Acquired tastes – Alison Healy on unexpected menu items

An unfortunate habit of eating things without thinking

This is a cautionary tale about eating unexpected things. I ate dog food so you don’t have to. It was after breakfast, and I was bringing the cereal bowls to the sink. I had eaten granola and picked up what I thought was my spoon. There were a few oat flakes stuck to it and I gave it an enthusiastic lick without thinking. The taste was most unexpected and unsettling. Instead of the sweet nutty flavour I was expecting, it tasted like a very meaty gravy. Yes, it was the spoon that had just used to scoop the dog food into the bowl. I am here to tell you that dog food tastes exactly like you would imagine. And to advise against licking spoons anywhere, ever.

I have an unfortunate habit of eating things without thinking. I spied a lone jellybean on a bookshelf in the sitting room a few months ago. Instead of questioning the reason for its existence, I immediately popped it into my mouth. I learned – alas too late – that a child had found it under a cushion a few weeks earlier and was conducting an experiment to see how long it would last before going off.

But at least it wasn’t a toenail.

I haven’t been able to look at a pizza properly since I heard Elna Baker’s story on Ira Glass’s This American Life podcast. The writer had started to date a man and they were having pizza at his apartment. As she was carrying it, she tripped, and the pizza fell face-forward onto the white couch.


She immediately started to clean it up so the tomato sauce wouldn’t leave any stains. When she was doing this, she spotted what she described as a perfect piece of mozzarella curl. She was peckish, of course, as her dinner had just been upended on the sofa. So, she picked up the mozzarella curl and popped it in her mouth. As she bit into it, she realised that it was not a soft and yielding piece of mozzarella she had been anticipating. It was a hard and chewy toenail. Possibly from a big toe, she later surmised.

Her mortified date denied all knowledge of the toenail, saying it didn’t seem like his. Had someone broken into his apartment with the sole purpose of cutting their toenails on the sofa, Ira Glass wondered. It was New York, after all.

We don’t know if that blossoming relationship survived the crisis or curled up and died like that wizened toenail. But who knows? They might have bonded over the incident. After all, the actor Alan Alda bonded with musician, photographer and writer Arlene Weiss when they ate food from the floor. They have now been married for 65 years.

The M*A*S*H actor had already seen Arlene playing the clarinet and had complimented her, but she had no memory of that encounter.

They were later both invited to a mutual friend’s dinner party. He noticed that she was laughing heartily at his jokes and so was immediately captivated by her because, what’s more attractive than someone who laughs at all your jokes?

Counter space was limited in the small kitchen, so the dessert of rum cake had been put on top of the fridge. However, every time the motor came on, the fridge shook. Throughout the evening, the rum cake slowly waltzed across the fridge until it eventually plopped on to the floor.

Arlene and Alan immediately leaped into action. “Alan and I realised we were the only two people at that whole dinner party who went in with our spoons and ate the cake off the floor,” Arlene recalled on the Sporkful podcast. She couldn’t remember what anyone else at the party was doing. “It was just Alan and me and that rum cake.” He confirmed this and added that “flirting over food is really the best way to flirt . . . After the rum cake, I am really drawn to her”.

Although she lived an hour away on the subway, he escorted her home that night and met her mother. On the way back, he fell asleep and missed his Manhattan stop, ending up in Brooklyn. It was dawn when he finally got home and felt something in his pocket. It was a slice of rye bread she had given him to sustain him on the journey. They have been inseparable since.

So, if you are seeking love this year, attend a dinner party, drop a cake on the floor and see what happens. The odds must be better than meeting someone on Tinder. And if no one steps forward, at least you get to eat cake.