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Test Kitchen

The Pine Nut Menace


It started on Tuesday in the Test Kitchen, when I took a bite of bucatini with fresh tomato sauce. It was absolutely delicious until, oddly, it started tasting slightly bitter. I had a heaping portion of tuna-noodle casserole, which was supersatisfying...until the bitter flavor returned. I headed to a wine tasting—one with hundreds and hundreds of bottles out to try—but I only lasted a mere 45 minutes because no matter what I tasted, there was that weird medicinal flavor in the back of my throat.  

When I returned to the office, I immediately turned to Google. The more reliable medical sites said I could have anything from reflux (I had no heartburn) to lead poisoning (not likely) to cavities (quite likely). I decided to sit tight and see how I felt in the morning.

The next day was worse. Much worse. I brushed my teeth five times and rinsed with tear-inducing Listerine but nothing helped. For the first time in two years, I called the dentist to make an emergency appointment. I left the cleaning with several thousand dollars worth of dental work in my future but no explanation for the bitter taste in my mouth. (“Sure, it could be the cavities,” they said).

Then, I started imagining what it could be: Maybe the new, acrid-smelling paint job in my apartment building was causing it. Or the slightly skunky beer I had the other night. Could the “natural” cleaner I used on the stove burners have somehow seeped into the chicken roasting in the oven at the time? I threw out old sponges, toothbrushes and a Brita filter without any evidence they were to blame.  

Yesterday, I was about to call on a doctor but decided to turn to Google again, this time reading message boards. One of them described my situation exactly—a horrible taste, often activated by food, with no other symptoms. This person had learned it was due to pine nuts. Huh? I've never had this problem before. But I had just bought pine nuts imported from China and used them on a salad.

Google “pine nuts and bitter taste” and you’ll find loads of innocent pine-nut-eating people who have been afflicted by “the taste.” It's even mentioned on the pine nut Wikipedia entry. And while there's no conclusive evidence that "the taste" is exclusively caused by pine nuts from China, I'd say that the anecdotal evidence gives me enough cause to avoid them. The good news is that there seem to be no health risks. The bad news is that things may taste bitter for weeks. At least, in my case, it seems to be waning. But for now, the best part of my job—tasting new recipes—is still no fun. What a cruel thing for a food editor!

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