.)
Many thanks for sharing.
posted by Nomyte to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
1. I hated steak all of my life until I discovered that my mother had been feeding me horribly-cooked steaks. When I had a properly-cooked steak, I loved steak.

2. I love food, but I wouldn't compare a great meal to a great piece of music. for me, music is a very emotional sort of thing. Food is simply sensual gratification. Some food tastes much better than others, of course. But no food moves me to tears, while plenty of music does.

3. Food safari. Pick a restaurant that you've never visited that serves food you've never had and try it. Do it once a week or so (budget permitting).

In the end, not having a sensuous relationship with food is not a character flaw and it's not even something to grieve necessarily if you don't have it. I have no emotional reaction to most visual art; it's just the way I'm wired and I don't think that I could rewire my brain to have that sort of relationship with visual art. I suspect it's the same for food.

On the bright side: a utilitarian relationship with food is generally good for your wallet, freeing up your money for those things which you are passionate about.
posted by DWRoelands at 9:14 AM on January 18, 2013

It does not have to be complicated. I would say that the experience of eating a fresh blackberry is about as good as the scent of irises.
posted by steinwald at 9:17 AM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

I had a bento box in Kyoto once that was so beautiful looking I almost hated to eat it. But I did, and each bite was a delicious morsel. I still remember that meal, after more than 20 years.

Try places known for their cuisine. Eat slowly, concentrating on picking up the tastes, smells, textures, look and sound of the food. It's definitely a five-dimensional experience when it's good. Find a good tapas bar and try lots of small things. Wine helps sometimes. In my experience, beer tends not to.

Like most good things, including love, often all you have to do to let food be wonderful is to want it to be.
posted by ubiquity at 9:23 AM on January 18, 2013

A burger is a burger is a burger.


Ok, let's start there. The first step is to let go of all that you know about food and how you *think* it should taste. Go by feeling. You can start by ordering the weird thing on the menu that you've never had before and have no expectations about and go from there. Restaurant reviews, Schmestaurant reviews...some of the best food places are hidden locale that may not be mainstream.

With that said, consider quality. A burger is a burger from Five Guys, other fast food places, and chain restaurants, even those like Outback, Friday's, whatever other chains there are. AVOID CHAINS.

A burger is NOT just a burger from an independent steakhouse or higher end New American restaurant. I'm talking grass-fed organic beef topped with carmelized onions, horseradish creme and melted gruyere, with a side of handmade truffle fries, here. OMG.

Where are you located? That may have a lot to do with it. If you don't have too many independent restaurants near you, that could definitely be a barrier as well. If you're in a city, go to the quirky new restaurant where entrees are $20 a plate, but order a bunch of cheaper things off the tasting menu. Be open to trying things, knowing that you might hate some things, but will eventually find something that makes you CRAVE it.

Like for example, last weekend I had a steak tartare appetizer at a newish restaurant in Boston. Damnit - it's been on my mind all week, all salty with capers and a warm egg yolk on top and handmade potato crisps for scooping on the side.....aaaauuuggghhhhh....droooollll.
posted by floweredfish at 9:23 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Again with the steak, or beef. Ever drive through the vast plains of the Midwest? You can smell the manure for miles when you are passing a ranch. Smells horrible, an overwhelming assault on the nose. Funny thing is a good steak, a really GREAT steak will bring to you a recall of this smell, not in an unpleasant way. You can taste what the animal ate; it informs the entire essence of beef, unlike a fast food burger, or a nondescript cut of beef from your local grocer.

It's elusive too, I've been to very pricey (very pricey) steak houses only to walk out and say "I could have made that with said nondescript cut of beef from the local grocer and saved myself a couple of hundred bucks."

But when you find that steak, that one steak that speaks to your senses you understand why there are steak houses, ridiculously priced types of beef, aging etc. It's all to give you a better chance of eating "that one good steak."
posted by Max Power at 9:28 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't say I've read a lot of food writing, but I have both read Adam Cadre's and eaten in a number of the places he has and his writing on it is ... hyperbolic. I mean, maybe he really is experiencing what he writes about (or maybe I'm misremembering the tenor of his food writing) but as a person who Enjoys Food, I have never felt about food like Adam Cadre has. I honestly don't think most people have. In general, food writing is a lot like art writing (in the capsule review/magazine article sense) in that it'll outline what you should be looking for if you want to enjoy things, but never go in assuming that the slice of pizza or Pollock painting is going to hit you on the same visceral level that it did the professional/hobbyist food writer who loves food enough to write about it.


