Monday, January 30, 2012


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.

But I think it's important to separate out the issue of politeness from that of indifferent omnivorousness. These days, allow me to hypothesize, it's verging on unacceptable to have food preferences that are for no good reason. Join a CSA, and get a box of whatever a farm happens to have on hand! The menu tonight will be "chef's choice"! At the supermarket, don't let something so crude as your preferences guide you. Think about nutrition, local/sustainable. It's not just 'eat your vegetables.' It's 'eat these particular vegetables.' Indeed, what finally motivated me to write up this particular blog-destined set of observations were Britta's recent comments about eating peas without actually liking peas, and not even in situations in which turning down peas might potentially offend. I have in my mind real-life examples along the same lines.

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.

*Requisite personal note: my own pickiness manifests itself mostly as a severe aversion to artificial butter, as on popcorn – not really an issue at dinner parties, and I’ve never so much as been tempted to feign an allergy. 


PG said...

I'm fairly omnivorous -- while there are foods that were not part of my upbringing and that I never choose to eat on my own (such as steaks), I can't think of many foods that might show up on a typical American menu that I wouldn't eat. I don't *like* plain steamed broccoli or foods otherwise deficient in seasoning, but I'll either eat it or politely deny that I'm hungry. The foods I don't eat because they gross me out, like sweetbreads, shrimp heads, etc., don't often get served in anyone's home.

In any case, it's probably not good manners for a host to press a guest too much about his food preferences. I know this is something my female relatives do that drives my husband (who dislikes spicy food in general and doesn't care for Indian food in particular) absolutely crazy. Unless you want to know because you're likely to be feeding him again and you're ready to ignore everyone else's preferences in order to accommodate this one guest, just leave it alone. He knows how to get to the nearest Taco Bell.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I understand asking when it comes to the major food concerns - is someone a vegetarian? violently allergic to a particular ingredient? - but those who won't/can't eat off a plate that touched ham/a peanut are probably best off restricting their social engagements to things that are not dinner parties. I think the appropriate way to respond, if asked this question by a host, is as if they were asking if there's any food you truly can't eat. Responding in terms of more mild preferences means you're treating your host like a restaurant, when you ought to be aware that you could perfectly well eat something before/after a meal that isn't your favorite.

Things get more complicated, though, when - and this was what I was trying to convey in the post - people have food preferences that are indeed incredibly strong, but that aren't anchored in anything "real" (that is, religious/ethical objections, allergies). I'm thinking of aversions as strong as I have to artificial-butter popcorn, but to foods likely to be served in someone's home. It's one thing to say, you can always just eat before or after, and this works at larger gatherings. It's another if you're presented with a plate with a giant portobello mushroom on it, and that's dinner, and because you didn't alert your host to a mushroom allergy beforehand, or to an ethical objection to mushroom-harvesting, it's expected that the mushroom will be substantially if not entirely consumed. On the one hand, hosts shouldn't think they have to offer a menu. On the other, there should be some out, some way to say, nothing personal but no thanks, and then your host has leftovers of something he, presumably, does like. If you have just one ingredient in this category, you can honestly answer if the host asks you ahead of time. But if you've made it to adulthood with a list that includes more than one ingredient, you must either suck it up and eat whatever it is, or not socialize around food.

But this has always been the case - that as a guest, you're supposed to eat what's served and not make a fuss. The more surprising development is that merely having preferences is viewed as a great moral failing.

And, if shrimp in their entirety aren't your thing, Belgium might not be the place for you. Tiny brown shrimp, antennae still on, are a pre-dinner snack. As fond as I am of Belgian cuisine, this is something that I can't come around to.

PG said...

If you have extremely strong objections to certain foods, to the point that they turn your stomach or make you lose your appetite, I'm pretty sure Miss Manners would deem it not only polite but honest to say "Mushrooms/shrimp heads/artificial butter makes me ill." That's "ill" as the old-fashioned term for "nauseated, possibly just metaphorically" rather than "allergic reaction," but the point is made all the same.

All Europe -- possibly everywhere outside North America -- seems to be hostile to what I'd consider properly the job of a restaurant: taking the heads of fish, shrimp, etc off the plate before putting it in front of the customer. It makes me feel not just unsophisticated but downright childish, especially since in order to get me to eat while we were traveling, my husband would de-head my dinner and his while I kept my eyes closed, or at least arrange lettuce or tomato over the heads on his plate so I could stand to look at it.

