One reason to remain alive is to appreciate flavours; more significantly, to appreciate one’s ability to learn the point of new flavours. I’m sure you’ve had that experience of suddenly realising that a food you hated when a child suddenly becomes palatable. Food that once represented a veritable Myra Hindley to your juvenile tastebuds just decides one day to reveal itself as nothing more than a misunderstood aunt after all. Olives, blue cheeses and wine all represent such revelations in my case.
Olives came first. I remember being hungry one day, and finding little more than a bottle of the said salty fruits in the parental fridge. Rather than reject them, as I would have done previously with barely a conscious thought, some new maturity this time led me to take their insolent, beady glistening as a challenge. I don’t think I necessarily actively “liked” the first one; but I could no longer call it an enemy to my sensibilities. It was playing with me, teasing me with its odd, savoury, uncompromising adulty weirdness. My tongue wasn’t merely a submissive gimp in this little bit of role play – no, it took on the olive for all it was worth, decoding for the first time the aesthetic “meaning” behind the flavour. What once was little more than harsh white taste-noise suddenly revealed its grand purpose. For want of a better phrase – a far, far better phrase – the olive’s “flavour narrative” unfurled itself. “Ah! Gotcha!” And from that moment on, olives were understood, no longer “other”. My mouth, tongue, brain and stomach knew what to do with them, and I finished the whole bottle. I got their number.
A similar thing happened to a work colleague, Paul Smeddle. A group of we techies went to dinner after some server prodding. We happened to be in Nandos, the Portuguese/South African peri-peri chicken joint. I must demand that you buy a dish of olives, if you ever happen to pass. They are plump and pickled with pimento and garlic, and are amidst the least disappointing little dishes you’re likely to encounter. Paul’s palette was still, I’m afraid, Saul. It hadn’t travelled on its road to Damascus (a prominent olive producer, don’t you know), and so retained the common distrust of the fruits, coming out with the usual violent rejections thereof. Of course, we enlightened souls could not bear to be in the presence of one yet so unwise in the ways of the Savoury, and decided to lead him down a forceful epiphany. So, after the usual group-of-males cajoling, he tried one. He professed not to be impressed. No more was said on the matter. We had tried, and that’s what’s important, after all.
Some months later, I saw Paul take out his lunch in the office. This included a punnet of bright green olives. He gobbled them down, voraciously, with the rigour of the convert. “Yes, I have to admit”, he confessed, “that my taste at Nandos planted the seed of doubt, which bloomed into a full-grown reversal and eventual craving. I’m now addicted”. I hope you’ll agree that helping someone to appreciate something in the same aesthetic terms with which you had learned to appreciate it yourself represents a most joyous pinnacle of human empathy. You might forgive me, then, for some of my happy smugness in welcoming Paul to the fold.
More significant for me even than olives was my coming-to-terms with, and my eventual complete craving for strongly flavoured blue cheese. My young palette enjoyed the creamy sweetness of a cheese, with at most the tangy civility of a good Cheddar, or the crumbly tartness of a worthy Cheshire. But striate my curds with salty blue fungus and streak my whey with pungent green spores, and you’d have made yourself a nemesis in me. Then, one day, I suddenly liked them. No grand overture, fanfare or final cadenza prefigured this. Just like that, I realised that ‘pongy cheese” was good. Go figure. Smelly, blue, green, ripe or runny, I appreciated the point of what was previously perceived as just another noxious perversion, to be filed under poop and puke in the “avoid” lobe. Yuck became yum in a period of time short enough to alarm me. After all, if my dearly held aesthetic opinions could be thrown asunder in the smack of a lip, with years of passionate and proudly staunch revulsion now chucked aside like an old toy, suddenly devoid of the childhood meaning which gave it worth, what certainties could I rely upon? What else of me would dissolve?
The ancient Philosophers talked of the Ship of Theseus, as a way of discussing what might be meant by “identity”. In the tale, a ship, over time, begins to rot away. One plank replaced. The ship still retains its identity as the Ship of Theseus. Two, three are replaced further, still no problem. What happens when half the ship’s timbers have been replaced? And, finally, when no part of the “original” ship remains, in what way is it still “that” ship? In what sense, if any, is the ship still to be identified as the Ship of Theseus? As I continued to shed aesthetic opinions, God, accents, skin cells and memories, what part of the Ship of Nick (or Nicholas or Nicky as it would have then been, to make the point further) would have remained? Maybe this is why people cling on to their strange little dislikes and petty little habits. They provide some constancy of self, an identity we hope survives, sturdy against the buffeting of time and our mere mortality. But despite this all stolid intransigence, most of us just can’t help getting old enough for olives.