I love food…I really, REALLY love food!
Growing up, our palates are childlike because we ARE children. Our tastebuds tend even more towards simplicity if we were raised in the United States—chicken nuggets, pasta with butter, and the like. This is not meant to disparage my own culture, it is just the way it is here in America. I now envy those whose families exposed them to or forced them to eat food that was out of their comfort zone.
During my first job as an educator, the kindergarten teacher had a poster on the wall. In huge letters, the title read, “I Tried Olives!” The names of the children were listed on the side, the type of olive was indexed across the top, and a gold star was placed next to each youngster’s name who took the plunge and ate the scary-looking morsels. Brilliant! In our day and age, this would likely end in a lawsuit and a sensational New York Post cover page with a headline above the teacher’s angriest-faced photo: OLIVE OIL! Teacher Force-Feeds 5-Year Olds!
Regardless of what I ate, I did not suffer from a lack of appetite, that is for certain. And if not dining at home, my grandmother (Nimmy) was always nearby to satiate my voracious cravings. The nature of this food consumption was what I have come to refer to as functional eating.
My habit of functional eating continues more frequently than necessary to this day. If pressed to define that self-invented term, it is the act of eating only due to stress, time of day, simple pleasure, or utter lack of self-control. With little concern for nutrition, caloric intake, or anything promoting good health, let alone sophisticated food consumption, functional eating is the gastronomical equivalent to a shoddy oil change.
Growing up, meals were more than predictable. Breakfast: cereal. Lunch: Peanut Butter and Jelly. Dinner: Pasta with Ragu-brand sauce, or some sort of chicken—often chicken with white rice and Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup. Canned vegetables made unwelcome visits from time to time. Basically—food for poor people. As mentioned in an earlier post, our parents spared us from realizing that we were poor, so this food was normal to us and definitely functional. It was comfort food and I now know how to eat on the cheap when the need arises.
The exception to this type of eating was when we ate at Nimmy and Papa’s house (see: https://myunexpectedlife.net/2019/01/07/a-preamble-childhood-in-north-syracuse/.) Ziti with homemade sauce, amazing meatballs and sausage, ricotta pie, lasagna, and other such rustic Italian food was consumed in quantities that belied my skeletal teenaged frame.
There was also pizza and an occasional Friday fish fry, but it is unclear how frequently those two deliciously grease-laden meals were consumed. Fortunately, metabolism was the Yin to my other friend anxiety’s Yang. Phrases like, “Where do you put all of that?”, “You should stop to breathe!”, and parental laughter when asking for a second, third, or fourth serving are etched in my adolescent memories. Despite all of this eating, it never crossed my mind to try new food.
A Gradual Change
Fast forward to the present. “What are your specials?’ “Oh. I’ve already had THAT.” “How is the quail prepared?” “Is there a lot of truffle oil in that?” “Chopsticks, please.” In the spirit of full disclosure–the chopstick thing is blatant vanity, mainly designed to prepare me to be slightly less embarrassed if I find myself in East Asia—and it’s fun!
None of my current meals are super adventurous and I am definitely not a ‘foodie.’ Plus, eating at home is a completely different scene. Witnessing my dismantling of a pre-made rotisserie chicken is not pretty. A particularly understanding spouse and two innocent children are the victims of that spectacle.
In my inaugural blog post, I tell a story about German Cole slaw. This was my first time eating something new and it was not exactly voluntary (see https://myunexpectedlife.net/2019/01/04/i-am-really-nervous/.) In addition to learning that my dinner companion, like all humans, had a breaking point, a much larger transformation took hold. That simple act of trying a bite of my mentor’s food promoted many other samplings down the road. It truly did provide the spark for a more adventurous and unexpected life.
In my way of thinking, there are too many people in this world who lack empathy.—“Whoa, dude! Where did that come from? I thought you were going to talk about food. Chill out with the social commentary.”—allow me to explain. Anyone who knows me understands that I am passionate about social justice and fairness, especially for those in the most desperate need. This is not the type of empathy to which I am referring.
My concern, and the driving force behind this blog, is that people of means or those who were fortunate enough to be raised by highly educated or adventurous families sometimes lack an understanding of people with backgrounds where that was not the case. If I am to be completely honest with myself, a lot of those people are from the progressive side of the political spectrum—especially in larger metropolitan areas. Without going off the rails, I find fellow Liberals who disparage those who haven’t eaten sushi or who regularly eat at fast food chains to be almost as off-putting as Conservatives who cannot understand why someone might possibly need public assistance.
So as not to lose your interest, let’s get to food!:
- Good food is good food, regardless of its level of ‘sophistication.’
- People’s tastes evolve over time.
- Limited financial means can hold people back in everything, including dining.
- As with travel and most of life’s activities, change is best achieved gradually.
It is my belief that there are too many self-help books, simple slogans (Just Do It!), and now memes, social media pressure, and blogs (like this one) that make one feel that a trip to McDonald’s is akin to eating from a toilet bowl. Or, that anything less that an exotic vacation is not worthy of others’ interest (how many Facebook posts feature men scratching their stomachs while eating a bag of Doritos?) I understand why people post photos of all of their elegant restaurant meals—actually, I don’t—but to each his own.
I digress. My point is that in this day of immediate gratification and feedback, there seems to be a cottage industry based on compelling people into complete lifestyle changes. I believe that actual change happens gradually and if we are truly empathetic, we will take the time to get to know those around us. We will ask questions, listen to the answers, and have real, face-to-face conversations. Eating meals together, conversing, and getting to know others takes time. So does a path towards more adventurous dining and travel.
Eating meals together is embedded in our common cultural histories and I cannot emphasize enough my belief that the best way to broaden one’s experiences is to do so with friends, acquaintances, dates, family members, etc. Why should someone new to fine dining feel pressured to spend $30 or more on a meal that they might despise? Dine together! Get small plates! Ask for extra plates for sharing, or shovel a spoonful of someone else’s meal onto your own plate and try it! If you don’t like it, try something else.
Eventually, everyone’s tastes will develop and you will become even more empathetic towards one another through not only conversations, but by knowing what puts others off. You will learn that differences and fears may come from childhood experiences. Some are the result of lack of time or money. And many, many are due to the simple fact that we are all different human beings. Learn about people and embrace it.
To summarize, go out to a restaurant or invite people over—eat, drink, talk, and listen. Try that Japanese or Vietnamese restaurant, even if you don’t like sushi or noodles. Share. Order the least adventurous or least expensive meal on a menu. Maybe ask the server if the chef can prepare something to your own comfort level.
But—don’t give up—you will become more human and you will not regret it!
In My Unexpected Life: Travel, Food, and More, I will share stories, thoughts, and simple ideas to entertain and maybe even inspire others to engage with new food, travel, and more…no matter how big or small those experiences may be.
Even if my writings do not produce the desired result—please enjoy the blog!