What is it that you, right now, enjoy about food. Me? I'm not big on taste, at all. I was a smoker through most of my disposable-income-life and therefore never able to taste or smell much. I do love texture though. My favorite foods are my favorite because of the way they feel in my mouth, not because of the richness of the flavor. The way the creaminess of good mashed potatoes combines with the crunch of fried chicken skin is wonderful to me, even if they don't taste like the best ever. If you like smells, concentrate on that aspect of the experience. Enjoying food is very, very multifaceted and you don't have to be on board with every single facet.

I grew up in a similar sort of food situation to you and the best thing for me has been to take smaller bites and slow the hell down. It's hard, and it feels really ridiculous, but once you do, you can start concentrating on whatever aspect of the food you want to, and just sit there and chew and enjoy it. And you don't need to cook well to enjoy food, and you don't need to eat good food to enjoy food either. Unlike you, I consider myself a burger connoisseur and there is a time and a place to eat a Fancy Person Burger and a time and a place to eat three Big Macs in a sitting. The only food that you can't reasonably enjoy is food you don't like.

Oh, and make sure to pair whatever you're eating with an appropriate beverage, as well. I don't mean, like, "pick the right wine" (I'm sure that helps, but I know fuck-all about it) but if you're eating something that has a delicate flavor -- sushi, for instance -- don't wash it down with Coca-Cola. I'm not a beer drinker, but I recently had oysters with a bitter beer on a lark and the combination of the two was considerably greater than the sum of its parts. If stumped, drink water or lightly-flavored seltzer.
posted by griphus at 9:29 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

1. Some of my most distinct food memories are from trying something new at a time when I was (a) really hungry and (b) exhausted on some level but still "thinking positive". Traveling, hiking, or even a mentally engaged day at the office can make a difference.

2. For me, a bite of something exceptional is comparable to a glance at a striking and scenic vista -- it's just a different sense. You can be surprised by it, impressed by it, and totally engaged in it. It can make you lose your train of thought. (I don't really like music, so it's entirely possible you might not feel this way about food. And that's okay.)

3. (a) Make the food about the food. You'll give yourself more room to be awed by the cuisine if you're thinking about that rather than, say, how to impress the person across the table. (b) Find something you know you like, and build around that. Know you like cinnamon? Try it in professionally-prepared, high-end hot chocolate or a gourmet muffin. (c) Eat things made out of real ingredients.
posted by cranberry_nut at 9:31 AM on January 18, 2013

A good way to sort of 'practice' this would be to have little tasting menus for yourself. Get different varietal honeys, different coffees, different blue cheeses, whatever, and really think about how they are different and what you like and dislike about each one. This will help you begin to engage with the food on a sensual level.

Also, this is interesting: "I find certain smells almost intoxicating: the scent of irises, tomato plant stems, lanolin, a pine forest in the summertime, the inside of a beehive, etc." I'm sure you know this, but taste is really a combination of taste and smell. Why tomato plant stems but not a perfectly ripe tomato? Why a beehive but not a comb of new-cut honey?

Actually- huh. The things you list here are all outdoorsy, nature-y things. You might enjoy exploring your local food culture- urban gardens, microbreweries, cheesemakers, etc. Maybe a foraging club. Go on a tour of a place where food is actually grown and made, and then try a sample at the end. That will make the care and artistry that went into the food's production more apparent to you.
posted by showbiz_liz at 9:32 AM on January 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Also, the oysters and beer I had were at Shucker's of Fells Point, which I know is somewhere near your vicinity. The oysters were just the "dozen oysters" on the menu and the beer was a Heavy Seas Loose Cannon.
posted by griphus at 9:34 AM on January 18, 2013

Have you ever tried Ethiopian food? You eat it by using thin crepe-like stretchy bread to scoop up dollopettes (my word) of interestingly-spiced stews. It's common to order a big round platter to share among people, with several different (and differently-spiced) foods (salads, stews, etc.) in little mounds on a single huge stretchy crepe on the platter. You are rather intimate with the food, and it is delicious. It's common to eat vegetarian this way, so the flavor is not all about meat -- the complexity and depth of flavor comes from intelligently mixing spices and foodstuffs.
posted by amtho at 9:37 AM on January 18, 2013

My husband's a chef, we eat with food critics, and I almost never trust food bloggers. Don't believe everything you read. Having said that--the closer to the point of origin, the better stuff tastes--oysters fresh out of the bay taste better than they do after transport. The more you travel and taste food in it's original form and surroundings, the better you can evaluate the various versions of the same dish elsewhere,
posted by Ideefixe at 9:49 AM on January 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

I'm with Ideefixe. Start with the best quality food in its purest form, then move onto combinations, cooking etc.

