Where did my tastebuds go?
February 28, 2007 6:05 AM   Subscribe

I want to go from goat to gourmet. Having taste buds that are happy eating MREs all day long has its advantages, but it would be nice to enjoy the finer things in life. But I can't spend all my money on high-end restaurants. How do I become a pescetarian foodie on a college budget?

I was raised on an All-American diet of white pasta, grocery store brand cheese, slightly overcooked vegetables, and PB&Js. This left me with an inability to tell the difference between "bland", "good", and "fantastic." Box wine and the finest merlot are all the same to me, the sushi from a five-star restaurant and the prepackaged stuff in a dining hall fridge case are virtually indistinguishable, Ghirardelli and Hershey's are twins, and I've been known to continue eating the lentil-bean monstrosities I make long after their due date because the, um, ripeness adds tang (no, really, it does!). I think PowerBars taste good. PowerBars.

I try cooking to widen my palate, but I'm terrible at it and my tastebuds are so insensitive that I can't actually taste the difference anyway.

I've heard the way to counter this is to just buy high-quality food, but I don't have the money to shop at Whole Foods every weekend. So what to do? My lack of taste is more than just embarrassing--it contributes to unhealthy eating as I can eat large quantities of the most unimaginably processed crap without compunction. What's the solution?
posted by schroedinger to Food & Drink (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If you can't tell the difference, why break your budget? If someone is making you feel ashamed, you need new friends. (And I doubt that acquiring a taste for caviar is going to lower your LDLs.)

Expand your horizons by cooking and trying new things, sure. But don't pay more for a fancy name or because someone told you it's "better".
posted by DU at 6:18 AM on February 28, 2007

Read your local alternative weekly newspaper and its restaurant reviews. Find a well-reviewed restaurant near you, where the entrees cost at least $20. Go there, for lunch (cheaper) or dinner. Look at the menu and pick something that you've never, ever had before and that you could never cook on your own - even if it doesn't sound like it would be good to eat. Order it. Eat it.

Repeat as often as your budget will allow, going to a different restaurant, hopefully with different cuisines, each time. You'll have some meals that you dislike. You'll have some meals that you love. Eventually you'll start to get a sense of what can be done with food. Once you have more of a sense of what is possible, you'll have more ideas of things you can cook for yourself.
posted by jellicle at 6:24 AM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I find that I enjoy (specifically with chocolate) reading reviews by knowledgeable connoisseurs and then going out and trying what they reviewed for myself, attempting to see if I can substantiate or disprove or whatever they said about it. Really concentrating on the food as an experience rather than a route to satiation and taking time to chew and taste helps. I have the same issue, sometimes, where an In 'n Out burger will do me just as well as a New York steak. (Though I must admit, when I finally got around to trying a really expertly-prepared filet mignon, it was heavenly, and very different from anything else I'd experienced. It was also probably $50 for the plate, which is not something I'm prepared to pay often, if ever.)
posted by po at 6:30 AM on February 28, 2007

I would think the best way to stop enjoying crap is to stop eating crap.

I used to eat tons of junk. When I learned to cook I sloooooowly started enjoying "real" food more. Now I'm at the point (several years later) where the junk doesn't even taste good any more. (E.g. commecial sweets are so sweet I can't taste anything but sugar, and that's gross.)

So, I would say learn to cook if you have access to a kitchen. Get a healthy cookbook, tear tasty recipes out of magazines. It's going to be awkard and time consumintg initially, but it gets better. When you're in the dining hall, make healthier, tastier choices. You don't need to shop at Whole Foods all the time, but start eating real food and stop eating trash.

I don't think it will feel natural at first, but eventually you'll find yourself on the other side wondering how you ever ate frozen pizza and pringles.
posted by robinpME at 6:30 AM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

With regard to cooking, try incorporating little changes to see if you notice a difference. For your plain white pasta, find a local cheese shop and get some fresh grated parmesan or romano or even some smoked mozzarella and see if you notice anything different. Fresh is really the key to exquisite flavor, IMO (especially when it comes to veggies).

