There’s an almost unbreakable rule when it comes to sensory perception and food: if it looks bad, it’ll taste bad. People will eat the most strange-smelling stuff–witness durian, any number of aged cheeses, fermented foods, and a large number of culture-specific items from around the world that, to anyone not either genetically inclined to be attracted to it or else remarkably brave and adventuresome, will yell at the lizard brain ‘POISON! POISON!’ The emetic reflex is, indeed a powerful thing when triggered by smells, but somehow a vast quantity of people have not only overcome that response but embraced the non-toxic results of the experiment. But things that look unpleasant are often a much harder sell. We humans respond intensely to appearances.
That’s not to say that we won’t eat things that look fairly nasty. The first person who looked at a monkfish probably didn’t say to himself, ‘gosh, that looks inviting,’ so much as something like ‘good thing I’m starving here!’ and the famously slimy strands of nattō (compounded, I’m told on good authority, by a perfume that’s fully its equal for off-putting qualities) were unlikely the source of its original appeal. In our household, the favorite rude comment if food has a notably unpalatable appearance is, ‘are ya gonna eat that or did ya?’–to which my response is generally to spoon up a big bite of it, because I’m almost always the one who eats Weird Things and I’m also a petulant show-off.
But for the most part, looks are terribly important, not only because in the rawest sense they can mean the difference between safe and unsafe eating but also because ultimately, we like food to stimulate our pleasure centers. So it’s not the worst rule of thumb to look around, when seeking ingredients and recipes, for things that have the inherent beauty we will respond to most happily, and that can sustain their loveliness throughout the prep and presentation arrangements.
Sometimes, of course, the best rule of thumb in the event is to simply eat the food as we found it, because if it looks pretty to start with it probably doesn’t need any plastic surgery from us ordinary non-chef mortals. See it, eat it. Pretty good recipe, pretty often.