Along with the perks of being a restaurant critic, of which there are many, there are also terrors.
Take, for example, a dish of marinated olives — my food nemesis — sent out by the city’s hottest chef as an amuse bouche. Then layer in my half-Filipino childhood filled with funky flavors, and my picky palate, upon which anything stronger than a Domino’s cheese pizza made me hide in my room burrowed deep in my Care Bears comforter.
Like I said, terrifying.
Not wanting to look like a rookie — it was only my second or third restaurant review — I choked down the marinated olives, chasing them with a fizzy gulp of prosecco, nearly cracking a molar on a pit in the process. As I mopped sweat from my neck with a French-linen napkin, I vowed to learn to love olives, the last holdout from my thoroughly picky childhood. The one food fear even years as a line cook and caterer hadn’t erased.
The first time I had an olive was at a friend’s birthday party. They were hidden under the cheese on a different brand of chain pizza. I immediately spat it out. The flavor reminded me of the pungent foods that simmered in my mom’s pots and pans. To me, olives tasted bitter like Mom’s dinuguan, a stew of pork offal, and slimy like her ampalaya, a bitter melon she grew in our Florida yard.
The flavor reminded me of the side of my family I used to hide, by pretending I only ate chicken nuggets and cheese pizza.
I once read that almost all food aversions (aside from cilantro, which some people are genetically predisposed to dislike) are mental. I knew my fear of olives was mainly in my head. It could be overcome. And I was determined to do so.
While reviewing another restaurant a few weeks later, a ramekin of olive tapenade arrived with a basket of crusty bread. Again, I felt sweat bead at my neck as my anxiety rose. But then a feeling of calm hit me. I had an epiphany: I love olive oil. I love bread. Tapenade is basically just chunky olive oil. Really, really, really chunky olive oil. Tapenade could be my olive gateway.
I smeared the tiniest dab of it onto the corner of my sliced baguette. I took a nibble. I let it linger. Hmm. Not bad. I slathered on a bit more, savoring the briny bite of the olives and the peppery prickle of the oil. When things got too funky, I cleansed my palate with a bite of plain bread, but I quickly found myself diving back in for more olive tapenade. It was a baby step, but it was also a giant leap forward in my affair with olives. I had found my way in!
Back home, I researched and tried a variety of olive tapenade recipes, and, through the years, have tweaked them to my liking. At first, I left out anchovies (see: funky flavor aversion, above), but eventually learned to like those, too. In fact, I’ve learned to embrace most of the “funky flavors” I ran from as a child, just as I’ve learned to embrace the side of my family I used to try to hide. Such things can take time, some revisiting, some reframing, some growing. But minds change, as do tastes.
My fridge is currently home to three jars of olives: Castelvetranos, purplish Kalamatas, green Greek olives stuffed with blue cheese. I’ve evolved well beyond tapenade, and well beyond simply liking olives. I love them. I crave them. All thanks to olive tapenade.
- 3/4 cup Castelvetrano olives, pitted
- 3/4 cup Kalamata or Nicoise olives, pitted
- 2 anchovy fillets, rinsed (omit to make this vegan)
- 1 small clove garlic
- 2 tablespoons capers, drained
- 1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, loosely packed
- 1 pinch to 1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse briefly 5 to 7 times. Pause and scrape down the sides of the bowl. Pulse 5 to 7 more times or until the tapenade is a course paste or at your desired texture. Serve with thin slices of crusty bread or as a garnish to pasta or soups. Refrigerate leftovers for up to 2 weeks.
Annabelle Tometich Martin works as a food writer and restaurant critic in Southwest Florida. She also writes about travel and has authored more than a dozen children’s reading books. Find her on Twitter: @atometich and Instagram: @abellewrites.