Making little changes shouldn't break your budget either (a small amount of good cheese may cost upwards of $10, but can last a fair amount of time)
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 6:31 AM on February 28, 2007

I think being a foodie isn't just about appreciating certain foods, but about having a very sensitive palate. Anyone can develop a taste for fois gras, but only a real foodie can taste the difference between tomatoes in season and out of season.

You can sensitize your palate by eating very simple dishes made from premium ingredients. Try eating a salad of butter lettuce with just high-quality olive oil, sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper-- it'll seem bland at first, but after a while, you'll start to notice the richness of the lettuce, the fruity notes in the olive oil, etc. Every time you go shopping, get ingredients for other simple dishes-- try fresh (not dried) pasta with Parmigiano Reggiano, heirloom tomatoes, and fresh basil.

By allowing yourself to really taste the good stuff, you'll come to appreciate it-- and the differences between it and the crappy stuff. Once you've had fresh herbs, dried ones start to taste like sawdust... Hershey's chocolate tastes like chemicals after you've had Scharffen Berger... etc.
posted by chickletworks at 6:38 AM on February 28, 2007

Comparison may be your best tool. Get a couple of orders of the same thing from two different places. Make two different recipes for the same thing. Make a new batch of something and compare it with an old batch of something. I can eat Hershey's chocolate and enjoy it, but not so much if I've just had El Rey.

Eat those things side by side, bite by bite, chew them slowly and think actively about the differences. Which one do you like more? Which one is hotter? Has more different flavours? Has deeper flavours?

But while you do this, don't necessarily accept orthodox or obvious thinking on the issue. Sometimes the answer to those questions can be surprising. A 2 day old sauce, for example may well be *better* then one made fresh today, because the flavours have had time to develop.

The chinese place everyone says is fabulous might be most like what they grew up with/most greasy/least greasy/most authentic/cheapest/most expensive/freshest or any of a zillion other criteria. It may, in fact, be fabulous but not to your tastes, or it may be relatively non-fabulous.

You can't do this for every meal, obviously, but do it a couple of times a week, and you'll at least develop a skillset for differentiating between different foods.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:39 AM on February 28, 2007

The simplest way to actually eat better is to buy whole vegetables, meats, and cheeses, not Whole Foods.

Learn to cook using the most basic ingredients. Make a salad with oil, vinegar, salt, tomatoes, cucumbers, and spinach. That doesn't mean a bag of stuff and Jims Organic Guava Tango Pepper Oil. It means virgin olive oil. sea salt, and vegetables as fresh as you can get them.

Learn to cook meat simply and plainly, in a pan, with salt and pepper.Don't use seasoning mix. Try adding a little sage. Eat it with your salad.

Get a bread machine and use the wheat bread recipe. Don't bake it in the bread machine. Don't use bread machine mix. Form it into a loaf and bake it in the oven. Crust it with salt and olive oil.

When the bread is golden brown, remove it from the oven. Put olive oil and garlic and sea salt in a small glass bowl. Dip your bread in this. Add natural cheese. Not Kraft, not string, not "parmesan" from a can. Just chunks of something pungent.

If you follow this "plan" for a month or two (it's less effort than it sounds), you will begin to taste why processed food is such wretched stuff. And you will appreciate things like the ripe stink of a tomato on the vine. You will probably eat less, but spend more time eating it.
posted by fake at 6:51 AM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Learn to cook simple dishes/simple foods - veggies, salt, pepper, olive oil and stove are easy to combine. One way to get good quality veggies at a good price is farmer's markets: find out if there are any good ones in your area (Philly, right?).
posted by taliaferro at 6:56 AM on February 28, 2007

I am a hardcore foodie, and I agree with what almost everyone above has said. Cook meals! It doesn't matter so much if the ingredients are from whole foods, but some things do matter.

I try to buy better quality meat from a butcher. You can get higher quality fruits and vegetables from smaller local stores, and from farmer's markets. Also, check out ethnic grocery stores. When you go to the grocery store, try getting a different kind of cheese every time.

I very rarely go out to super expensive restaurants, but when I do it's a real treat. To broaden your palate, try ethnic restaurants.