Also some ethnic restaurants in NYC; I had a Greek roommate who invited me to Greek Orthodox Easter midnight mass in Queens with her, and afterwards everyone went to a Greek restaurant to eat a full dinner. The guy across from me ordered fish, and it arrived in its entirety. This kind of put me off my own food, and I said weakly, "Oh, you got a whole fish." He said, "Of course, that's how you know it is fresh and good."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


I can't say I agree re: what would happen if you used "ill" in that situation. I know, in fact, from observing others do something along these lines, that this is at the very least not how it always goes. Typically, the host (or another guest) will then ask, very concerned, if the guest has an allergy. If the answer's no (and here's where a lie could easily be born), the guest is assumed a) to have been spoiled as a kid, b) to have not grown out of being a kid, c) to have confused a dinner host for a restaurant, and d) to be demanding that the host go out and prepare something special for him. It's not that turning down a dish can't be done, and all guests without a letter from the doctor/rabbi/imam are funnel-fed whatever everyone else is having. It's that there are social consequences to admitting pickiness. And, and this is key, any kind of "ill" without a definitive medical explanation will be considered pickiness.

That's true to some extent, I guess, re: the difference between American and other cuisines, although squeamishness is not unique to Americans, not unique to children whose parents indulged it, etc. The more I think about it, the more it seems that some people are just born more picky than others. (I'm perfectly happy to have a whole fish put in front of me, and would even go and order that in restaurants more often if it weren't so expensive, but I draw the line at antennae.)

PG said...

Typically, the host (or another guest) will then ask, very concerned, if the guest has an allergy.

Yes, to return to Miss Manners territory, I think this is the sort of question she'd consider intrusive from anyone other than a very close friend or family member. I'm not *allergic* to sweetbreads, but that level of animal fattiness doesn't seem wholly compatible with my digestive system. Outside gastroenterologists' conventions, dinner parties go better without such details.

I'm not even sure there's a unifying form of pickiness such that one person easily could be said to be pickier than another. My husband is simultaneously more stolid in the face of peculiar sights and textures (the eel shabu-shabu that my mouth summarily rejected without conscious thought on my part, he chewed and pronounced "Interesting"), but far less willing to eat what everyone else is having at home if it's not something he likes (thinking of his refusing his mom's main course for brunch at New Year's, because he doesn't like quiche). He considers being forced to eat something you dislike to be reducing yourself back to childhood, at least when as an adult you can feed yourself something you do like at no obvious inconvenience to others.

The chef and servers at the Japanese ryokan would doubtlessly declare me the picky eater (and bad-mannered to boot), while both of our families would say he's the picky one.

Pickiness is presumably multi-factoral based on various senses: sight, smell, mouth-feel, actual taste, etc. It's also situational; despite my general dislike for the taste, texture and digestibility of organ meat, I once ate goat brain curry because I felt that in the particular situation (first home visit of a minor whom I was monitoring for an advocacy organization), I absolutely needed to show myself as accepting of everything I was offered so as not to cause any further friction or sense of my being an intrusive outsider. If I were offered the same thing at a business function, I'd probably refuse it on the "can't eat organ meat" rationale.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

"I'm not even sure there's a unifying form of pickiness such that one person easily could be said to be pickier than another."

This and everything below it I agree with.

But the scenario we're discussing, where someone declines X on account if it makes him "ill," and someone else asks if it's an allergy, might not be in etiquette guides, but I've observed this exact pattern enough around all-around polite individuals that even if we might wish it didn't fall within the bounds of social acceptability, it does. The reason it does - the point of my post - is that we've become so hypersensitive to that sort of food restriction that any food aversion that overlaps with a known allergy or ethical restriction (not eating nuts, pork, etc.) gets this kind of reverence, until it emerges (and not always via a discussion as blunt as in our theoretical scenario here) that the restriction's based entirely on aversion, nothing more.

PG said...

Hmm. Where do you observe physical-discomfort-based aversions (my problem with sweetbreads, my husband's difficulty with spicy food) falling in the social acceptability spectrum? Do people tend to see those as being childishly picky, or as more like allergies?

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

Definitely closer to childishly picky, although it depends whether there will reliably be digestive... issues a few hours on. If the physical discomfort is not liking how spice feels in your mouth, or not liking the texture of eel or organ meats, that's definitively viewed as picky. Assuming the food in question is commonly eaten where you're doing your socializing, with possible allowances made to outsiders, albeit with the result that the outsider will be looked upon as all the more foreign to the group.

But even if it really does come down to 'will be ill later,' if there's no diagnosis (as with lactose intolerance), it's viewed as being unadventurous (because it's often tough to indicate socially what's meant by "ill" if it involves a toilet) or on some kind of fad diet. Take the example of gluten "intolerance" that isn't celiac. This is something people evidently experience, if not all the people who claim to experience it, but it's socially interpreted as fussiness.

Personally, I don't think these things ought to be seen that way, and agree with your husband that adulthood ought to mean not having to eat what you find vile. (I also think it's amusing that people then think pickiness is the result of being overly indulged as a kid, when it's clearly those who as children were forced to eat X who appreciate that they no longer must do so as an adult.) But you're asking me how things are seen, not how I wish they were seen, and this has been my experience.

