Tuesday, July 03, 2012


A while back, I suggested that our new societal respect for justified dietary restrictions has lessened our tolerance for unjustified ones. These days you can say no to an ingredient for health or religious reasons, but not because you just don't like the taste. That will be read as evidence of immaturity (which has always been the case), or xenophobia (if it's not 'no Brussels sprouts' but 'no Senegalese restaurants'). Pickiness is also interpreted making light of the many real dietary obstacles others must contend with.

Which is why I'm amused that/confused as to why the Styles article about dinner guests with justified qualms got the title, "The Picky Eater Who Came to Dinner." These eaters do not see themselves as "picky."

Writes Jessica Bruder,

Though medical conditions like celiac disease and severe allergies have long relegated a small percentage of diners to rigid diets, more and more eaters outside this group appear to be experimenting with self-imposed limits, taking a do-it-yourself, pick-and-choose approach to restricting what they consume.
True enough. The difficulty is that these eaters, too, will present their restrictions as medical necessity. We might roll our eyes, from the privacy of our own homes, when Gwyneth Paltrow announces that she's found some doctor to agree that she's "sensitive to dairy, gluten, wheat, corn and oats," thinking, how convenient it is for her red-carpet build that she can't digest carbs. But if she were your friend, your dinner guest, you'd have to take it seriously.

Bruder makes a number of good observations, in particular that it's no longer done to be on a diet. So petty-bourgeois. Instead, "many contemporary eating styles speak directly to values and virtues, aiming to affirm your ethos rather than nuking your love handles." A diet is selfish, as it's about your body, and if you're in no way medically overweight, your vanity. A principled stand against factory farms,* however, is a noble reason to refuse a cheeseburger, an ice cream sundae. It allows you to maintain the illusion that you're effortlessly thin, or that whichever efforts contribute to your physique only indirectly.

*Anticipated counterargument: but factory farms are bad, and veganism is the best way to avoid supporting them! Jonathan Safran Foer told me so! My counter-counterargument, which is actually just clarification: the point isn't that factory farms are good, but that some decide to take up this particular banner out of a desire to be thin in the way that only abandoning cheese (god forbid) allows. If your vegan is indifferent to all other animal-rights issues (leather, fur, animal rescue, etc.), but hypervigilant about a shred of Parmesan...


Miss Self-Important said...

When an acquaintance of mine (and alumna of your former non-public school) wanted to lose weight, she became an Orthodox Jew. But only temporarily, until she'd lost the weight. This took about a year. Then she dropped the religion, but still insists that she keeps "mostly kosher." This is when I realized that diets were over.

Phoebe said...


(Scouring my face-recognition mind for who this could be, pretty sure I know, unless two such people exist, and will of course not say.)

That is an amazing story, and yes, it does suggest that diets are over.

Sigivald said...

These days you can say no to an ingredient for health or religious reasons, but not because you just don't like the taste.


It's never stopped me from turning down mustard and things soaked in vinegar.

I must, fortunately, just not run in the rarified circles relevant to the Times' Style section.

I find that out here in the real world, well-west of the Mississippi and north of California, one can simply not like some sort of food and decent folk won't have a conniption about it.

(Who knows? Maybe that's true even in New York, outside of the Style set?)

Phoebe said...


First off, please don't perpetuate, even in quasi-jest, the ridiculous notion that the world is only "real" in certain regions of the U.S. (I was in New York yesterday, Philadelphia the day before, and I assure you both are real places). It's impolite and unnecessary to making your point.

Next, what what I'm describing re: how it goes when one turns down foods has nothing to do with "Styles" folk. If you're a guest in someone's home, or even to a certain extent if you're out with people at a restaurant, if you don't like zucchini, say, and refuse to eat it, that's frowned upon. "Clean your plate," or "try at least some of everything" are hardly snobbish or newfangled attitudes. (Imagine you're meeting new in-laws for the first time anywhere in the world, and you're like, 'no, too much mustard in that, gross.') If anything, the stereotype is the opposite - that the fancy coastal elites are the only ones OK with picky eating. My point here is that only some picky eating is accepted, namely eating that isn't presented as "picky."

Miss Self-Important said...

I'm not sure if you know this person, although she did subsequently go to Chicago as well. She is pretty hilarious in general.