I'm not sure where you live, so I don't know what is available to you, but justs trying new foods on a regular basis will broaden your palate immensely.
posted by hazyspring at 7:23 AM on February 28, 2007

Lots of good answers, but there are some things that can really only be appreciated in good restaurants. Two possibilities: 1) put money into a "dining out" jar, and eat at a top restaurant a couple times a year (or however often you can afford it); 2) get a rich friend or two who will treat you to the occasional meal at Chez Whatever.

But don't pay more for a fancy name or because someone told you it's "better".

You don't seriously think there's no such thing as great cuisine, I hope. The fact that some things are hyped doesn't mean there's nothing real. Eating at Montparnasse (in NYC) is actually a very different experience from eating at Generic Eatery, or for that matter from eating even an excellent home-cooked meal. And great Burgundy is a very different thing from just plain good wine. Yes, money can buy worthwhile things, and not being able to buy top-drawer wine is one of the few things I regret about going from a good job in Manhattan to scraping by as a freelancer.
posted by languagehat at 7:36 AM on February 28, 2007

Since you're a pescetarian on a budget, I'd recommend Barbara-Jo McIntosh's Tin Fish Gourmet as a start. Find it at your local library if you don't want to splash out the cover price; public libraries often have huge cookbook selections. Though it's not the most encyclopedic cookbook around, it'll give you a sense of what you can do with a variety of canned fish, and many of the recipes can be easily modified to fit what you have on hand.

Part of learning how to taste, for me, was learning how to cook. And learning how to cook on a budget depends greatly on what you buy. Knowing you can go to the store and buy canned tuna or salmon or sardines and make something delicious for dinner can be a big part of enjoying food.
posted by breezeway at 7:43 AM on February 28, 2007

On the expense front, it may cost less than you imagine to eat well - I switched from eating 50% junk and 50% good stuff to 100% good stuff and saved money. Eg. when I buy an expensive corn fed free range chicken, besides tasting better than some poor creature raised in a battery farm, I make sure it does me a roast dinner, sandwiches the next day, enough stock and leftovers for a bowl of hearty soup, and the rest of the stock goes in the freezer for future soup - time-consuming, but money-saving.

Also, it's worth being as friendly as possible to your greengrocer/butcher/fishmonger/cheesemonger/baker - after a couple of years shopping exclusively at the same places, I get plenty of freebies, discounts and, best of all, tips on what produce is tip top that day, and pointers to more unusual, cheaper fish or cuts of meat, along with suggestions on how to cook them.
posted by jack_mo at 8:21 AM on February 28, 2007

Oops - chicken was a bad example given that you're pescaterian (or 'fish and chipocrite' as a friend of mine refers to 'vegetarians' partial to fish!), but you get the idea, even if you can't stretch a fish quite so far...
posted by jack_mo at 8:24 AM on February 28, 2007

There are some statements above that I strongly disagree with:

but only a real foodie can taste the difference between tomatoes in season and out of season.

Everyone I know who's ever tasted a local in-season tomato can immediately tell the difference.

Get a bread machine and use the wheat bread recipe.

If you're not going to use a bread machine for cooking bread (with the full knowledge that the results are decidedly inferior but it's still better than buying bread), this is just an extra thing in your kitchen. A decent stand mixer is a more money, but will serve you MUCH better, and you can use it for all kinds of things that aren't bread. With a stand mixer, making bread isn't quite the one-step process as with a bread machine, but it's still pretty easy, and just as rewarding. And if you decide you don't like making homemade bread, the bread machine will mock you from a corner of your kitchen (or garage, or what have you), but you can still use a stand mixer for making cookies. Kitchenaid is the standard here, and they're expensive but worth it. No idea how other brands stack up - make sure you get one with a dough hook for kneading bread.