Strawberries. If you buy those nasty white things in the grocery store in December, you've never really tasted a strawberry. If you get one in Watsonville, CA, in April, well...that's a THING!

A Texas Rio Red Grapefruit is SO much better than some weird white one. (Unless you like sour, in which case, go nuts.)

Heirloom tomatoes in the peak of summer. Plums.

You get the idea.

I get my beef from a family that does grassfed cattle in Idaho. It just isn't the same as that gray stuff in the market.

Another way to do this is to walk into the diviest place in the ethnic neighborhood of your choice. Eat whatever they're serving the most of to the other happy diners.

Food is a cultural thing, an appreciation is part of our culture.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:59 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

I just want to add my datapoint and say that, I don't read food blogs/reviews, but it's not hyperbole for me. I've had experiences where after/during eating the food it was akin to really great sex. Where I'm tingly afterwards and unable to say anything except "Holy fuck, did that seriously just happen?" I don't know how to describe it except to say mindblowing, like my brain feels empty and completely wrapped up in the experience and sensation.

How to do that? I have no idea, otherwise I'd do it a lot more. Those times usually hit me by surprise. I'm not seeking it, but for whatever reason, probably unconsciously more open to it when it does happen. I do make a habit of eating delicious food.

The last time this happened was when I made homemade harissa for a barley salad. kbye, I'm off to make harissa.
posted by hannahelastic at 10:00 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Close your eyes. Losing your major sensory input will force you to concentrate more on what you can sense. You could also try to eat in quieter places, which serves the dual purpose of A) decreasing another sensory input and 2) letting you slow down: Restaurants these days are intentionally built to be LOUD, because research shows that when things are LOUD, you'll eat faster and get the hell out so they can put another party down at your table.

Which is corollary to my other piece of advice: you say you don't have much time, but it really doesn't take long to slow down and smell your food as you bring it to your mouth, then chew it so you can feel it and taste it. Say it takes you another five minutes per meal. That's fifteen minutes a day. Do you honestly not have fifteen lousy minutes a day to increase your enjoyment of something you'll be doing for the rest of your life?
posted by Etrigan at 10:02 AM on January 18, 2013

I'd note that I've had amazing meals, but the ones I remember primarily for the food tend to be either ones I've cooked myself, or from fairly low-end places.

Eating at the Ahwahnee? During Alfie's relatively brief run in San Anselmo? Even some more molecularly gastronomized things? That fantastic meal after 15 miles of high altitude hiking to Sierra lakes and returning back to the Rainbow Lodge? Various meals at the showplaces of celebrity chefs (of the Bradley Ogden sort, not the Guy Fieri sort)? Can tell you details about the impeccable service, that the food tasted really good, but if I want to pull up the memory of the actual food...

The memories of flavors and textures that make me roll my eyes back in my head and mumble satisfied noises largely came from either small cheap places, or times when I went out and bought that steak from the farmer where I can go pet the beef in the pastures, cooked it just enough to kill the bacteria on the outside, and savored every small thin slice, or when I spent the afternoon making the pastry and the tartlets and pickling the beet toppings myself.

Taking the time to learn how to roast my own coffee has helped me to find nuance in even convenience store coffee. And loathe Starbucks and Peets.

So I think a lot of this is about the rituals and stories we tell ourselves about the experience of food. And, really, that's the case with a whole lot of life. Finding ways to savor the details and nuance improves everything, not just food. With that in mind you might look at what makes those other experiences, scent, visual, etc, stay with you, and how you can change your own beliefs to approach food in the same way.
posted by straw at 10:10 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Eat food in as near to it's natural state as possible. The best taste sensation I ever had was tiny little blueberries found on a bush in the middle of no where. Each tiny morsel a taste sensation. Grass fed steak, simply and well cooked and seasoned with nothing but a bit of sea salt. Go apple picking and bite into your favourite type of apple fresh off the tree you can taste the sun in it, you will wonder what the heck it is they sell in the supermarket that they call apples.

