Reeling in my fish phobia
August 24th, 2012
03:45 PM ET
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Jeremy Harlan is a CNN photojournalist. He has a hungry baby and he loves Vienna sausage.

There they were with their cold, beady branzini eyes shooting a shiver down my spine. I was in trouble. I had no escape. I was about to (gulp) eat...fish.

I appreciate a good dinner party and from time to time, I've been known to scrap together a decent menu. There's always one common denominator: an animal with legs. Our good friends, Lily and Tyler, should know this better than anyone. Rib roasts, leg of lamb, beer-can chicken - they've enjoyed it all.

But last December, we went over to their house for a holiday dinner party. My hopes were high for a large chunk of landlocked meat. Prime rib? Crown roast? I knew Tyler would do it right. So when he unwrapped the butcher paper and revealed a half-dozen of those European seabass, everything went black.

I cannot bring myself to eat seafood, especially fish. If it ever had gills, fins, or scales, I'm having none of it.  That night's main course, whole salt-encrusted branzini, landed on the dinner table with all three still intact.

Raj the dog was nowhere in sight. So the ol' "slide the fish to Fido under the table" move was not in play. I generously filled my plate with side dishes, leaving no room for the branzini.

Five minutes in, Lily realized there was no fish on my dish.

"Jeremy, did you get some fish?"

The moment of truth.

"Oh, I already ate it. Maybe I'll get seconds after I finish my plate."

Okay, it was a moment of lying. I was ashamed. They had worked so hard on preparing the seabass, but I couldn't bring myself to try the fish.

I really want to like seafood. I want to go to a Maine wedding and enjoy the fresh lobster bake. I want to devour the salmon I pull from Alaskan waters during a family fishing trip. I live a blue crab's throw from the Chesapeake Bay - the occasional crabcake would be a nice experience. 

I've tried it all once, and every time has been a failure. I can't stand the smell, I can't stand the sight, I can't stand it all.

I've eaten gristly goat on assignment in Africa, questionable beef in remote Mexico, and some very sketchy chicken in Peru. All with no hesitation. But ask me to eat super fresh cod in Tromso, Norway? Nei takk. In fact, I ate enough reindeer on that assignment to have my name in permanent marker on Santa's naughty list.

I wish I knew what caused me to hate seafood. Could it have been, at an early age, watching my dad gut and clean rainbow trout during a weekend fishing trip to Chambers Lake? Was it a bad shrimp at an inn we used to visit or the endless frozen fish sticks I ate for dinner as a kid? My guess is they all played a part.

But forget the cause, I want a solution. I want to look at a menu and not immediately cross out a third of it; or in the case of New York City's seafood temple Le Bernardin's, the whole thing.

I remember a few months back a series of stories from David Solot, a Ph.D. student in organizational psychology at Walden University, explaining food aversions. Maybe some of his wisdom could help me out.

"First off, I don't think anyone likes the smell of raw fish," Solot assures me. "It's disgusting. People tolerate it, but I don't think anyone is walking into a fish market, taking a deep whiff, and going, 'Ohhh yeah, that's the stuff!'"

Fair enough. But where to begin in solving this problem? Solot says it's helpful to know where the food aversion starts. If you can identify it, you might be able to explain to yourself why you don't need to be repulsed. If you can't remember a specific moment that turned you sour on a food, Solot says there's still a plan of attack to solve the aversion.

"The key is, find a situation that only repulses you a little bit, and expose yourself to it in a way that causes good feelings," says Solot.

He suggests figuring out how close you can get to eating a food - in my case, fish - without feeling an intense dislike for it.

I'm pretty good at being around people eating seafood, as long as the smell wafting over isn't too intense.  Often, I'll grill a salmon fillet for my wife right next to my juicy ribeye steak. I can actually eat oysters and mussels. And, if seafood is part of a fairly expensive tasting menu, then I'm willing to stomach the occassional bite of urchin or eel.

But a piece of sockeye salmon on a cedar plank? I'd rather leave that for my brown bear buddies up in the Brooks River.

"What you want to do is put yourself in a positive, happy situation and then slowly expose yourself to fish," suggests Solot. "You want your mind to associate eating fish with good feelings as opposed to whatever bad feelings are lurking in your subconscious."

So next time I'm watching my favorite sports team score a touchdown, I should celebrate with shrimp cocktail?

"The more often you do this, the more good feelings will start to overpower the bad feelings, and the aversion to fish will start to vanish."

His suggestion to me is find a fish that is only slightly repulsive to me and eat it as part of a larger meal. I'm thinking some crab on top of a steak. He says to focus on the taste and texture of that moment. Try not to have any preconceptions as to whether or not you're going to like it.

Solot stresses, "The important thing is a small exposure to fish in a positive environment. You want to come out of the situation with a 'that wasn't so bad' feeling."

But he cautions, "Don't go all out and eat the most disgusting thing you can imagine to try and get it over with. All that will do is reinforce your belief that you hate fish! You want each experience to leave you with some positive feelings towards what you ate."

So he's saying I shouldn't try fermented shark? I'm guessing this is going to be easier said than done, but I'm willing to try it. Any more assignments to Norway and Santa may have to subcontract with some freelance caribou.