On the note of eating out - I suggest cheap ethnic restaurants. Find the great Mexican joint with the fantastic fish tacos. It may be out of your way, but it's out there. Concentrate on finding one thing that's beautiful and properly prepared, that you look forward to getting. Once you've found that, find the next one, which may be a whole roasted Vietnamese snapper. Work your way up. The important thing is to find flavors and textures that you're looking forward to. Also, bring friends.
posted by Caviar at 8:29 AM on February 28, 2007

Go visit the Good Eats Fan Page and start poking around. Start reading recipes and once you see something you think you'll like, make it. Learn to cook and eat well at the same time.
posted by lilithim at 8:57 AM on February 28, 2007

and I've been known to continue eating the lentil-bean monstrosities I make long after their due date because the, um, ripeness adds tang (no, really, it does!)

Sounds like you've got a taste for fermented food. Learn to make dosas, man. They're made from a fermented lentil-rice batter, and depending on how long you let the batter sit, they can get nice and tangy. I'm at work without my cookbooks, but the Wikipedia article links to recipes that look useable.

For that matter, try some aged cheeses (sharp cheddar and blue cheese can be had pretty cheap at most groceries; a good store will have other options too). If you want a real treat, find a health food store or a Japanese grocery that sells two- or three-year-old miso — that one's a condiment and soup base, not a food to eat alone, but it's another grain-and-bean ferment and it has a lovely strong tangy flavor.

Long story short, you're not a tasteless freak, your tastes are just unusual. Take that and run with it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:01 AM on February 28, 2007

As a college-age pescetarian and avowed foodie, I know exactly where you're coming from (except I was brought up in a more gourmet-freak household than you were). And I have the kind of schedule where cooking every night just isn't realistic; I often get home after 9pm and would rather die than turn on the stove.

I've really come to depend on Trader Joe's. While it's obviously not as quality as cooking up your own meal, you can get random foods from a lot of different cultures, sample all kinds of wines and beers, etc, at prices that generally don't break the budget. If you have one in your area, check it out.

Also, I recommend this because it worked for my boyfriend - find yourself a partner who's into food. I drag my boyfriend to all kinds of crazy restaurants and while sometimes they're a little much for him, in general I think he's appreciated having his culinary horizons widened. And I think it's easier to go to a really nice restaurant if you have someone with you who knows what the words on the menu mean. And then I split the bill or occasionally pick it up.

I guess I'm really full of ideas on this - another good plan, which I did pretty successfully, is to look at the ingredients of foods that you find especially pernicious in your diet and resolve to avoid them. I did this with corn syrup and it ended up being the case that I just couldn't eat cheap candy anymore (I picked up a nasty dark Toblerone habit, but that's neither here nor there). If you said, I'm not going to eat corn syrup or hydrogenated oils, I guarantee you'll be eating like a foodie in no time because that's the only option out there.
posted by crinklebat at 9:10 AM on February 28, 2007

Don't be dissing PowerBars just yet -- some people DO like their taste.

Like others, I don't see why you feel there's a problem with food being somewhat indistinguishable. To me that sounds like, when making your own meals, it'd be possible to make incredibly simple, lightly seasoned (or none at all) meals and it wouldn't make a world of difference. If there isn't a compelling reason to drop down that stick of butter onto your fish fillet, don't -- if it tastes bland, smack on some ketchup and you got yourself something to taste, while not killing you nearly as badly.
posted by Muu at 9:48 AM on February 28, 2007

Another thing which I should have said... If you feel you're "too busy to cook," take some time in the weekends to cook and freeze them. You can save money by buying in bulk initially, and you'll end up with several servings that you can pull out of the freezer and nuke to have a hot meal ready in minutes. I'd often buy a roast, nuke it for several hours in the oven, then cut them up into portions which I can microwave later (add sauces later to taste -- the meat I used sucked to begin with so there was no point in getting any more extravagant). Something like a salmon bake could probably do the same.

And if fermented products are your thing, you could try some Natto (fermented soybeans @ Japan). By itself the taste is a little blah; while you're at the Asian market, get some Kimchi and tofu at the same time, and mix all three together (~4oz of tofu to 1 pack of natto @ 30~40grams should work). You'll end up with a disgusting-looking mishmash that tastes surprisingly good.
posted by Muu at 10:05 AM on February 28, 2007

Trader Joe's is a great place to get frozen fish.