PG said...

Assuming the food in question is commonly eaten where you're doing your socializing, with possible allowances made to outsiders, albeit with the result that the outsider will be looked upon as all the more foreign to the group.

Yes, this is my husband's frustration with eating in the home of any of my relatives -- even where they're aware that he doesn't like spicy food and have specially made something non-spicy, he feels like this just emphasizes his being an outsider. It's a social conundrum.

I'm not entirely on board with the idea that as an adult, one should never eat something that seems distasteful. At least as a *young* adult (in college, in one's 20s), it seems worthwhile to push your limits. I never even *saw* sushi until I went to college, and the idea grossed me out so that I only ate California rolls. I saw my old RA a year after graduation at an Asian food market, and she insisted that I try the real sushi. And it was good, and there have been many spicy tuna rolls and salmon sashimi since then. I'd strike the compromise of "You're an adult, so you don't have to eat things that you don't like; but you're an adult, so you should try everything once."

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...

I mean, sure, when young, also when not-young, it's always good to try new things. But there's a pretty big difference between a food being on the list of things you'd never think to order, and it being something you've tried/smelled and found utterly nauseating. Being an adult means it can be assumed that either you've tried it, or if you haven't, it's because you're doing your dining companions the favor of not trying to consume something you suspect would cause you to throw up.

Britta said...

I don't think that picky kids are necessarily those who were forced to eat everything. I was forced to eat a wide variety of foods as a kid, including at least one bite of everything ate the table, no matter how disgusting I thought it was. (And there were sometimes mega-fights and power struggles, which supposedly forces your kids on a chicken nugget eating path forever.) I have grown up from being a medium-picky kid to a decidedly non-picky adult, and appreciate that I was exposed to a wide variety of foods at a young age. To some extent, I think the picky card is random, but it seems to me that parents who are unadventurous, or who don't push their kids to keep trying new things will exacerbate innate pickiness in their kids. (As an aside, I don't get parents who say, "my kid only eats chicken nuggets and pizza." If I had a choice as a kid, I'd have eaten chocolate cake for most meals, but then the role of my parents was to make sure I ate nutritionally balanced meals, even if I whined and made a fuss.) I've also read it takes at least 10 tries of something before a kid will like something, so the "I tried it once at 10 and didn't like it" really says nothing about whether or not you could like it as an adult (not to mention adult tastebuds are less sensitive and adults prefer more bitter/sour flavors than kids). Like anything, appreciation of different food flavors and textures is a skill you have to work at. It might not be worth it to work on it, but you can train yourself to like/tolerate things you wouldn't otherwise eat, if not being picky is something you value. For example, the first 5-10 times I tried Vegemite, I almost threw up. After constant exposure to others eating it, it became a food I wanted to like, and so I started eating it in small amounts and gradually increasing the amount I ate. Now, I could eat Vegemite almost every day, and get cravings for it. I suppose I could learn to at least tolerate peas, but so far it hasn't been that important to me to do so, since the number of times I have to eat peas is pretty low, and it's the only vegetable I don't like. If I live somewhere where eating peas was going to be a regular part of my life, I'd work on getting to like them.

On the politeness, I don't see how being picky has become less socially acceptable than it used to be (because I don't think it was ever socially acceptable). In fact, I'd say, if anything, it's slightly more acceptable to be picky now than it was.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


"On the politeness, I don't see how being picky has become less socially acceptable than it used to be (because I don't think it was ever socially acceptable). In fact, I'd say, if anything, it's slightly more acceptable to be picky now than it was."

The way I see it, yes, pickiness has always been looked down upon, but it's generally assumed that increased acceptance of food restrictions has changed that. It's my sense that, on the contrary, this greater tolerance for "real" food issues has made it utterly inconceivable that someone would dislike a food just 'cause. And there's the thing about how picky eaters are assumed to be allergy-fakers. (Some are, I suspect most aren't.) Also, the new food-movement morality has no patience for someone who won't eat turnips all winter, if that's what's local/seasonal/CSA-available. Pickiness has gone from seeming rude/immature to almost sinful.

Re: the rest, I think, as with PG's sushi example, we really need to distinguish between a wariness of trying things one would never have thought to order/make, and a genuine reaction of nausea. For most of us, if we simply try the unfamiliar, we end up liking or at least tolerating most foods. (I would never seek out zucchini, but if that's what there is, I'll have it, and sometimes even enjoy it.)

But that still leaves a few ingredients - sometimes the smell alone is enough to make tasting the thing one time, let alone ten, not possible. We can either - in the manner of those reality shows where people force down live scorpions or whatever - push past the nausea, or we can accept that our lists are sufficiently short as not to cause much social inconvenience, not to impede proper nutrition, and just accept things as they are.