Got a food aversion you'd like to overcome? Let it out in the comments below. We're here for you.

Previously - The psychology of food aversions

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Filed under: Bite • Food Science


soundoff (12 Responses)
  1. Lanora Pelley

    Several types of phobias exist. Some people fear large, open spaces. Others are unable to tolerate certain social situations. And still others have a specific phobia, such as a fear of snakes, elevators or flying. "-'`

    Most up-to-date piece of writing straight from our new blog site <http://www.healthwellnesslab.com/

    July 1, 2013 at 7:52 am |
  2. Ted

    As an avid fisherman I can say w/ some authority; that if it stinks it aint fresh! Fresh fish smells ,as notsopc says,"almost no smell at all" or the ocean.Solot is way wrong! Would you eat meat that smells like roadkill?Same thing.Unfortunately much of what gets sold in the markets is not fresh,or,IMHO ,or even edible.I eat fish/seafood 5-6day/wk.
    I've also killed and eaten many warm-blooded animals,geez,talk about stink! They are all very foul-smelling compared to fresh fish.

    September 5, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
  3. chancewhite64

    I have so many food aversions. I will not eat any creature that comes out of the water. It smells ungodly nasty to me. All of it. Especially shrimp, the smell of which very literally triggers my gag reflex. I eat chicken, but only fried. I eat beef, but only grilled or pan fried. Roasted or baked ruins it for me. I will eat bacon but not ham. It's a texture thing for me. I will eat all sorts of foods, but they each have to be prepared a certain way. Some veggies I only eat raw, and some, as in the case of tomatoes, only cooked. I wish to God I could be like my fiancee and eat anything. If I try to force myself to eat a food I hate, I will vomit.

    August 29, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  4. Gary Grossman

    I don't think that I'd characterize as wise anyone who makes statements such as "First off, I don't think anyone likes the smell of raw fish," Solot assures me. "It's disgusting. People tolerate it, but I don't think anyone is walking into a fish market, taking a deep whiff, and going, 'Ohhh yeah, that's the stuff!'" As notsopc correctly notes in their comment, if fish is truly fresh it has a very mild smell – if the odor is strong it means the fish is old and if it's got that "Solot" smell, then it's spoiled. Gary Grossman, Professor of Fisheries, University of Georgia

    August 28, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  5. Thinking things through

    I have a friend who refused seafood - until he was convinced to eat sushi. Now he eats fish, but only raw, thank you. It was the small of cooked fish that did him in.

    In my own case, I refused fish (but ate shellfish) as a toddler, up until about the age of six, out of fear of the bones and choking, until I caught my first catfish. I had to eat that! Watching Dad clean it didn't dissuade me - it was MY fish and I was going to try it. Never mind that the fillet we got out of it was probably about the size of my six year old hand... I haven't looked back since, and eat fish early and often.

    August 27, 2012 at 11:26 am |
  6. r

    It's fish that are alive that scare me. On my plate: yummy!

    August 27, 2012 at 10:24 am |
  7. coach bbb

    I was a childhood spear fisher. no air tanks, just a spear, snorkel & mask, and my favorite – to as not spend precious air- weight belt to drop me like a wood handle hammer into the coastline & reefs of the Mediteranian. The groupers, bronzinis, 8ft eels, & octupus, ets i never rememberd or didnt care of the tastes in d days dive. i always thought it was bc i felt like d fish in water after boat travel & 3-7 hours of diving. . salt residue would be visible on my body in d summer heat – i felt like a fish, but never smelled fishy or fish ironicaly. now in dstates w kids & a backyard waaaay away from d repective Mediteranian waters= NJ... i just love d smell of fish on a grill like the anticipation of my 1st daughters & twin boys day of birth. (if u want d smellish of fish on a grill, spray olive oil spray cans when the flame on d grill is raised to yellow flames. . . thats d smell of fish ;)) . . BUT ON THE NOTE OF THIS ARTICLE, I WOULD OF EXPECTED THE LEVEL OF MERCURY IN SOME FISH WOULD BE A FACTOR

    August 26, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  8. tipsana

    I could have written this article. I like to think I'm an adventurous eater. I'm willing to try anything once. But not fish. I can't point to any "traumatic" fish eating event. I know I was served it as a youngster. I will eat some shellfish (shrimp and lobster). I can tolerate eating a meal along-side a fish eater (as long as the fishy smell doesn't overcome my own meal). And I wish I could eat more fish - I know it is healthy and I'd like to have more choices off the menu. But, at age 50, I have resigned myself to a fishless diet. Cue the "Under-the-Sea"-like fishy celebration.

    August 26, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  9. rosethornne

    It's very simple:

    A. Fish smells like dirty diapers.
    B. I do not eat dirty diapers
    C. Therefore I do not eat fish.

    Bleh!

    August 25, 2012 at 5:24 pm |
  10. notsopc

    Solot is wrong–if it smells bad it is bad. Truly fresh fish has almost no smell at all; compare that with a freshly butchered mammal.

    August 25, 2012 at 11:21 am |
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