Loving weird food: how I stopped being a picky eater
Like most Americans, I used to hold some self-evident beliefs about food:
The three dogmas of the food phobiac:
- There are foods I “like” and foods I “dislike” and I ought to stick to the things that I like.
- The better something tastes, the more unhealthy it must be and vice versa. You must choose between a long life of disgusting food or indulge yourself and die early.
- There is a value hierarchy for all the edible parts of any animal. For example, top sirloin is the ideal for beef. There’s a similar value hierarchy for animals themselves. Decisions about which animal and which part of the animal to eat are therefore a simple cost/benefit equation.
Two things completely changed by attitude on food: getting married, and moving to China.
The psychology of taste
Our perception of taste is closely associated with our memories of things such as the taste of past meals, our emotional states, and sensory associations with similar foods. We come to associate foods with sensory reactions based on many factors such as familiarity, the quality of most meals, the people we were with, etc. By dissociating taste as such from negative experiences we can learn to appreciate food for its inherent taste, without emotional baggage. We can learn to prefer the taste of healthy foods by the same process.
Sensory integration therapy for food phobiacs
The first step to fixing food phobias is to recognize the problem: it’s not OK to exclude foods because of food sensitivities. All the “most hated” American foods are delicious when prepared properly. Having recognized the problem, here is the program that worked for me:
The strategy is to gradually introduce foods in different settings, gradually building exposure and positive associations with certain foods. For example, when my wife learned that I hated zucchini, she gradually introduced it into my diet starting with small amounts balanced by other flavors, and growing to having zucchini be the dominant ingredient. Here is what she cooked:
- Stuffed peppers with zucchini and sausage
- Potato and zucchini frittata
- Roasted vegetable meatloaf with zucchini
- Grated zucchini topped with marinara
- Lasagna with zucchini noodles
- Zucchini gratin
- Zucchini latkes
- Zucchini fried in butter with onions
- Parmesan crusted fried zucchini
The same program was used for eggplant, brussel sprouts, avocados, cabbage, and okra. Once I learned to appreciate food for its taste and texture of foods rather than negative associations and new textures, it was no longer necessary to disguise the ingredients. When I have a negative reaction to something, I isolate the components of the food (source, flavor, smell, texture) and think about which aspect I reacted to. Oftentimes I react to negative memories and associations and not the food itself. Consciously understanding that a negative reaction has no rational basis is often enough to overcome it.
The importance of ceremony
The ceremonial aspect of dining is very important when learning to appreciate food. If you merely try to inhale as many calories as quickly as possible, any unusual tastes will be an unpleasant distraction. A proper sit-down meal is required to take the time to really analyze the taste of foods and form new positive sensory-conceptual associations to replace the old negative ones.
A cosmopolitan attitude to dining
One of the main differences between the Chinese diet and the Western diet is that the entire animal is considered edible. Whereas Americans stuff everything other than “choice” cuts into burgers, sausages, and McNuggets, the Chinese proudly consume the head, claws, organs, and other miscellaneous parts of animals as delicacies. This is not because they’re poorer – the head and feet are the most expensive parts of the animal. Neither do they restrict themselves to a few “blessed” animals – the entire animal kingdom is on the menu.
The difference is that of the food elitist versus that of the food connoisseur. The elitist believes that only a narrow socially accepted list of foods is good enough for him. The connoisseur is an explorer, who uses his palate as the universe-expanding sensory organ it was meant to be. The elitist lives within the small dietary-social circle he was born into. The connoisseur traverses the biological and cultural realms.
The approach I now take to eating new things now is exploratory one. Instead of responding with “like” or “dislike” I try to understand the flavor components and texture of food. I appreciate meals from many perspectives – sensory, anatomical, social, and historical, to fully integrate it with my worldview.
None of this is to claim attitude alone will make everything taste good. Meals must be prepared skillfully to taste good. The notion I want to dispel is that taste is either genetic or set by undecipherable psychological factors we cannot affect. Human culture has a rich history of many culinary traditions and we ought to learn to appreciate them without emotional baggage or provincial bias.
Thoughts on man and his universe