Friday, December 31, 2010

Becoming The Woman Who Ate Everything

In 1989, when Jeffrey Steingarten was appointed food critic of Vogue magazine, he was a picky eater. He wouldn't eat kimchi, dill, swordfish, anchovies, miso, mocha, chutney, falafel... the list goes on. And yet, to be a fair critic, he wanted to break himself of these aversions, and he did it the best way he knew how; he confronted his phobias with a knife and fork.

In 2010, I read The Man Who Ate Everything, a collection of Steingarten's food writing, for the first time. I'd been meaning to read it for years, had it in my possession for at least one, but with all the reading I have to do (I am a graduate student, studying fiction, and I work for a literary magazine, where part of my job description is to read submissions) it got thrown on the "someday" pile. As it turns out, I read it at the perfect time.

No, I haven't been hired as a food critic or anything like that, but I would certainly be happy if life led me that way. The thing is, I read The Man Who Ate Everything after a few years of guilty foodie-ism, guilty because for all my curiosity about and enjoyment of food, I have a few powerful aversions. I've been meaning to break them for a long time. And, as Jeffrey says in his introduction,

By design and destiny, humans are omnivores. Our teeth and digestive systems are all-purpose and ready for anything. Our genes do not dictate what foods we should find tasty or repulsive. We come into the world with a yen for sweets (newborns can even distinguish among glucose, fructose, lactose, and sucrose) and a weak aversion to bitterness, and after four months develop a fondness for salt. Some people are born particularly sensitive to one taste or odor; others have trouble digesting milk sugar or wheat gluten...All humans cultures consider fur, paper, and hair inappropriate as food.

My main aversion is to seafood; for as long as I can remember, I've been ultra-sensitive to the aroma and flavor of fish. Someone says, Try this, it's not fishy at all--and yet I gag on the fishiness. It's possible that I'm one of those few that Jeffrey recognizes are born that way, but without further experimentation, I won't accept that. There has to be some form of fish or crustacean I will enjoy, even if I have to train myself to it. This might sound crazy, but in a year or two I will be living in Seattle, home of the best seafood (I'm quoting Jeffrey Steingarten here--any east coasters may argue with him, not me, since I haven't really tasted it) in the United States. It would be equally crazy to deny myself the possible pleasures (and health benefits) of this particular food group by blindly saying, "I don't like it."

The fact is, there are lots of foods I've gradually come to like over the years; some of these foods are now my favorites. I've acclimated to grapes, spinach, asparagus, eggplant, and beer. I've come to love dijon mustard, wine, coffee, tea, garlic, yams, zucchini, squash, stinky cheeses, and probably quite a few others I can't think of right now. Mayonnaise. Lamb. Curry. At some point, I wrinkled my nose at all of these, and now I eat them with abandon.

Yet I still don't like everything. As I mentioned, there's the whole seafood/fish category. I don't like quite a few fruits, such as passion fruit, kiwi, dates, and cherries. I don't like most fruits if they're dried. In that vein, I can't abide the sickly sweet flavor of port. I don't eat fruit pies or cakes with chunks of fruit in them (though I love things like lemon curd). I won't eat tofu. Though I love my eggs soft and scrambled, or fried with the yolk broken, I cannot abide hardboiled eggs, sunnyside up, or any version of eggs where the yolk and the white are separate, whether the egg is (to my mind) over- or undercooked. Like Mr. Steingarten, I don't like kimchi or sauerkraut or almost anything pickled that isn't kosher dill. I don't like cold mayonnaisey salads (pasta, egg, chicken, potato, or tuna) and I shudder to think of pork rinds. A gelatinous texture freaks me out. I don't like beets. Plain yogurt. Anything flavored Irish cream. Most authentic Chinese food (sticky, Americanized Chinese food is just fine). I've never had offal but I doubt I'd enjoy it. I don't like marmalade and I'm not such a fan of the darker greens (kale, collard, etc.)

So many of these aversions are just silly. The fish thing, I don't expect to fully conquer--but I do expect to bring myself to like some of it, for goodness' sake.

When Jeffrey Steingarten set out to break himself of his aversions, he set out a list of options:
  1. Brain Surgery
  2. Starvation
  3. Bonbons (positive reinforcement)
  4. Drug dependence
  5. Exposure, plain and simple.
Mr. Steingarten chose number five, and so do I. But to a certain extent, I also choose number two, and here's why:

Tomorrow is the start of the new year and the end of the holiday season, which means I have a few pounds to lose, anyway. I'm going to be limiting my intake and upping my exercise, and a lot of the foods on my list are incredibly healthy options that would really make dieting easier. Plus, I know from experience that food always tastes better when you're hungry, no matter what it is. I plan to integrate the foods I dislike into my diet, and to negotiate with myself what I like about them.

The Plan:

Part One:
Every day for four months, I will eat at least one food item I do not like, not eclipsing their flavors with large quantities of butter, cheese, sauce, etc.

Part Two:
Every day for four months, I will eat at least one food item/dish I have never had before.

Part Three:
Every day for four months, I will cook/prepare at least one dish I have never cooked before.

The purpose: over the course of one year, to reduce (and possibly obliterate) the number of foods I "do not like," to broaden my culinary horizons, and to transform myself into what Mr. Steingarten calls a "perfect omnivore."

I will chronicle my progress here, in the hope of keeping myself on track. I know this won't be an easy experiment, but it's one I feel I have to face.