One persons fancy smancy food is another persons bland nothingness, but hunt around for fresh fresh food grown with care as a good place to start. Once you know what the ingredients taste like at there best. What a good cheese, good beef, fresh baked artisan bread and even what ketchup made with garden fresh tomatoes tastes like THEN you can work on finding a burger you love.

Oh and avoid any restaurant that is part of a chain or franchise when looking for taste sensations.
posted by wwax at 10:10 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Go to a high quality farmer's market. Talk to the farmers about the specific varieties they grow. Buy more than one variety of anything that appeals to you. Tomatoes and apples are easy, but beans, broccoli, sweet potatoes, melons, etc. all have a lot of varieties that taste very, very different. Many of the tastiest varieties don't travel or store well, and you will never see them in a grocery store. Buy multiple varieties of the same type of veggie, and lightly steam them, maybe add a tiny bit of salt to, say, tomatoes or beans, and savor each one. Compare textures, colors, sweetness, earthiness, bitterness. Don't worry about using herbs, spices and sauces because it's the bare, base ingredients of any dish that elevate food to an Experience.
posted by syanna at 10:12 AM on January 18, 2013

3.What should I focus on to maximize the likelihood of these food experiences?

steinwald -- It does not have to be complicated. I would say that the experience of eating a fresh blackberry is about as good as the scent of irises.

I agree with steinwald. It does not have to be complicated.

I realize you say your time is limited, but if you could spare a few seconds to enjoy each bite, food becomes a much more enjoyable experience.

All it takes is a bit of appreciation for the food you have before you to make a mundane chew-and-swallow into a great memory. It might be a moist, perfectly iced chocolate cake, or it might be just a stalk of broccoli. It might be a fancy slab of beef at a tuxedo affair, or some chili fries at your local grease pit. Whatever it is, savor every crumb that reaches your tongue. Really, just savor the flavor(s) as you are introduced to them, whether slap-in-the-face strong or barely-noticeable mellow. Give a second to let the tasty juices flow and slosh around before swalloing it all down.

1.Do you have intense, positive, "revelatory" experiences with food? Describe them.

Basically any time I'm insanely hungry, I have this. The comfort of filling my stomach with much-desired sustenance makes for an awesome positive experience (so long as the food agrees with my stomach and my palate!). As for revelatory... not quite sure what you mean by that, although I have to agree with others upthread that the fresher / in season it is, the more "revelatory" it can be, because you are getting to taste the real, fresh flavors of the food.

I guess I could say I have "intense" experiences with food that brings back memories. For example, every time I have a pomegranate I am reminded of how I was introduced to pomegranates -- I was abroad and my friend bought one from a street vendor while we were waiting at the bus stop for our bus to head back home. I can still remember the sunlight as it came through the window I sat against, her pulling apart a small chunk for me while we went bumpity-bump down the street, and wondering how I'd not get any juice on my clothes / shopping bags if the bus driver did something nasty with the wheel.

This same friend also cooked up some late-night fried rice for me and another friend one night -- "revelatory" rice in the sense that I had never thought to add vinegar to fried rice. Ever. I ate standing in their living room, with a plastic spoon, off of a white china plate. Made one of the best comfort meals I had ever had.

There was also the time a friend and I drove to a city an hour away and there happened to be an Indian restaurant right where we ended up. Coming from BFNowheresville, USA, and not having had decent Indian food for over a decade, this was a bona fide miracle for me. And the mango lassi confirmed that it was. The thick, creamy yogurtyness, the tart mango flavor...oh yeah, was that ever epiphany.

2.Compare the intensity of the pleasant experience of a really great meal to, say, a beautiful piece of music or a breathtaking landscape view.

As much as I love art and music and culture in general, I have never considered doing that. Perhaps it's because I appreciate art as is presented, in its respective media, and comparing paintings to symphonies really might be too much like apples and oranges.