Sigivald: Do you not cook for people? This is a fully national phenomenon, propagated equally by just regular folks west of Mississippi as by New Yorkers. When you go to someone's home for dinner anywhere in America and they've made you some elaborate dish only to have you wrinkle your nose and tell them you don't like pork or green beans or whatever is in it, that is rude. What are they supposed to do? Either cook you a new dinner more to your liking, or sit through the meal knowing their guest is repulsed. Maybe you can tell them beforehand of your preferences so they don't make the offending dish, but if you don't and they do, you're expected to swallow it. However, if you say you have a deadly green bean allergy or green beans are against your religion, that entirely changes the dynamic--no host wants to kill you or condemn you to hell w/ her casserole.

Andrew Stevens said...

I agree that it is common everywhere. Where I disagree with you is in thinking that our tolerance for unjustified dietary restrictions has lessened. When I was young, the tolerance for justified dietary restrictions was lower than the tolerance for unjustified ones is now. I'm allergic to tree nuts and whenever I would have to turn down something made with the ingredient, people would either act terribly offended or all but claim that I was making the allergy up. (Alternately, they would try to cajole me into trying it as if, if I only tried it and thought it was really, really good, I would cease to break into hives and have to be brought to the ER.) I don't get this attitude any more, for which I am grateful, but the tolerance for just being a picky eater was even lower back in the day than it is now.

Phoebe said...


Fully agree that understanding of allergies (and, for that matter, religious dietary restrictions) has increased. But I'm curious why you think tolerance for pickiness also has. I can't say I've witnessed that. On the contrary, if you won't eat peanuts, say, not b/c of an allergy, but b/c you think they're ick, you'll be seen as somehow making light of the real concerns of those who would in fact die if served a trace of peanut.

Andrew Stevens said...

That may be true - i.e. that may be the rationalization of the day. But regardless of the rationalization, the actual impulse stems from a feeling of rejection ("why won't they try this food I love so much and worked so hard to make?") and that has always been with us. But mainly it's just that our observations differ; I have found that, in general, people have become more polite hosts (in that regard) over my lifetime.

Miss Manners would have said that a good guest should not inform the host in advance of dietary restrictions (except serious medical issues), instead simply ensuring that they don't arrive with an empty stomach and eating whatever is served that they are capable of eating and a good host should refrain from noticing what was or was not consumed. On the latter point, most hosts fail, but I think they succeed more often than they used to.

Phoebe said...


I think you may be right re: hosts' increased politeness. If you're already prepared not to serve whichever items b/c of allergies, religious dietary restrictions, veganism, etc., it can be easiest just to ask guests what they won't eat than to ask for the medical or philosophical principles behind why they're refusing some ingredient. That approach will absolutely allow some who are merely not keen on mushrooms, say, to slip under the radar.

What I've noticed, however, and maybe it will help if I get slightly more specific (not a real-life example, but giving the general idea), is that if your host asks, and you say that you won't eat bacon, say, you're opening yourself up to a follow-up question about whether you adhere to Muslim or Jewish dietary restrictions, or are a vegetarian. If so, and if your host makes a fuss, your host is thought to be in the wrong, unless, I don't know, you're so strictly non-pork-eating that to cater to your religion/vegetarianism, they'd need another whole set of plates.

But if it's merely that you don't like bacon, and pork chops would be just fine, you're confessing to being, well, difficult. It could be that you so hate bacon that you would gag if forced to taste it, and that a dish permeated with the flavor would be one you wouldn't touch. And you could, by telling your host that it's only bacon you won't eat, actually be making things easier for said host, who can now go ahead with whichever other not-vegetarian, not-kosher-or-halal items were in the works. But we get vegetarian/halal/kosher, whereas we find pickiness a character flaw, a sign of immaturity and ingratitude. Because it is annoying, as a host, to feel you must cater to mere preferences. Unless you're someone who's picky as well, the whole 'I will gag if I eat that' line sounds like utter B.S.

Now, I see why manners maybe ought to prevent a host from asking why X can't be consumed. But it's often just that a host won't want to inadvertently serve something else that's just as problematic for this guest, and is looking for a pattern. The follow-up question is all but inevitable, and all but inevitably leads to awkwardness.

Andrew Stevens said...

Ah, yes, I can see where conversations like that are much more likely to occur, simply because it is much more common for hosts to ask about dietary restrictions in advance now. I withdraw my objection.

