GLOBAL GROCERIES | Food fears — and a favor from readers

At a party in early December, I was talking with a group of friends – educated and apparently sophisticated people – including a couple of world travelers and a former chef. Despite their worldliness, their reaction to trying new foods was startling. Try oxtails? Eat crispy seaweed? Nibble halva? Never!

They dismissed my analogy that refusing to try a new food was like plugging your ears and running from the room if a new type of music came on the radio. “If I tried something and didn’t like it, I’d have the taste in my mouth. If I heard music and didn’t like it, I could just forget it,” one told me. (Apparently she hasn’t heard about earworms.)

There’s a name for this; food neophobia. In extreme cases it can cause someone to have serious nutrition problems. (I knew a man in college who would eat nothing except hot dogs and French fries.) Others miss out on travel, dinners with friends or simply wonderful new experiences. I’ve always enjoyed trying new foods so I don’t understand this at all. The experience with these friends got me thinking.

Years ago, I was working for another publication, covering a Jewish/Christian friendship at a local synagogue. At the end of the program participants were invited to a buffet table spread with Jewish foods including hummus and pita bread. (This was back before most people hadn’t heard of hummus.) One woman from one of the Lutheran churches looked at the feast spread before her with obvious fear.

“What’s that?” she asked me, pointing.

“Hummus,” I said. Her expression changed from fear to horror.

“Oh,” I said. “That’s Middle Eastern bean dip.” A look of relief washed over her face. Bean dip – that was something she knew. With only a little hesitation, she took a piece of pita, dipped it into the hummus and took a bite. “This is good,” she said.

Marketing, I suddenly realized, can solve the problem of mild to moderate food neophobia. Name something "kofta" and people will turn up their noses. Call it "Turkish hamburgers," and all is well. Put something different in an all-American package and people will are more likely to give it a try.

Foods that were once considered exotic are starting to showing up on the shelves of mainstream Minnesota supermarkets as large, familiar companies repackage popular foreign foods in non-threatening ways. This is not new, but it seems be happening more and more.

A few years ago, I discovered a Japanese/Korean snack chip – a kind of green pea Cheetos – an American version of which is now selling at Target and local supermarkets. Gone are the cartoon graphics and Japanese lettering, replaced by sophisticated looking art of fresh snap peas and green farm fields. The result? People are buying and trying them to the extent that there are now several American brands now on the market.

I am old enough to remember when yogurt was considered exotic, fit only for wacky movie stars and health food devotees. Everyone just knew that it had to taste terrible. But. with a big advertising push from Dannon, yogurt hit the market in the early 1970s, sold as a healthy treat. It became so popular over the years that it now seems to take up half the dairy case. Everyone eats it without questioning it’s anything but normal, American food.

That’s just fine with me. People are expanding their food choices and maybe learning to love new things to eat – things from far away places with strange sounding names. I am hopeful. Maybe my friends won’t be eating chicken feet any time soon, but perhaps they’ll get an appreciation of things currently forbidden to them because they are afraid. Less fear is always a good thing.

Which brings me to you, the reader. If you think food is an adventure and know of a small ethnic grocery store, a new, locally-produced food product or an unusual food-related story, let me know. (Most of the time, people tell me about their favorite very large ethnic supermarket. I usually already know about these and I find that the stories from the small markets are much more interesting.)

Email me with your ideas anytime. If I do the story, I’ll give you a heads up in print, if you’d like and you can see your favorite business given some press. I’d love to hear from any of you. Have a Happy New Year and always eat well.

  • Words do have import, particularly in the naming of food stuffs. My background is primarily German, so blutwurst and kornbrot were personal favorites. I also had a French grandmother so sweetbreads and the French version of kefir were frequently on our table. I was able to serve these to my American compatriots with out rejection as long as I did not tell them they were eating calf organs or congealed blood sausage. Good article Stephanie Fox, it makes one think about the consequences of words and how we use them. - by Marc Conder on Wed, 01/01/2014 - 1:31pm
  • For years, my husband gushed about a meal he consumed in Normandy. I finally made it at home & everyone ate seconds. They finally got me to confess it was Langue de Boeuf (Cow Tongue) & refused to have anything more to do with it. - by Jessica Edwards-Smith on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 1:58pm
  • My husband is a meat and potatoes man but as he'll tell you I'll try anything new. My son is the same way. Great article. I still love to fix beef tongue on occasion. - by Cindy Wilkerson Wall on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 5:48pm
  • In the words of my late Uncle Don-"when it's good it's good and when it's not it's still not half bad" Great read, thanks - by Pat Killian on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 2:15pm
  • Great article...I think a lot of us are eating things today we would have never thought of eating! - by Deb Murray Overby on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 1:57pm
  • good article, and true - by Chris Lindholm on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 1:09pm
  • Even though I came from a small town with a fairly limited cuisine, I was fortunate enough to spend time in my teens and college years in Turkey. Students on campus didn't eat burgers and fries; they ate platefuls of yogurt piled high with strawberries. And, not sweetened yogurt, it was thick and plain, but, oh, so delicious. They drank ayran, a watered down version of yogurt, similar to our buttermilk. Their snacks were very healthy. It's great to see yogurt and other middle eastern food gain in popularity here. Good article! - by Bonnie Everts on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 6:47pm
  • Great article. This concept of trying different foods has been a wonderful thing for the past 15 years, as I have had the opportunity to travel to/experience many cultures very different than my Midwest roots. Have new favorite foods in each country. - by Glenn Ashby on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 4:08pm
  • So true. I knew a woman who did the college European tour eating only hamburgers and donuts. What a waste of opportunity. So I have found some things I don't want to try again, but many more I enjoyed. - by Peggy Appleby Hoehne on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 1:43pm
  • Great article, Stephanie, and so true. I recently got to try Danish cuisine in the Danish colony of Elk Horn, Iowa. Delicious! - by Jan Morgan Hevey on Tue, 12/31/2013 - 9:26pm

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Stephanie Fox's picture
Stephanie Fox

Stephanie Fox (stephaniefox2 at tcdailyplanet dot net) has a Master's Degree in journalism from the University of Oregon. She moved to Minneapolis of her own free will in 1984.