Grapefruit: The Fight to Overcome a Bad Memory

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Not long after I met my husband, he informed me that he doesn't eat ham. That wasn't terribly surprising news—he's Jewish, so I hadn't expected him to be a bacon fiend. But as we got to know each other better, I learned that his objection to swine was hardly religious. This is a man who would happily eat shrimp or scallops every day and is most probably unaware that Yom Kippur starts on Friday.

No, my husband's pork aversion springs instead from one of the most common causes of food dislikes: a bad childhood experience. He's still loath to linger on the details, but from what I can gather, the unfortunate incident involved a ham sandwich, a hot El Paso day, and a hungry young boy whose lunch came back up as quickly as it had gone down. The mere thought of ham still makes him queasy, but that's why God invented turkey bacon and beef hot dogs.

The foods we eat early in life can form powerful associations in our minds—both good and bad. Mom's meatloaf can conjure up happy memories of cozy snow days. Fresh strawberry jam may transport you back to the lake where you spent summers growing up. And then there are the other taste memories.

How could a fruit look so much like an orange and yet taste so awful? That's a question many people have asked about the grapefruit.

My friend Malinda still harbors a violent aversion to bananas because the dental molds her dentist used to take impressions when she was young were banana-flavored. The Washington Post's restaurant critic Tom Sietesma cannot stand the taste of licorice or even licorice-flavored foods like anise and fennel because of a childhood vacation during which he barfed up the contents of an entire bag of black licorice in the back seat of the family car.

Food psychologists have long recognized that some food aversions have nothing to do with an inherent objection to an ingredient's taste or texture. In fact, just one negative experience can move a once favored food into the will-not-eat-under-any-circumstances column. While this kind of dramatic reaction to a food may seem like the body's way of protecting itself from a dangerous substance, that's obviously not always the case. My husband's searing ham experience was much more likely the result of a stomach bug than a contaminated piece of pork. And some roasted fennel or a piece of soft New Zealand black licorice poses no threat to Sietesma's digestive tract.

But as the University of Pennsylvania's Paul Rozin and Teresa Vollmecke have written, that's not how the mind processes a traumatic encounter with food. Consider their example of two people who avoid peanuts:

One has an allergy to peanuts and suffers rashes and/or difficulty breathing after eating them. This person avoids peanuts as dangerous but likes the taste. If his allergy could be cured he would be delighted to consume peanuts. The other person originally liked peanuts but got sick and vomited after eating them. She dislikes the taste of peanuts, while realizing they are not dangerous.

Which brings us to my own irrational food dislike based on an incident in the fourth grade. I was on a marathon car trip with my grandparents from Michigan to Florida. Because Grandpa liked to make good time, we'd gotten up at four on the morning of our second leg, and I was still asleep when we crossed the state line from Georgia into the Sunshine State. We pulled into the first rest stop and I groggily followed my grandparents into the visitor's center. There we found a welcome table set up with free cups of juice. A bit parched from my back seat snooze and eager to try some fresh-squeezed Florida orange juice, I grabbed a cup and gulped it down.

Blech, blech, blech. My orange juice had gone bad! It was sour and bitter all at once, and the aftertaste was even worse. I ran to the water fountain in a vain attempt to rinse the taste from my mouth. When I returned, still grimacing, my grandparents explained that what I had just ingested was not rancid orange juice or a cleaning solution but a perfectly harmless beverage: grapefruit juice.

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How could a fruit look so much like an orange and yet taste so awful? That's a question many people have asked about the grapefruit. A relative newcomer to the family of cultivated citrus fruits, grapefruit was introduced to the States in 1823 but was slow to gain popularity. Grapefruits aren't easy to peel, as oranges are, and they can be difficult to incorporate into dishes because their strong flavor tends to overwhelm other ingredients. Many people find them palatable only when eaten with enough sugar to trigger a diabetic shock, which raises the question: Why not just eat an orange?

I have avoided grapefruit without exception ever since that disappointing swig of juice in 1983. But it's one food aversion that has always bothered me, largely because I eat nearly every other type of fruit. I have no textural objection to grapefruit. And, in theory, if I know I'm eating grapefruit instead of an orange, there should be no issues of taste dissonance either. Food researchers don't yet know exactly how to overcome food aversions caused by traumatic memories, but Marci Pelchat of the Monell Chemical Senses Center speculates that repeated exposure can override the original negative association. So over the strenuous objections of some Florida natives who insist that grapefruit should not be eaten out of season, I recently decided to give the citrus another chance.

My first approach was the classic dump-half-a-canister-of-sugar-on-top preparation, which seems to be how most people I know eat their grapefruit. I cut a ruby grapefruit in half, covered it with brown sugar, vanilla, and powdered ginger, and stuck it under the broiler for a few minutes until the sugar was bubbling. Once the concoction had cooled, I scooped out a spoonful, stuck it in my mouth, and involuntarily puckered.


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Pelchat had told me that some ingredients like sugar can block bitter tastes (milk serves the same purpose when added to coffee). The sugar mixture did have some effect, but at this rate I would have to roll each bite entirely in sugar to eliminate what definitely tasted like something that should prompt a call to Poison Control.

I had more success a few days later with a grapefruit yogurt cake. A generous helping of grapefruit zest in the batter, as well as a grapefruit syrup that soaked into the cake while it was cooling, provided a legitimate grapefruit flavor. But the glaze of grapefruit juice and powdered sugar really put it over the top. The cake was tart but not overpoweringly so. It was also very, very sweet. This time when my mouth puckered it was from imagining my teeth rotting from the inside-out.

There had to be a way to enjoy grapefruit without smothering it in sugar every time. As I looked for recipes, I kept coming across the combination of avocado and grapefruit, which sounded odd but intriguing. Using a pink grapefruit, I removed the sections, arranged them with avocado slices, and drizzled the plate with a lemon-Dijon vinaigrette. Warily, I speared avocado and grapefruit together and tried the combination. The distinctive grapefruit taste was still present but the buttery taste of the avocado neutralized the bitterness. I took another bite. Yes, this was light and citrusy—and I didn't feel the need to rinse out my mouth.

Feeling a bit overconfident by this point, I moved onto the last challenge: grapefruit juice. My husband insists that freshly squeezed grapefruit juice tastes infinitely better than processed juice. And he may be right, as I've never tried the boxed variety. All I know is that if not for the sake of scientific inquiry, I would have spit out that first swig of fresh juice. You can take the girl out of fourth grade, but it turns out you cannot take the traumatic fourth grade juice memory out of the girl.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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