I don't care for snobs who pooh-pooh frozen fish. While fresh does taste better, frozen won't break your bank, and you can learn what different fish taste like and experiment with different recipes without outlaying $15-30 a pound on fresh fish from Whole Foods.

Also, I can't tell from your profile where you're from, but a farmer's market is a great place to get fresh fish on the cheap, when you want to try something new...
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:17 AM on February 28, 2007

If you want to educate your palate, go to the foods with the most complex flavors. That means whole, fresh vegetables, herbs, and fruits. Before you try gourmet recipes, get a basic cooking chart for veggies (see, e.g., the Betty Crocker cookbook) and just try them out, one by one. (Make sure to buy from a quality source, as others have said. Eat veggies as soon as possible after you buy them -- better yet, as soon as possible after they're harvested.)

Don't eat between lunch and dinner; let yourself get hungry. Complex flavors are dramatically more vivid and fulfilling on an empty stomach. If you cut yourself off from heavily processed foods for a day, you may find that mere romaine lettuce has a delicious taste (more accurately, several tastes) all its own. Enjoy, slowly. Have company over and make a long, slow meal with wine and bread at the table.

I don't mean to imply that fresh veggies and simplicity are the cornerstones of gourmet food (though they can be). However, by training yourself to enjoy subtle flavors and not to seek instant gratification of hunger, you can reach a much better position from which to appreciate gourmet food (whether had at restaurants or made at home). You'll start to pick up on some of the dimmer lines in the spectrum of tastes. Processed foods mostly hit the bright lines -- e.g., "sweet," "salty" -- which is why they're so boring by comparison!

(in case any of the above sounds snobbish, let me add that I like powerbars...)
posted by aws17576 at 10:39 AM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

The first thing I thought of was wondering if you're a smoker. Smoking retards tastebuds.

The second thing that I want to tell you is that it's incredibly possible to get great tastes cheap. What it usually takes is a little more labor. But I'm a broke-ass vegetarian, and I eat like a king. Well, king of regional peasant food, I guess.

First off, simplicity will serve you well. This: "but only a real foodie can taste the difference between tomatoes in season and out of season," is bullshit. I make beans and rice, or beans and tortillas for probably about a quarter of my meals. Why? It's cheap as hell, with mostly staples (beans and tortillas), and then I add a few fresh ingredients (tomatoes, onions, cilantro). Add some cumin and some chili powder, and maybe some fine cheese, and damn, tasty. You can do almost exactly the same thing with pasta or udon or tofu or chili or whatever.

Second, do tastings. When I want to decide what I like, I'll grab some friends and we'll all spend, say, $5 on a chunk of cheese, and $5-8 on a bottle of wine. Those tend to be young and simple wines, and you can get advice on what to pair. Then we eat the fuck out some cheese and bread and whatever (olives for me, maybe capers for you). As you eat, try to smell as much as possible. Mmm. Smelly.

Third, some things are worth spending money on. A good cheese can put a decent meal over the top. Good, fresh veggies make a huge difference. That iceberg lettuce and hothouse tomato combo? There's no flavor! And you can use the same ingredients to make great nachos or mac and cheese or whatever. I make a motherfucking sweet omlette, which uses the same cheese that I eat on sandwiches.

Fourth, feel OK with being a bit of a hedonist. Try as many new things as possible, especially from ethnic places. You'll find new spices and tastes all over, and they'll help break through the "everything tastes the same" blah bullshit. For me, that often means spicy food, so I love me some Indian or Thai (or Mexican). For you, you might like Ethiopian or Persian or Greek food. You'd be aided in this by having a romantic partner to emphasize the sensual delight of food. Few things set up fucking like a great meal (there's a reason why it's dinner and a movie).
posted by klangklangston at 10:50 AM on February 28, 2007

Hershey's chocolate tastes like chemicals after you've had Scharffen Berger... etc.

