Overcoming Food Phobias With Spaghetti Puttanesca

By Elissa Dauria
Staff Writer
Published: December 10, 2009

Before launching into a detailed account of his years as Vogue magazine’s food critic, Jeffrey Steingarten begins his book, “The Man Who Ate Everything,” with a surprising confession: there are many foods he doesn’t like. He calls them “food phobias,” which clearly indicates more than simple dislike. These are foods he wouldn’t eat unless he was starving on a desert island. Among these he lists kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage), anchovies and clams.

For the average person, it isn’t hard to avoid these foods; for a food critic, it is a fundamental problem. He decides that exposure is the answer to combating his food phobias. By eating said food in moderate doses, anyone can conquer a food phobia. His proof? “Most babies will accept anything after 8 or 10 tries,” said Steingarten. “Picky eaters are created when parents give up after 2 or 3 tries.”

So, here’s the bad news: Americans are picky eaters. The good news? There’s something we can do about it. Not everything tastes good the first time we eat it. And more often than not, the most complex and rewarding foods fall into this category.

Moral of the story: try new things. And then try them again. And don’t assume you don’t like something you tried once when you were 16.

That being said, this recipe is close to my heart because it contains three of my former food phobias—capers, olives and anchovies—now, happily, conquered. I’m also quite fond of the recipe’s creation story. It’s named for the Italian prostitutes (puttana) who could only afford these few, inexpensive ingredients.

(In the summer, don’t hesitate to use fresh chopped tomatoes. While capers packed in oil are more common, they also come packed with salt, but both are fine for the recipe. Whole anchovy fillets packed in oil are preferable.)