In yesterday’s Dining and Wine section of the New York Times, Julia Moskin defends green peppers, “the sturdy yet forlorn supermarket vegetable that foodies love to hate,” in an article entitled “Image Problem? Don’t Pity the Bell.”
I, like many others who commented on this article, had no clue that green peppers were so controversial. Moskin traces the “unforgiving world for green peppers” back to Alice Waters, who is often credited with founding the food revolution of the ’70s and ’80s through the Californian cuisine featured in her restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkley, CA. Apparently she hated them for their bitter taste.
This struck a chord with me because green bell peppers are the only food I will go out of my way to avoid. I also prefer not to have other bitter foods, such as Brussel sprouts, but I won’t necessarily pick them out of food served to me as I will with green peppers. I will eat pretty much anything else, just like many of the “modern food lovers” Moskin describes in her article. It’s just green peppers. I can’t help it, I’ve tried to force myself to enjoy them. And I have just discovered that I am not alone.
As a few comments and blogs point out, Moskin defends green bell peppers against their apparently numerous haters by describing the glories of cooking with cubanelles, poblanos, shishitos, pimientos de padron, and jalapenos. As such, Moskin’s defense is poorly researched and she in no way makes me want to give green peppers another shot. But this isn’t really my point.
I think that Moskin fails to discuss what is really interesting here: why do so many food lovers who “enjoy everything put in front of them” from “beef cheeks” to “goat udder” have such a strong distaste for green peppers, which aren’t particularly exotic at all?
And then it occurred to me: genetics. My family often jokes about the “green pepper gene,” which plagues about a quarter of my extended family members, myself included. A few of my uncles and I all agree that green peppers are practically inedible while the others have no idea what we are talking about. Could I possibly have inherited this distaste?
Well it turns out it is possible. There is a good amount of research out there on the genetics of bitter food sensitivity. Scientists use two synthetic substances, phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) and 6-n-propylthiouracil (PROP) to study the biology and genetic inheritance of the taste buds. For some people, these substances produce an extremely bitter taste while for others, PTC and PROP taste almost like nothing.
Green peppers and other bitter foods such as members of the cruciferous vegetable family (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, bok choy and kale) do not contain PTC or PROP because these substances do not occur naturally. But studies have suggested that sensitivity to PTC and PROP may lead to an avoidance of such bitter foods.
I am certainly not an expert, but perhaps this genetic sensitivity to extreme bitterness accounts for the popular dislike of green peppers and my own personal repulsion. Don’t get me wrong, a little bit of bitterness can be great. Arugula? Yum. Dark Chocolate? Yes, please. But green peppers? Never.