(I apologize that I have rambled a bit in this answer... I'm not even sure if I came close to answering, actually, but I'm throwing it out there just in case it helps!)
posted by ditto75 at 10:18 AM on January 18, 2013

Here is my advice, speaking as someone who had no pleasurable relationship with food whatsoever for many years and now finds food to be one of the most important regular sources of happiness in my life. (At some point I plan to write a longer blog post on how to enjoy food, but here are some of the basics that work for me.)

(1) Do not eat unless you are hungry. This is different from "don't eat when you're full." I'm saying, wait until you actually feel the hunger in your tummy. Make sure you that your body is physically looking forward to the food.

(2) For each dish, compose a First Bite and a Last Bite that include every one of the dish's components. If there isn't enough of every component to be divided into two bites, Last Bite takes precedence. Pay attention to these two bites in particular. Doing this marked a turning point for me getting "into food."

(3) If you are so inclined, take photos of your food and/or jot down some notes about how it tasted. As a food blogger, I do this for most meals I cook and practically every meal I dine out, but I have another reason for doing so besides my blog: It is a source of happiness for me that I can scroll through an iPhoto library with literally thousands of photos of various dishes I've eaten, and I can actually remember the restaurant where I had each and every dish. In most cases, I can also identify the individual ingredients and recall the flavors. Those are happy memories. Thus, I have an iPhoto library full of happy memories to recall, whenever I want.

This is what I wrote on my blog about food and happiness: Eating is a staple part of a human's daily routine. Whether a Michelin-starred tasting menu, or an Italian deli lunch grabbed between meetings, or a cookie mashed into ice cream when you finally get home at night—if you can find a way to enjoy food, then you have a regular source of happiness in your life. All in all, it's a pretty nice way to live.

I genuinely hope that these tips and others in this thread help you to enjoy food. Best foodie wishes!
posted by The Girl Who Ate Boston at 10:32 AM on January 18, 2013

Oh, one other thing: when you are done eating, stop eating. There's a non-zero chance you were raised to clean your plate, and that is a stupid thing and leads to a bad relationship with food, because every meal has a chance of ending with you doing something your body doesn't want you to do (i.e. engorging yourself), and that's never a positive experience.
posted by griphus at 10:37 AM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Do you have intense, positive, "revelatory" experiences with food? Describe them.

My husband and I shared the most delicious pint of strawberries ever. They were the perfect texture, mouthfeel, and balance between sweet and sour. We knew, then, that we'd never eat a more perfect set of berries. They tasted bright like a sunrise.

I doubt I've ever had a similar experience with a prepared meal. This might simply me an issue of taste buds - I don't respond to savory foods or solely-sweet foods the way I do to foods that are a combo of sweet and sour.
posted by muddgirl at 11:03 AM on January 18, 2013

I have always had a very sensuous relationship with food, and i helped a friend develop one, too. Here's how:

Tap into your deep appreciation for other sensory experiences. Let them feed each other. If you can do it with any sense, you can do it with all of them.

As others have said, approach food as an experience, not merely sustenance.

Pair food experiences with other experiences, so your mind and senses are open, flowing, loose, making big connections across categories.

Choose foods that are contrasting. One dish cold, one hot, or one soft and smooth, the other hard or chewy. One thing creamy, another spicy or sharply sour. Etc.

Try to taste with other senses. Smell the food in your mouth, feel the textures, feel the temperatures traveling down your throat.

Be adventurous. A lot of our food experiences are driven by expectation. Getting free of that is powerful.

Find little doorways - you might not have the orgasmic experience right off the bat, but you will find ways into surprise and pleasure, and that leads to the next step.

Share it with other people who are enthusiastic about sensory experiences! Your experiences together can be a virtuous cycle of pleasures feeding pleasures.
posted by rosa at 11:05 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

In addition to finding the highest possible quality and freshness in ingredients, try going to places that put heavy emphasis on interesting combinations. Things you'd never think of, things you might think of and go EW HOW?! and so forth. Somehow I find that not only does the success of the weird combinations blow my mind, but it also improves my appreciation of the individual components--and that appreciation lasts well beyond just the one dish.

I don't know that all the foodgasm stuff is hyperbole. I have actually eaten things that made me cry--both relatively mundane things that gave me, you know, Proust moments, and things that were literally just so mindblowingly unlike anything I'd ever eaten, AND ALSO more pleasurable than anything I'd ever eaten.