I am not at all a picky eater so I'm probably the last to say what the proper protocol should be, but I guess I would refrain from mentioning my difficulty with bacon (barring allergies or religious reasons) and simply eat around it. A polite host ought to fail to notice that I have done so.

Abby Spice said...

I suppose I'm not quite sure where to fall in this. There's something that the scientists at Duke have chosen to call Finicky Eating in Adults--http://www.dukehealth.org/clinicaltrials/the_food_fad_study_finicky_eating_in_adults. I have that. I always have. It's an eating disorder, a real thing. There are foods I dislike--e.g. grape jelly, a true abomination--but *can* eat. I will eat grape jelly if there's nothing else or if it would be rude not to.

There are other foods--some random, some following a pattern--that I can't eat. I can't. To the extent that it can seriously interfere with my life. I actually thought I was alone in this until a year or so ago. I won't go into the details now, all the problems, all the ways this presents, but it's very much real. Almost certainly in my head, but so are anorexia and bulimia. It's understood now that you can't just tell an anorexic to eat. Or, for that matter, a self-mutilating depressive to just quit cutting herself. In the same way, I can't just decide to eat normally.

It's awful. I'm 24 and I'll send back a pasta dish if there's grated parmesan on it. Or somehow get a different serving from my host (maybe "spill" water in mine?). I have to. Telling me to just it is the same as doing the things above. If I find the sauce on the pasta to be unappetizing, I'll suck it up and eat it, or just not eat too much.

I get terribly annoyed with my friends who say they "can't" eat X, Y, or Z. I respect their choice to diet, I absolutely respect their religious values, I respect their preferences, I respect their ethics. But I truly, truly cannot eat that parmesan. I truly look at a hamburger and don't even recognize food; it might as well be plastic. I suspect that it's not wholly a physical medical condition, but it's a very real psychological one (and one that's hard to get treated, as it's only recently been identified as not just a set of weirdos). The Times piece mentions control; this isn't something I control, but something that controls me (again, like any other eating disorder). It's ever so much not "self-imposed".

Someone in the piece said, “When I go to the grocery store, it makes me mad that I can’t buy barbecue sauce because the No. 1 component is high-fructose corn syrup.” No. You can. You choose not to. I can't, because I wouldn't be able to eat the sauce at all any more than I would be able to eat my jacket. He's making a choice. I'm not.

So: while people like me are rare, we're out there, and we're not asking for different food because of preference, and I promise you, we're terribly embarrassed by it, and most likely terribly worried about our health, as well. But it's not because we hate factory farms (though we may) or want to be skinny (though we may). It's real, and we're very apologetic--but please don't class us with the GOOPites.

Phoebe said...


Your comment brings up a question that came up in my last post on this topic, namely that as we give medical diagnoses to a wider and wider range of behaviors, this can be of great help to those who meet the diagnostic criteria, but can have a way of leaving those whose behavior doesn't quite meet the diagnosis - or who simply aren't in a position to be evaluated - in a bind.

Of course, as you allude to, a diagnosis for something like this (i.e. where no blood test or such is possible) is often based on whether otherwise-usual Behavior X interferes with your ability to lead a normal life. I guess that would be the bar for this, but it would lead to many ambiguous cases. Most people I know who are somewhat picky eaters feel... somewhat queasy at the thought of eating foods they dislike. It's not that they're being GOOPites, or that they would honest-to-goodness not consider whichever ingredient food. What I wouldn't want to see, if pickiness really takes off as a legitimate medical diagnosis, is the (greater) stigmatization of those who dislike certain ingredients, but don't have a doctor's note as it were.

Anyway, your comment is interesting because you're suggesting that we ought to hold 'it makes me gag' not only at an equal level as diets, religious commitments, vegetarianism and the like, but actually above those. A vegetarian, one might say, has thought about factory farming and come to a rational decision to avoid a steak he actually thinks smells delicious. Whereas someone with a strong aversion to steak isn't even able to make that decision.

But I think that while some vegetarians and so on are making rational decisions that they could switch off should, for example, test tube meat prove effective, it's important to remember that many with ethical objections to whichever ingredients were raised not to, or come not to, see those as "food." Someone raised strictly kosher, say, might not consider pork to be food. Someone who thinks animals are basically the same as people will be queasy if it turns out whichever dish isn't vegan. The nausea won't come from milk per se, but from the knowledge of what milk is.