I’m terrible, I’m awful, I’m a child,” said the perfectly fine-looking woman, who found me alone in the kitchen at a party and needed to confess her sins.
And those sins were numerous.
She doesn’t like her foods to touch — the gravy touching the meat, the potatoes touching the vegetables. It was anathema to her. She had hated the comingling of foods as a child, and, to her great dismay, she had never gotten over it. Not as she scaled the ladder of her career, not as a mother, never. She was able to fake her way through meals, and had for years. But she was never happy. She never liked going to restaurants. She still needed nothing touching nothing, ever.
“Can you forgive me?” she asked.
I shifted uneasily, even though the exits were clearly in sight. The woman was obviously an extra glass of wine to the good, and my instinctive thought was uncharitable and plain: Who cares?
But she was obviously in pain, and I didn’t have anything better to do, so I stood with her for 20 minutes, as she told me more about not liking her meat to touch her potatoes.
“You probably hate me,” she ended.
This is actually not the first time this has happened to me. I met a writer once, not long before Thanksgiving, and the first thing he said to me was this: “We probably shouldn’t even talk — I hate cranberry sauce.”
That’s OK! I assured him.
He lowered his voice: “And I hate all fruit.”
I was at a business lunch once when a stranger leaned in close to my ear and asked me to help him find a soup without stuff in it — he hated soup with stuff floating in it. I helped him find a cream soup. I’m good at that. Later he emailed me to say he usually tries to avoid work lunches and dinners, but I had made him feel better, and thanks.
Also, he asked, did I have any strategies to rehabilitate him into the mainstream of society?
Those are the memorable encounters. I could not even count the number of people who have sheepishly told me, laughing and blushing, that they won’t eat — take your pick — cruciferous vegetables, mushrooms, eggplant, garlic, eggs.
It’s OK, I tell them. It’s OK!
Then they tell me about all the times they were told it was not OK.
Those people were wrong to hurt you, I say. It was wrong what was done to you.
We hug. We try to heal.
Is this what it was like to be a priest in the 1950s?
I am aware of a certain strain of thought concerning people like me, people who know a lot about food, people who eat lots of foods like mushrooms and kale and eggs. The strain of thought says that those of us in the know are sitting in judgment of those who like their toast white and their soup creamed and canned.
Many people believe that when I say out loud, “Arugula is better for you than Coke,” I’m actually saying, “To ingest Coke is a sin — a minor sin like littering, but a sin nonetheless.”
Or when I say, “Buying beef you can trace to its farm is better than buying a package of beef assembled from the scraps of six foreign and domestic slaughterhouses,” what some people hear is, “When you eat a fast-food burger from the drive-through, a kitten dies.”
I am not saying that.
For the record, wanting your mashed potatoes to stay the heck away from your salad is neither good nor bad. There is no moral content to disliking chunky soup. I feel nothing if you hate cranberry sauce. I am certain that St. Peter will not be at the gates of heaven reading a checklist and noting, “This one was cruel to children and made his living swindling the poor — but he loved tempeh, blue cheese, and Napa cabbage, so swing open the doors and cue the trumpets: He’s in!”
Here’s what I really think about food preferences: You are who you are. You’re the only one who has to taste what’s in your mouth. Your right to be happy eating saltines is no less than someone else’s right to be happy eating gazpacho — which, of course, is a nice tomato soup served ice-cold with lots of stuff in it.
I strongly believe this. In fact, I sort of washed out as a wine critic because I could simply never get up the energy to browbeat people into giving up what they like and switching to what I like.
I just can’t see a winelist as being much different than an ice-cream counter. Some people like pistachio, some mint chocolate chip, and some won’t ever budge from vanilla, God love them.
Why won’t some picky eaters budge from vanilla? I imagine it’s a combination of nature and nurture.
When it comes to nature, the differences between how and what people taste can be quite profound. Psychologist Linda Bartoshuk, PhD, a professor at the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, told the Wall Street Journal that about 15 percent of the U.S. population are “supertasters.” That is, they have more of the tiny projections on the tongue that contain taste buds; for them, the experience of something bitter, like endive or Brussels sprouts, can be not just bitter but painful, even nauseating.
(If you’re dying to know if you are a supertaster, or if your kid who hates broccoli is, you can buy strips of something called PTC paper, which contains a bitter chemical only supertasters can taste.)
If you are a supertaster who avoids vegetables, it might be good to know that about yourself, since there is some research indicating supertasters who avoid vegetables are at a higher risk for colon cancer. (If that’s you, you could try adding sweeter veggies, like carrots or tomatoes.)
When it comes to texture, people also have different experiences because of their genes. Some people have much more amylase in their saliva than others. Amylase is an enzyme that converts starch to sugar, so someone with a lot of amylase in his or her saliva might experience a saltine as sweet and interesting, whereas someone with less will experience it as dry.
When it comes to nurture, well, perhaps it’s needless to say that a great many food preferences are cultural. There are places in the world where it’s normal to eat sea slugs prepared with fermented chili-spiked cabbage, other places where it’s normal to eat okra–fish curry with boiled cassava-flour porridge, and other places where normal is a baked chicken breast touching nothing at all.
All of which is a long way of saying that I don’t think vegetable-avoiders or food-can’t-touch-ers are terrible people.
And I can add this to the pile of confessions: I’m really, truly not judging picky eaters. There’s nothing to judge. You are who you are and you like what you like.
Now, can you picky eaters start believing that about yourselves?