These days, we as a society are more accommodating than ever about a diverse array of dietary restrictions. Get a group together, and there will be peanut allergies; lactose intolerance; gluten insensitivity as well as full-on celiac; vegetarianism for ethical reasons; veganism for environmental reasons; kosher-as-in-wouldn’t-eat-a-pork-chop, kosher-as-in-won’t-eat-off-those-plates; etc. These will, by and large, of course depending the milieu, be accepted, either as legitimate reasons for someone to reject food that's been offered, or even as an impetus to provide alternative options.
This development is, or ought to be, viewed as a mark of progress. Paradoxically, however, this new and welcome acceptance of food-rejection-with-cause has, I believe, led to an ever-growing intolerance for pickiness without cause. For everything on the spectrum from ‘I don’t like it’ to ‘any perceptible smell of it makes me gag.’*
Part of this comes from the fact that picky eaters have a reputation for trying to get out of eating foods they dislike, or – a separate but related issue – think are too fattening, by feigning a medical or ethical objection. This would be the mushroom-non-appreciator who feigns a mushroom allergy, the “vegan” prepping for bikini season, or the gluten-shunner who does not actually become ill from eating bread, but who read somewhere that gluten isn't a "pure" food, and who aspires to greater Gwynethness. The term we’re looking for is “crying wolf.” It's a problem both because it leads hosts/chefs/wait-staff to worry unnecessarily about possibly deadly contamination, and because it has the end result of making it so that real sufferers are not taken seriously, are served that to which they’re violently allergic, and then they die, and it was the picky eaters’ fault.
So, a couple things. One, there are plenty of ethical picky eaters out there, who wouldn't pretend to suffer from anything greater than finickiness. Two, as much as faking is, as we’ve established, unethical, it’s nevertheless understandable, given how unacceptable it is for a grown adult to simply not like certain foods. Sometimes the lie is intended to spare the cook's feelings. With legitimate ingredient-shunning, the would-be-diner is so sorry that he can’t have what’s on offer, agrees that it looks delicious, and if it were not for forces greater than his own whim, he too would happily tuck in. With pickiness, even if the picky eater can acknowledge that the mushrooms look well-prepared, he by definition thinks the food in front of him is vile if it is heavy on that ingredient. For obvious reasons, it’s not socially-acceptable to say that you think the food in front of you looks vile.
Here, it's necessary to separate out situations where you are a guest in a fairly intimate setting. If you're a guest, and there's no buffet-type situation to hide behind, all food you're presented with typically must be eaten at least in part unless it means breaking with serious ethical adherences or breaking out in hives. Being a dinner guest is, in a sense, reverting to the proverbial childhood dinner table, except that throwing a tantrum is not an option. Happily, for most adults, this type of setting is, food-wise, a welcome opportunity to try foods one might not be accustomed to preparing at home. These settings do, however, present a problem for the kind of picky eater who really will gag if presented with certain foods. If it's really that bad, you then must say that you simply don't like X. And it helps to be consistent - if you eat your friend A's mushroom risotto, you can't be fussy next week about B's mushroom casserole. You must accept being socially unacceptable, seeming ungrateful, seeming to have insulted your host, and having failed to become a mature adult.
It's my sense - and I haven't fully thought this through - that merely having food preferences, even if one is capable of setting them aside as necessary in social settings - is out. I see this as being connected to other areas of growing sensitivities about genuine problems. I'm thinking specifically of a recent NPR story about Asperger's and how great it is for those who get a diagnosis to explain that they're not just being rude/boring, that they in fact are not rude or boring, they're merely exhibiting signs of something unfortunate and beyond their control. Where, one wonders, does this leave the merely-but-severely rude-and-boring? As our tolerance of diagnosed strange behavior goes up, what then comes of our tolerance of the rest? Do we consider it all to be not-yet-diagnosed, or do we say that some people are just obnoxious and generally bad company? And so continue my not-quite-formulated thoughts on the matter.