Popcorn ice cream at Moto, yo. On a stick, coated with freeze-dried sweet corn. Sob.
posted by like_a_friend at 11:07 AM on January 18, 2013

What should I focus on to maximize the likelihood of these food experiences? (For example: eating at higher-end restaurants, exploring new ethnic cuisines, experimenting with new ingredients, etc.)

I always liked food, but I never started to get enthralled with food until I did more world traveling and started learning the ins and outs of a few unfamiliar cuisines. Food in Belgium, food in Japan, food in Ukraine... all very different from what I was accustomed to, with many flavors that I couldn't quite pinpoint and often fresher ingredients.

Locally, my mind was blown the first time I had shiso. This was during a meal at Masa, and that is one of my most memorable food experiences. The flavor was completely alien to me, and I was amazed.

Subtlety is key, and a lot of restaurants (especially chains) don't do that at all. They flavor mostly with salt and sugar and fat, like you mention, as opposed to flavoring more with things like fresh herbs, which can make a huge difference in how I perceive a dish. Another thing is once I got really into cooking, I started having a personal policy of never ordering something at a restaurant that I can already make skillfully at home. Now, I rarely feel like I wasted money on something I could've made better at home.

One specific cuisine that really got me to appreciate all the ways food can taste is Thai food. The careful balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy that goes into making a lot of Thai food is unmatched in most cuisines I've tried. It got me to appreciate cilantro, got me to appreciate the ways different kinds of hot peppers build heat, different kinds of sauces, the way completely contrasting flavors can interact. If there are any truly authentic Thai restaurants in your area, try them, and get something other than pad thai, which is a decent dish but rarely exciting.

I don't know if I think this mostly because I've lived in NYC for a while, but to me what I think of as "white tablecloth restaurants" are kind of generic, and aren't known for serving the most astounding or interesting food. Even the concept of white tablecloth restaurants strikes me as a bit passé at this point. You can get a good meal at one, but it probably won't be mindblowing. So no, you are not missing much by not going to generically fancy places more often.
posted by wondermouse at 11:21 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

What is it that you, right now, enjoy about food.

I was going to add some more detail point by point, but that was ending up too long, so I'll just add a few unrelated observations. I have pretty good senses of taste and smell, I enjoy "mouthfeel," I understand the point about savoring your food, I don't overeat often, and I do go hungry a lot because I often skip lunch at work. So that's covered. I live with roommates, so I have a shared kitchen, stove, pantry space, and fridge, which keeps me from buying too many non-essentials.

I'm pretty adventurous with buying pantry items. For example, I used to accumulate unusual honey varieties and I can easily distinguish them by taste. The "tomato plant stems" comment comes from the fact that the tomato plant has a distinctly different scent profile from the actual tomato fruit: much more "vegetal," dewy, and fresh, less sweet.

I live around DC, but too far from downtown to make a habit of patronizing the markets there. DC is the Ethiopian food capital of the US. Ethiopian food is OK, I guess. I've been to a bunch of bars and dives around the city, but the food in them has always felt like a sad afterthought. In general, I don't know how to "crack" the DC/Maryland food scene without breaking the bank.
posted by Nomyte at 11:25 AM on January 18, 2013

In specific response to your update, if you want to "crack" the DC/Maryland food scene on a budget, you can't do better than Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide (check the specific links on the sideboard) which will give a lot of suggestions for interesting and delicious things to try.

You may not like all of them; you may decide you just don't care about food very much; but this will maximize your chances. (Most of Tyler's recommended places are in the suburbs, and some are in the Maryland suburbs.)
posted by willbaude at 12:05 PM on January 18, 2013

Do you eat seafood? Crabs in Annapolis or on the Eastern Shore were a revelation to me, coming from the Far West where fish was battered trout or battered shrimp or tuna in a can. But I also wonder if you're expecting this huge mouth-gasm, and being let down because of your expectations. (Ethiopian tastes like Dinty Moore on wet sponge to me, ymmv.) When I lived in the District, many embassies had food bazaars and events, and were a source of great delight and home-made food. I also wonder, based on your previous Asks, if you'd have a better time with food if you had a regular crowd that was really into food, so you could explore together--try Meetups or Chowhound.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:05 PM on January 18, 2013

Do you have intense, positive, "revelatory" experiences with food? Describe them.

