Brains, Raw Beef and (Ahem) Cottage Cheese: The Foods That Pro Food Critics Won't Eat

Categories: Food News

Katie Bordner
Earlier this week, The Times published a series of videos documenting the inner brain happenings of some of the country's most respected food journalists. The publication's last five critics answered questions about dining under the radar, assigning restaurant stars, most hated adjectives (they're not fond of "yummy") and the foods they refuse to eat.

If you're a food nerd, you'll probably find interesting tidbits in all the videos, but the film about hated foods is particularly humanizing. Everyone has at least a few foods they won't consume -- even food critics. And the answers these dining professionals offered aren't always what you'd expect.

Crystal Martel
Sam Sifton said he once encountered a large cow brain that was "a little challenging," which most people would surely sympathize with. Current critic Pete Wells' issue with moving animals is easy to comprehend as well. William Grimes' distaste for canned asparagus is more unexpected, and while all the critics liked properly cooked insects, Wells' aversion to anything that crawls around in his basement is 100 percent understandable.

Would you have guessed Ruth Reichl hates honey? She loathes the stuff.

It's interesting that Grimes claimed to once have an issue with uni, because the statement implies he eventually learned to like it. His demonstration of the fluidity of the human palate is the very reason you should constantly try the foods you think you don't enjoy. To find out the food aversions of other food writers, I sent an email and asked what they refused to eat. Let their answers be your food aversion bucket list.

You better be really hungry.

Beth Kanter

Besha Rodell is the food critic at LA Weekly, which means she covers one of the most diverse food scenes in the country. Rodell is a champ, claiming affection for sweetbreads, liver, brains, testicles, cod sperm and more. But she met her match in Atlanta where she encountered "whole duck heads sawed in half that you were just kind of supposed to gnaw on." Maybe it was the scraping teeth required to liberate a small amount of meat but the confit duck heads were too much. Rodell won't be ordering them again.

What about a newly minted food critic, enjoying her first appointment at the Houston Press? Kaitlin Steinberg has only been ordained a few short months, but she echoes Rodell's brain-food bravado. She tried a brain sandwich In St. Louis and says she "kind of liked it," and has been working her way through all the offal in Houston she can find.

Pull back the tab on a can of SPAM on the other hand, and Steinberg quivers like the gelatin the processed meat is packed in. "Just ... no," she said.

If you follow Steinberg, you definitely know Katharine Shilcutt. After her time at the Press she joined Houstonia to become something called a "features editor." She's not exactly a food critic these days but she's got the cred, and her willingness to eat endangered exotics proves it. "There's nothing I'm morally opposed to eating personally," said Shilcutt, who claims she'd eat a panda steak it were placed in front of her. Shilcutt doesn't actually condone widespread consumption of panda parts, though. She's also not interested in cockroaches or grub worms for dinner.

Just like with Wells, basement crawlers are out, but Shillcut's other aversion is much less expected. "I'm never really super excited to eat licorice or anything anise-flavored out of personal taste preferences," she said, leaving us all to picture a sad world without black jellybeans.

Former Observer critic Hanna Raskin isn't impressed with raw beef. "I get the primal allure of uncooked animal flesh, but I also know something about the food safety system in this country," says the newly appointed critic at the Post and Courier in Charleston. Raskin says she'll take an exploratory bite if work demands it, but plans on broadening her cultural horizons without the benefit of raw beef -- kitfo be damned.

Here in Dallas, Leslie Brenner at the DMN says she used to eat chapulines (grasshoppers) on a pretty regular basis at her favorite Oaxacan restaurant in L.A. She draws the line at live monkey brains, though.

Nancy Nichols approached the question of food aversion with more grit than the all of the other food writers combined. After the critic and editor at D Magazine tossed out scorpion, grasshoppers, ants, worms and beetles among creatures she's enjoyed, she threw down the food critic gauntlet.

"I shot a Springhare in Zimbabwe, skinned it and made stew out of it," she said. "I started the meal with warthog nachos." Nichols listed a whole slew of consumed wild game, meals in Shanghai featuring unrecognizable objects and Iguana meat in Nicaragua as memorable and enjoyable meals. So what's it take to break her down?

"I did eat a live goldfish on a dare but there was tequila involved," she said. "I would draw the line at live things -- unless it is my ex-husband."

Personally, I'd love to say I'd be willing to eat anything, though I can't confidently say I'd be able to eat an eyeball unless I had the chance to actually look one in the eye. (No need to test this.) My one, serious food aversion, however, may seem like one of the most innocuous items on this list:

I'm terrified of cottage cheese.

It was a terrible incident that occurred when I was just a young kid -- one of those first memories you can only recall in a brief and hazy flash. It involved baby vomit (it touched my skin!) and to this day the thought of soft, wet curds of cottage cheese can ruin my evening. Maybe I'll get over it one day. If William Grimes can get over uni, I know I can conquer my food fears and maybe all these critics and food writers can, too.

And just picture the dinner party.

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"Live monkey brains?"

Are...are the monkeys still alive at the time?  Because I too might have a small issue with that.

primi_timpano topcommenter

If one gets hungry enough, one will eat any thing. We are all just about a dozen or two meals away from murder.

I miss sesos tacos.


I am with Shilcutt on black licorice. Nasty. 

Also it is easier for me  to tell people I don't like onions instead of going over what I will and won't eat them with.


I ate some weird shit in Bolivia. I ate weirder shit in Kiribati...


I guess we all can't be like Andrew Zimmern.


@adventure_ike According to a number of novels (hence, the authenticity is questionable) and I think in an Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the really awful lunch, if memory serves), this was a big deal in ancient China. 

A trained monkey would be brought out who would skip, dance, juggle, do tricks, and then he'd be restrained.  Someone would knock off the top of his head and the dinner party would have live monkey brains.

Reminds me of an anecdote a lawyer was asked to represent someone accused of bank robbery.  The lawyer told the accused that his services didn't come cheap, could the accused afford him?  "Oh, I got lots of money!" was the reply.  The lawyer declined the case because he couldn't accept money that had been stolen ... so recently.  


@cyrrndr agreed on the licorice/anise flavors.  Can't stand the shit, and nothing will ruin a nice bowl of pho bo kho like biting down on a big chunk of star anise.  I get the need for it to be in the background- just keep the chunks out please.


Andrew Zimmerman won't eat Oatmeal. Everyone has their limits... Even him.


@Myrna.Minkoff-Katz I saw that. And, I think I saw Anthony Bourdain also eat the still beating heart of a Cobra in a show filmed in Vietnam.

Myrna.Minkoff-Katz topcommenter

Andrew went to the very end of extreme when he ate a still-beating snake heart.


@Twinwillow @hgolubski85  I used to watch Bizarre Foods alot and the only absolute no-go food he had was, strangely enough, walnuts. He didn't love durian but I know he ate it a couple times. 

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