How Do You Tell Your Family That You Don't Like Their Food?

As a kid, you don't have much say in what you eat, so it's hard to stray from the pack. Here's how one fine-dining veteran formed his own tastes and what salt water taffy had to do with it.

Saltwater taffy
Photo: Getty Images

I don’t eat a lot of candy. That’s not to say I don’t eat any candy at all — I could maybe murder a couple pieces of licorice right now, or some toffee — but I didn’t eat a lot of candy in my younger days either. I wasn’t exposed to really good candy when I was growing up. There wasn’t a great selection of quality dark chocolate, for example, in southern Indiana in the '70s. Circus peanuts that had the texture of dried paste, candy corn that tasted of slow death, hard candies in the milk glass on my grandmother’s buffet that had been sitting there since the Roosevelt Administration, these are the nightmares of my early years, and all I had. 

Once a year during Christmas, I would get chocolate-pecan turnovers and that was special and rare. The rest of the year was a minefield of yucky candy with Halloween being the high holy holiday of inedible sweets, except for the occasional Skor, which I dug. I was the kid who actually hoped for the apple to be dropped in my bag. 

My immediate family didn’t know what to do with me. When you are a child, you don’t have much in the way of collateral that might offset the damage of well-intentioned relatives who want to give you something. Your family will give you what they think you should like, not what you would like, and this is an important distinction. They are trying to inform your tastes based on what they know, and are taken aback, if not outright hostile, that you might disagree with what they are offering. That you might prefer a ham sandwich, not a handful of lollies. They wonder, "How can that be? Everyone likes those."  Having a choice isn’t a privilege that is conferred wantonly upon a child. If it was, I never would have worn permanent press clothing and I would have ordered my steaks rare. Those were my mother’s choices, not mine. 

Most of the family that I knew when I was a child, I knew in unique ways. They had nicknames like Dots or Cookie. Or they wore brown slacks with black boots that zipped up the side. Some were really good at jingling the change in their pocket and giving out a dollar here and there, or they smelled of Lucky Strikes, or were adept at nickel-dime poker. A fortunate few of them could pop out their false teeth to shock my young mind. Most of them are now dead. When I was little, I looked up to them in awe. They were just tired and worked too hard and talked about baseball and coupons, and fussed at each other and handed out crappy candy to the kids. 

Every year, some of those distant relatives on my mother’s side made their way from the Virginia coast to southern Indiana, toting the contemptible confectionery known as salt water taffy. These dainty parcels were distributed with a sort of reverence that should have been reserved for a saint’s relics, not a soft, waxy, pastel crayon, in colors not seen in the Midwest. My mother’s cousins would hand out salt water taffy in silence as we kids looked on in heightened expectation. Well, all the kids except me. I looked on in revulsion and fear, an unwitting recipient of some dark family legacy. Having a bag of salt water taffy was akin to being handed a list of sins that knew no forgiveness. Wasn’t there some other treasure to be flown over from Virginia? Prawns, barbecue sauce, blue crabs? Any of these foodstuffs would have sufficed, even to my eight-year-old self, anything not to have the bag of salt water taffy slowly calcifying in my room for the next fiscal quarter. 

While my palate and experience were limited, I had started to understand — in the most rudimentary way — the pleasures of eating. I loved mushrooms, barbecued ribs, crab, late summer tomatoes, sweet corn, green beans, fried catfish, and things like mayonnaise. I remember trying anchovies for the first time, bone marrow, brains, and being enthralled, riveted even. My own tastes had started to mature, and I was excited, though I was a long way from being conscious of it and —- it was apparent to me — my own family would be getting in the way of this maturing.

I am admittedly a bit of a curmudgeon. The quickest way to get me to reject something is to tell me how everyone else is doing it, which honestly should have been a kind of a dream situation for my parents. How many childhood arguments were lost based on the illogical statement, "everyone else is doing it."? Everyone jumped off the cliff, but I didn’t, and not because my mother warned me but because I pulled back on my own, unwilling to join the lemmings lined up for disaster. This has been the constant in my life, to be the outsider when it comes to popular music, hip movies, cool clothes. I like to hold back a bit, assess, and make my own decisions. Even now I am a source of consternation to my friends because I lack certain apps or won’t concede to purchasing a particular smartphone. This is why I considered salt water taffy to be over-hyped and gross, a product of a candy shyster. 

This is the same way I think of fudge, chocolate-covered cherries, and s’mores. The idea that my family would go googly-eyed over salt water taffy was more than enough to make me despise it. The implorings, the threats, the lack of comprehension, "just try it," they would say, oblivious that I had tried several, a good sample size as far as I was concerned, and wanted no more of it. That and the fact that my family never made great decisions when they were hit with coastal sun and beach. They would get their pink toes into some white sand, walk along the boardwalk, see some schlub in a window making salt water taffy and all reason would leak out of their bodies. They would soften – like the taffy itself – and think of some nostalgic time in their past that never existed, and find themselves compelled to enter the shop and purchase some. 

Mind you, they didn’t just purchase "some" for themselves, no. They had to take home bags of the stuff so they could proselytize to the poor saps back home in Indiana who were suffering from lack of sun. See here, what we found? This little bit of heaven right on the beach? The victims of this largesse would be picking the taffy out of their teeth for weeks and wondering when they could toss the rest of it in the bin.

It has been some decades now since someone has forced salt water taffy on me, and I have not seen some of those relatives for years and years. I suppose their distance can be attributed in part to my eventual honesty about the stuff: "Please, no, I have never liked salt water taffy." Or chocolate covered cherries. I finally came clean to my father a few years back when I returned five boxes of the un-eaten little sugar bombs, explaining to him that it was better to set money on fire than to continue purchasing these for me. The hurt — when you return something to someone or refuse a gift — is palpable, as if you’d questioned the fabric of their existence, or desecrated some sacred chamber of their childhood. That is understandable. You haven’t allowed them to shape your taste and they feel hurt. 

Over the years as I grew and learned, I blamed salt water taffy for other misfortunes such as failing calculus, missing CD’s, an unfavorable outcome of a sporting event, all the fault of salt water taffy. But, after all this time away from the stuff and not having given a thought to salt water taffy in ages, and having reconciled those feelings within, a new challenge has emerged in a friend who is convinced I can grow to love salt water taffy. She surreptitiously hid a box in my apartment, which I found forthwith. It was easy to find; it has an unpleasant aroma, a ghastly color, a vile texture. I regarded it for a while with a sense of nostalgia, not for some bygone time, but for the child I was, standing strong in the face of pressure to just "try one." Please save your money, I have never liked salt water taffy, and never will, and bring me a ham sandwich. I know what I like.

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