Sometimes. When I go to Michelin restaurants I'm more willing to try new things, and in that setting I'll occasionally have a revelation. Two ingredients I wouldn't have thought to pair, for instance, or a really creative deconstruction of a dish that I wouldn't have thought of.

Momofuku Ko serves a "puffed egg with bacon dashi," which is basically a twist on bacon and eggs. I sat at the counter watching them make mine, then ate it and was blown away by the flavors (it looks weird, but...bacon and eggs!), and then I watched them make another for someone else and now I had a much better understanding of what I was seeing.

Compare the intensity of the pleasant experience of a really great meal to, say, a beautiful piece of music or a breathtaking landscape view.

This is like the "dancing about architecture" quote. These questions drive me nuts. I attended music school, and I remember sitting in a classroom filled with twenty of the more brilliant improvisers at this top school, and we were having this in-depth conversation about, "When you hear or play music, what do you see?", and I was the only person in the room who didn't see images in my head when I play.

The only comparison that seems worthwhile to me is that all three—food, music, landscapes—are moments that make you appreciate being alive. No matter how low you've sunk, and literally even if you are suicidal, experiencing those moments will make a person pause and admit, "Okay...notwithstanding everything else, I am glad I experienced that."

This feeling can come from anything: seeing the Mona Lisa, meeting a brave child in a hospital, finishing a 5k, bowling a perfect game, falling in love...anything. It can absolutely come from a bite of food. It has, for me.

What should I focus on to maximize the likelihood of these food experiences? (For example: eating at higher-end restaurants, exploring new ethnic cuisines, experimenting with new ingredients, etc.)

All three? The answer depends entirely on your personality. Part of my "food identity" is that I love trying a spectrum of different restaurants economically, from neighborhood spots to three-star celebrity dining rooms, but another part is that I don't have much interest in trying a spectrum of different cultural foods. I've tried digging in both holes, and I wanted to keep digging one while the other left me disinterested.

If you really have no idea what might spark your interest, if there isn't a raved-about local restaurant you've been curious to try or some food you've wondered why people love, and if you really are starting from zero...then I'd turn to your friends. Don't just take recommendations; do things with them, because having company changes the experience in a way that makes it more contagious. Invite Bob to dinner at his favorite restaurant, or ask Sue if she'll teach you to make her famous cookies. Expose yourself to food that might impassion you through people who already impassion you.

Expand the experience, is I guess what I'm saying. You can do this in other ways not involving friends or family, too. Take a culinary or food-history class at a local university, or online. Read a book about food, or watch a documentary. Approach it from angles not involving a fork, in other words. I think most people love eating food first and then decide to explore further, but I'm sure plenty do it the other way around.

Those are my thoughts about your questions. Good luck.
posted by cribcage at 12:05 PM on January 18, 2013

A couple ideas (I haven't read the whole thread): find some tasting events -- cheese and wine pairing, cheese and beer pairing, cheese and anything pairing, chocolate and wine, etc.. Make sure it's led by someone who will describe the pairing and why they think it is good -- look broadly for flavors that complement or contrast. It's a fun thing to do and can help you hone in on your palate and interests.

Second, get some food loving friends together and go to a very nice or well-reviewed restaurant -- the more inventive, the better -- with the goal of eating family style. Order a bunch of things and then pass them around. You may only get a bite or two of each dish but you'll get to try some of the best stuff the place has to offer. Also, your palate gets tired easily. Compare the first bite of steak with the fifth and tenth. That last bite of steak? Odds are, you're over it. With the sharing approach, you get the first bite, the best and most flavorful bite of everything!
posted by amanda at 12:17 PM on January 18, 2013

A few weeks ago, I had breakfast at this hole in the wall called Gerald's. I ordered the "hot sausage breakfast biscuit". Hot sausage is a thin, highly spiced beef patty. It was lightly crispy, topped with gooey melted American cheese and a freshly cooked, pillowy soft egg. It was tucked inside a biscuit nearly the size of a saucer, every crumb light and tender and buttery. I tell you this not to make you jealous, although you should be jealous, but to describe my last sensuous food moment. And there have been others. For me, one key is anticipation. Select your food carefully, imagine what it will look like, what it will taste like. When it is set before you, take it in with all your senses. Sound: is it sizzling and crackling with heat? Does it crunch or squeak or melt when you bite it? Touch: is it soft? Hard? Rough? Creamy? Use your fingers, use all parts of your mouth. Sight: is it brightly colored? Steaming? Artfully arranged? Smell: does it make your mouth water? Can you smell the spices, the herbs, the fats, before you taste them? And then come to taste: taste the flavors of the fats running down your throat. The freshness of the vegetables. The richness of the roasted meats. Now clear your palate with cold water. Do it again. I agree with the principle of the Last Bite as noted above.