And Scharffen Berger tastes like chemicals after you've had Callebaut and Valrhona. (sorry, couldn't resist. Still, the European chocolates are almost always better, and besides, Scharffen Berger is owned by Hershey's)

While fresh does taste better, frozen won't break your bank,

And, it's a common misconception that fresh is always better than frozen. Lots of stores market fish as "fresh" because it's thawed when you purchase it; the majority of store-bought seafood is flash-frozen on board the ship from which it's caught, in order to survive the 2-3 days it might take to get it on land and to the distributor. Flash-frozen can taste equally as good as something that came in on a plane that morning, and you'd usually have to be a gourmand with years of experience to tell the difference.

I think the best thing you can do is start simply: learn about food. Read Cook's Illustrated (or watch their PBS show "America's Test Kitchen"), read or watch the aforementioned Alton Brown from Good Eats, either of which will help you understand food from a sensory and chemical and scientific perspective.

If you don't even know what it means that good olive oil is fruity, or why sea salt imparts more flavor than Morton's, then you'll just be throwing good money after bad. Learn the science and then embark on some experimenting.

I don't agree that reading reviews is the answer; reviewers sometimes have an agenda, plus their likes and dislikes might be based on trends that aren't on your radar, or personal taste preferences at a level you haven't reached yet.

I also disagree that you have to learn to cook first. While it would definitely help, you might not have the equipment or space or resources to do lots of cooking... but you shouldn't have to wait for all that before you can start refining your palate.

If I were starting from scratch, I think I'd make myself a list of foods, and then resolve to research one a week/month (whatever you have time for). Cheese: learn the spectrums between hard and soft, mild and sharp, aged and new. Fish: learn about round fish vs. flat fish, shellfish, raw vs. cooked vs. smoked. Herbs: there are loads of them, but only about a dozen will show up in recipes and dishes with much regularity. Wine, sauces, pastas, grains, produce... the info is all out there and just waiting for you to pluck it!

Armed with the basics, you can then really understand what you're tasting when someone describes a dish as Mediterranean or complex or rustic or open or overwhelming. You'll learn to respond to mouthfeel and figure out where your taste buds are, and what you like and don't.

Speaking of taste buds, don't knock the possibility that you have what's known as "low taste sensitivity." Some people just have more or less sensitive palates, and no amount of trying will change that. In that case, you should still try to eat healthier because it's better for your body, but you could approach it from a financial perspective rather than gastronomic.
posted by pineapple at 11:03 AM on February 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

Two words: Thai food.
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 12:02 PM on February 28, 2007

but only a real foodie can taste the difference between tomatoes in season and out of season.
I disagree. Tomatoes out of season taste like cardboard and look terrible (to me) when cut open. A good tomato had a very very different texture inside. Lots of people might not know the difference without having it pointed out to them, but once you tell them, they don't have to care to know that it's not the same. Americans have been trained to value outer appearance (smooth, unblemished) over taste in their produce. We've also been taught that it is a good thing to have all produce available all the time, which does terrible detriment to the quality of food. Even in the foods you can get "out of season" that might be tasty, they invariable travel very great distances to make it to the table. That is what makes them so expensive.

So eating food in season not only makes it more likely that you'll get good quality, it often brings down the grocery bill to cheaper levels.
posted by bilabial at 12:54 PM on February 28, 2007

I'm helping a roommate through this right now... And being in college we are doing it cheap.

First, start cooking. you'll save money and appreciate the food more. Get to the point where you can cook the basics. Start watching Good Eats, Tivo it or find it online or something. That show explains a lot of things that go with cooking.

With the money you save by cooking you can get nicer thing when you do go out. My roommate has even cut back on the beer and is putting the money toward different scotchs.
posted by magikker at 5:28 PM on February 28, 2007

try as many different foods as you can. travel and try local foods, go to different restaurants, browse through cookbooks, and ask your friends for their favorite recipes. like so many people have said, cook your own food and you will get more of an idea of what different ingredients and processes do. and don't feel that you have to prefer the "better" ingredient-- like most arts, excellent creative cooking skills come from having a highly developed sense of what you like and how to achieve it, especially if it's something others haven't thought about much.
posted by lgyre at 6:34 PM on February 28, 2007

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