I like to think I have an adventurous palate. I eat many things that commonly upset people – shellfish, snails, coriander – without complaint. I don’t have any allergies and I am highly lactose tolerant.
As an American who has lived in the UK for 30 years, I can only think of a few British foodstuffs I won’t touch, among them baked beans, Marmite and prawn cocktail crisps. But can I really consider myself adventurous if I’m not willing to give these three a go?
Most of the online advice on overcoming food aversions is aimed at toddlers, and what’s left is for people who dislike certain tastes. That doesn’t apply here, because I’ve never actually tried any of these things. I’m averse to what I imagine they must taste like. When it comes to Marmite, my imagination runs wild; I don’t even like being in the same room as an open jar of it.
Anyway, I’m not ready for Marmite; I’m starting with the crisps, as a warmup. I have tasted many horrible crisp flavours in my time, but when I first came to London in 1990, prawn cocktail was a line I chose not to cross.
This time round, after sourcing a bag, I spend a few minutes staring into an open packet and wrinkling my nose. Reluctantly, I put one in my mouth.
A little shudder goes through my frame. The taste is nothing like what I had imagined all these years. There’s nothing fishy about it; the flavour is just a synthetic approximation of prawn cocktail sauce, and if that still doesn’t taste right to me it’s because cocktail sauce is generally different in the US – a combination of ketchup and horseradish, rather than ketchup, mayo and tabasco.
Even so, the crisps are off-putting in a mildly addictive way – I pull a face every time I eat one, but still I finish the packet. To be honest, I think I would choose them over salt and vinegar, but it would be a dark day if those were the only two options.
My aversion to baked beans may seem odd – they’re originally American, after all. The canned variety were first imported to Britain in 1886, when they were sold exclusively by Fortnum & Mason. It may be this perverse association with luxury that drives British people to persist with them. When I was growing up, we always had a can of baked beans in the cupboard, where it remained unopened.
I don’t even really know how to cook them. I have seen my wife prepare beans on toast hundreds of times, without ever observing the process closely.
“Does this look legit?” I say, showing her a white plate with two artfully arranged slices of white toast despoiled by a puddle of cold baked beans.
“Stop making a fuss and just try them,” she says.
“I’m not eating these,” I say. “These are just for the photograph.”
An hour’s proximity to the beans while my picture is taken does nothing to whet my appetite, but it does take the edge off my phobia. That afternoon, I heat up a new batch and serve them to myself on much nicer bread. Then I try to convince myself I’m really, really hungry.
Although I have never had them before, there is something wholly familiar about baked beans: that sickly sweetness, that sour note of regret. They taste of old oilcloth and indelible stains. They taste like the clocks going back. I eat about half of them before I am overcome by melancholy. Later my wife finishes the rest of the tin, with joy.
A week goes by, then another. Every morning I wake up thinking: today is the day you eat Marmite. And every day I find some excuse for putting it off.
Time runs out. On the appointed day I rise early and go down to the kitchen at dawn so I can be alone with this challenge. I am not hoping for the best; Marmite’s own marketing campaign is based on the idea that it divides opinion. How surprisingly good could it be?
Eventually, I sit down, open a brand new jar and spread the stuff in a thin layer – as thinly as possible, my wife has instructed – on buttered toast. There is something alarming about the brown gunk’s refusal to part from the knife. I look away, like you do when you’re having an injection. Then I pick up a piece of toast and bite down on it.
The shock of it causes me to stand up. It’s unbelievably salty – saltier than salt. Underneath that is what I can only describe as a taste of concern: brown and faintly automotive. I walk around the table in circles while trying to swallow the stuff away. How it clings!
On my third circuit of the table it occurs to me that I need to eat more than one bite; maybe it gets easier with repeated exposure, like cigarettes. But the second time is exactly the same; the skin around my temples tightens. My brain can’t believe I have repeated this experience voluntarily.
After 30 years of unquestioning avoidance, I have experienced three new tastes I can now never untaste. I can’t claim it has enhanced my appreciation of the British palate, although regular consumers of Marmite have acquired my profound respect: you people really fear nothing.