Read: The girl who wouldn’t drink water
Still, my distaste for such an innocuous food feels vaguely shameful, and after much deliberation, I’m ready to switch sides. I’m ready to make myself like cucumbers. Getting there is unlikely to make any huge improvement in my life, but at the very least, I’d like to reroute my energy to a more interesting source of shame. And the good news, according to researchers, is that most people can reset their neural pathways to one day enjoy—or at least tolerate—a nice gazpacho.
Before you can solve a problem, you have to understand what it is: Why is it cucumbers for me, and broccoli or oysters for some other people? There’s no neat explanation, according to Paul Rozin, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “The great majority of people have a fair number of things they don’t like,” he says. There is evidence of genetic differences that make some people more sensitive to certain chemicals in food, but those people might actually prefer the taste of those chemicals. “Sensitivity doesn’t necessarily mean a person will be averse to something,” Rozin explains.
There is one type of aversion that scientists understand pretty well, though, according to Anthony Sclafani, a professor at Brooklyn College who studies the neurobiology of taste: If you eat a novel food and then experience nausea or vomiting, your brain is primed to blame that food. That’s true even if you know, on an intellectual level, that the food isn’t at fault. “We get sick to our stomach and automatically develop an aversion. It’s just hardwired,” Sclafani says. Because of this, people with cancer are often advised to “scapegoat” particular foods during chemotherapy: To avoid creating an association between the treatment’s nauseous side effects and a patient’s normal diet over time, the brain can be steered toward assigning those effects to novel foods instead.
I’ve never had a traumatic barf experience with cucumbers, so my aversion is probably just an innate dislike. And the culprit behind my long-term cuke hatred might be in the vegetable’s smell, more specifically than its taste. “What we call ‘taste’ is really ‘flavor,’ which is a mixture of taste, smell, and texture,” Sclafani says. People lose olfactory sensitivity as they age, which is a big reason that many people seem to outgrow childhood aversions: A food that might have been overwhelming to a kid will read as more mellow to an adult. I’m in my 30s, so there’s a decent chance that, were I to give cucumbers a fair shake, I’d hate them a lot less than my childhood memories have led me to believe.
Childhood can be key to later-in-life food preferences in a lot of ways. Before a baby is even born, what a mother eats can influence what her infant will like because diet affects amniotic fluid, and that influence continues in the months after birth through lactation. “If an Italian mother eats a lot of garlic, the milk has a garlic flavor to it,” says Sclafani. “Her infant will be more accepting of garlic than the infant of a mother who doesn’t eat garlic.” For mothers who don’t breastfeed, varying an infant’s formula flavor can help prevent later pickiness.