Food is like sex. It's a collaboration between people. It's an experience. It can change your life. But you must not allow yourself to be distracted, if you are to get the most out of it.

One more: nachos from this local place: salty, hot, crunchy, freshly fried chips. Creamy, warm melted cheese. Spicy, chewy jerked chicken. Warm, succulent black beans. Cold, smooth sliced avocado. In one bite. Satisfaction.
posted by Night_owl at 12:47 PM on January 18, 2013

The only times in my life I went "wow, that is amazing" about food was a peach I ate when I was 7 and the apples when I was 19. Other than that, food is good or bad or meh, not not wow to me. (Unfortunately, most of it is bad.) But that peach and those apples: WOW. The peach was a huge one and wonderfully complex. It was so big I couldn't eat it all and carried it around in a pinafore apron pocket all day (yes, I wore pinafores). The apples were picked from a tree, each one was different. Amazing. For this reason, I love farm stands and love trying fruit I never had before.
posted by fifilaru at 1:20 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

For me it has a lot to do with setting. I'm sure my eating experiences have been enhanced by things like anticipation (reservations made in advance at a restaurant I've been longing to try), eating with good friends, eating with friends who are into food and talk about what they're experiencing and share dishes, a waiter who is knowledgeable and enthusiastic, hunger after physical labor, novelty, having had a glass of wine, or eating something I've been craving.

Also contrast and refreshment. Something warm and comforting on a bitterly cold day. Something light and cool on a hot day.

Sometimes my taste buds seem less sensitive or I seem less receptive to the sensuality of eating. I don't know why this is. Maybe stress, ragweed, distraction, or ... who knows.

Sometimes a completely mundane eating experience has changed into a wonderful one because the friend I was with pointed out "wow, this is really good cheese." And then I paid attention to the cheese and realized damn, it really was good.

I'm wondering now, writing this, how much alcohol has to do with it. If I've had a cocktail or a glass of wine, and THEN I get my dinner, I seem to be more able to let go of my worries and stresses and open up to relaxing and enjoying the flavors. (Obviously the wine can be overdone).
posted by bunderful at 2:08 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

For me, intense food experiences are usually about the memories and emotions they trigger, which is something I have also experienced with scents, landscapes, etc, (though not with music so much). I think I feel about music the same way you feel about food. And I think that links into the fact that we were almost a music-free household when I grew up (or at least, only listened to Christian-lite music, which I never listen to now). So hearing music now doesn't tap into any childhood memories or emotions. I think maybe you have the same thing going on with food.

If you DO have any childhood memories around food, e.g. maybe a special birthday cake, or a food your mother made you when you were sick, or something you always had on a certain occasion, or even just the food you ate most often, see if you can find a more sophisticated version of it now, with better ingredients. Or a variety of foods that have similarities to it. There might be something about those foods that trigger something in your subconscious.

Honestly, I really think that's what it's about rather than deliciousness per se. I love a fresh blackberry because it makes me think of autumn and picnics and walking home from school in the last of the warm weather before winter, and warm pies grandma made, and little bits of all those experiences come together in my mouth when I eat one.
posted by lollusc at 3:21 PM on January 18, 2013

Thanks for starting this really great discussion. :)

I think the best way to improve your sensual relationship with food is to talk about it more. You can do it with one or two foodie friends, where they share their enthusiasm with you, and you get to order more things at restaurants and sample more dishes and compare notes. This is how I upped my beer and wine games. You can also do it with your larger social circles, leading the way into food adventures and having lots of people to discuss the experiences with. Or you can do it alone, by starting a food journal or food blog.

When going to famous restaurants, read the reviews and experiences of other people and specifically compare your opinions to theirs.

Forcing yourself to write and/or talk about meals will help you remember them better and dig deeper into finding more things to say.
posted by itesser at 8:28 PM on January 19, 2013

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