I grew up cursed with a very picky set of taste buds and a stubborn mind. As soon as I could make conscious decisions about what I wanted to eat, I had opinions on just about everything, even if I’d never tried it before. Asparagus was out because it looked dangerous, no brussels sprouts because everyone said they were gross, and onions were just obviously disgusting because my dad loved them. I saw a “list of foods Kelsey will eat” left at my grandmother’s from when I was about 10 years old. It included macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, vanilla yogurt, raw carrots, and not much else. As I’ve grown up and thankfully out of indiscriminate pickiness, I’ve started to realize that taste is, for the most part, something that goes through trends and adaptations just as everything else in this world does. I’m constantly surprised at how much I can change my tastebuds with the right application of time and a sense of adventure.
With this view, it’s particularly interesting (to me at least!) to look at my personal eating and drinking history and see the various trends and evolutions of my taste buds and opinions. There were moments of epiphany where I suddenly realized how wrong I was to dislike a flavor, where my view on the world shifted just a bit. For example, I grew up in a very European-minded family, where wine and beer were staples of the family meal and part of our social life. At a young age my parents would occasionally let me try a little sip of their wine or beer to see what it was all about, and I invariably thought they were consuming disgusting, tortuous substances, similar to coffee or swiss cheese. I listened, however, and I learned their prejudices before I even knew what they meant, and thus went into life scorning Budweiser and White Zinfandel before I’d ever tasted either one.
In high school and college, I found myself in a world of bad beer and cheap liquor, and I sloughed through it, picking up bad habits and pretending to be a snob with my Yuengling and distrust of coconut flavored rum. It stands out clearly in my mind, therefore, the day that I enjoyed my first Guinness. I’d tried it before, in the spirit of my family’s “let Kelsey try everything” motto, and as with most beers they gave me sips of, I thought it was disgusting–like a muddy alcoholic coffee. This time, however, something changed. My dad and I had driven all night from Maryland to Siesta Key, Florida, to visit his mother. It was lunchtime and we stepped out of the car into the bright, balmy sunshine, and we headed directly to the Old Salty Dog, my family’s favorite lunch spot. My dad ordered the same thing he’d been ordering for 20 years–blackened grouper sandwich extra-blackened hold the mayo with a side of coleslaw and a Guinness. For the first time in my life, I took a deep breath and ordered the same thing, foregoing my usual bland grilled cheese and Coke.
The beers came out, black and frosty (I know Guinness shouldn’t be frosty, but it was Florida!) with the head just settling into black and cream perfection. We waited a moment, out of respect it seemed, clinked our glasses, and I took a sip. It was delicious. Oh my god. Finally my taste buds appreciated the smooth, creamy bitterness and I was hooked. That was the moment, with Florida sunshine and gulls in the background, where I realized that beer was great and I needed to know more about it. I started exploring more beers, trying the dark ones, the bitter ones, the fruity ones, just to see what else was out there. Years later, I finally enjoy IPA’s, though it took me this long to appreciate the hops and get over the fact that I sneeze as soon as I taste them. To this day I still love my terrible beers when they’re cold and refreshing, but I credit that perfect Guinness for opening my eyes to all the other beers in the world.
In a similar vein it’s been fascinating to see how my taste in liquor and cocktails has changed. Like most, I think I’ve been moving from the easy, sweeter things in life to more complex flavors. I have many memories similar to the Guinness moment–moments where I realize just how perfect something is for me right then, and these moments inspire me to explore further the flavors I’m just then appreciating. My first mojito was Halloween night outside Biarritz, France in a deserted beach bar with a multinational group of fellow hostellers. The Welsh girls ordered them for everyone, and I can still taste the sharpness of the mint with the clarity of the rum, followed by a delightful crunch of sugar, I remember the desolate beach and the black Atlantic. Then there was the first time I appreciated a gin and tonic–one sweltering Maryland evening, sitting on the back deck with my dad after a terrible day of work on a touristy oyster boat. I mixed us both tall glasses and we kicked our feet up and relaxed. I’d never felt so refreshed and calmed and cooled off as I was in that one sip.
Bourbon and I met in a slightly more clinical way than I had experienced beer, rum, and gin. There was no idyllic retreat or a dear family member to guide me to appreciation. I was actually at work, here at the Southern Food and Beverage Museum. It was a Saturday and I was slowly recovering from an exciting night. It was my job, however, to pour tastes of a variety of bourbon for a Bourbon and Biscuits program we were holding. I knew nothing about bourbon. My parents hated it and only brought it out while watching the Kentucky Derby so they could pretend they were properly Southern as they stuck their pinkies skywards from their mint juleps. It looked and smelled like an “old man drink” as I often categorized the more classic cocktails then. Since I was pouring, everyone expected me to tell them a bit about each sample. As I struggled to read the labels and sound convincing, a bartender took pity on me and suggested I sip with him as he explained what I should be getting. I let my nose un-wrinkle and asked my taste buds to cooperate. Thankfully they did! I tasted the honey in the Buffalo Trace, the roughness of the Knob Creek, and the soothing flavor of the Maker’s. I tasted the spice in the Bulleit, the corn, and the pepper. I was amazed, yet again, that I liked it.
I’m still in my bourbon phase at the moment, and I’m not sure what’s next. It’s been so cool to keep trying things to see how I feel about them now, to persevere through whatever impressions old taste buds have left. I now prefer the “old man drinks” and bitters to syrupy concoctions, but I still have a soft spot in my mouth for a properly made mojito. I just find it so amazing to realize that something you thought you could never let cross your lips becomes the drink you crave at the end of a long day. It’s like any other trend in your life, from clothes to men, when you see that your tastes do change and evolve and you’re almost never static. Of course, there are some things that I don’t see changing anytime soon, including my hatred of tequila, Bloody Marys and Swiss cheese, but for the most part I think I now see that being picky is just a matter of not allowing yourself to explore.