This is the last part of my interview with Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, author of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, conducted earlier this month over lunch at Evvia in Palo Alto. (Here is part 1 of the interview. Here is part 2 of the interview.)
In this segment of the interview, we talk about foodies as picky eaters whose preferences get respect and about how pickiness looks from the parenting side of the transaction. Also, we notice that culinary school might involve encounters with a classic Star Trek monster.
Janet D. Stemwedel: It does seem like there are certain ways to be picky that people will not only accept but actually look at as praiseworthy. “Oh, you’ve decided to give up this really delightful food that everyone else would wallow in!” I’ll come clean: part of the reason I’m vegetarian is that I have never cared for meat. Once I moved out of my parents’ house and not eating meat became an option, I stopped eating the stuff without any kind of impressive exercise of will. And, in restaurants that are big on fake meat, I’ll end up pulling it out of my soup. The waitrons will tell me, “Oh, don’t worry, you can eat that! It’s not meat!” And I’ll say, “I can eat it, but I don’t like it, so I won’t be eating it.”
Stephanie V. W. Lucianovich: You don’t need a meat substitute if the point is that you don’t like meat.
JS: Although veggie bacon rocks.
SL: Really? Bacon, man …
JS: It’s the holy grail, taste-wise, right?
SL: There’s a thought it could be more psychological than biological.
JS: Salt and fat.
SL: And a high concentration of nutrients that you’d need to survive in the wilderness. But also, there’s the happy memory of smelling it cooking on a weekend morning, not something the scientists discount. These are learned experiences.
JS: But a favorite food can become a food you can’t deal with if you eat it right before your stomach flu.
SL: Right. It just takes one time. Except for with my husband. He had eaten a pastrami sandwich earlier in the day, then drank a lot and threw up. And his reaction was, “Oh yeah, that was a good pastrami sandwich.” As it was coming up, this is what was going through his head!
JS: Not a very picky eater.
SL: He’s such a freak! He just doesn’t get turned off to foods easily. Although he does have his bugaboos, like bologna (maybe because he didn’t grow up with it) and cheese with apples. But anyway, the aspect of choice …
JS: Like being able to say, “I can’t eat that because the dietary laws of my religion forbid it,” which generally gets some level of respect.
SL: But then there are the foodies! And that seems to be a socially sanctioned way to be a picky eater. “Oh, I would never eat that!”
JS: “I would never drink that wine! That year was horrible!”
SL: Exactly! Or, “I don’t eat Wonder Bread because it’s full of preservatives!” Foodies can certainly be moralistic, in their own way, about what they will and will not eat. But it’s annoying when they’re like that.
JS: Because their picky preferences are better than yours.
SL: It’s obnoxious.
JS: Are there some foods you don’t regret being picky about?
SL: Well, there are some foods I still don’t eat, and I’m fine with that. Bananas and raisins are right up there, and I wrote a piece for the Washington Post detailing the reasons why I’m OK not liking bananas. They’re trying to kill me in various ways — they’ve got radiation in them —
JS: We can’t grow them locally.
SL: Due to their lack of genetic diversity, they’re going to doe out anyway, so it’s probably better that I never liked them. They used to come with tarantulas in them, back in the day.
JS: That’s extra protein!
SL: So, I could list a bunch of foods that I still don’t like but without regret. Braised meats? I just don’t like them. People go on and on about how great they are, but to me it’s a big mass of everything-tastes-the-same with none of it highly flavored enough for me. WIth stews I have the same kind of issue. I think I don’t regret not liking these kinds of food now because I recognize how far I’ve come. I like so many more things than I used to, and I can get by without it impacting my health or my social life. And, when faced with them at somebody’s house, I will eat something that has bananas or whatever in it. I’ve learned how to deal with it. But I won’t choose to have it myself at home.
JS: You won’t seek it out.
SL: But I am bringing some of these foods into my home, because I don’t want to prejudice my son against them. He likes bananas, sometimes, but often they’ll end up wasted. He’ll go through a phase where he wants them, and then another where he doesn’t want them. His interest level is at the point where I can buy two bananas at a time. I have had friends ask me, “Are you going to not feed him raisins?” Of course I’m going to give him raisins. I can touch the things!
JS: “Are you going to raise the child picky?”
SL: Right! So far, the kid likes okra, so I think we’re OK. But everything on the list I give in the book of foods I still don’t like, I have absolutely no problem not liking them, because it just doesn’t impact my life. There are just a few things out there I wish I liked more, because it would vary our diet more. For example, I don’t love green beans. I toss them with pesto sometimes, but I have just not found a way to make them where I love them. I don’t love peas either, except when Evvia does them in the summertime — huge English peas that come cold dressed with feta and scallions and dill (which I normally don’t like) and olive oil and lemon, and they’re only here for like three weeks. And they’re the best damn peas — that’s the only way I want them. The things I kind of wish I liked that I don’t, I’ve tried, and I’ll try them again, but it doesn’t really bug me.
JS: I wonder how much my regrets for the things I feel like I should be able to like but don’t are connected to the fact that I was not an especially picky eater as a kid (except for not liking meat). I kind of feel like I should like asparagus, but I don’t. It’s been so long since I’ve eaten it that I can’t even remember whether I can smell the funny asparagus metabolite in my pee.
SL: I didn’t like asparagus, and then I wanted to like it and found a recipe that worked, roasting it and dressing it with a vinaigrette and goat cheese. But then we ate a lot of it, and it was really good, and after a while I was noticing that I only ate the tips, not the woody, stringy bits.
JS: And that it still tasted like asparagus.
SL: Yeah. In the end, I tried it.
JS: For me, olives are another challenging food. I’m the only one in my household who doesn’t like them at all. So we may order a pizza with olives to share, but I’m going to pick all the olives off of mine and give them to whoever is nicest to me.
SL: How do you feel about the pizza once you’ve picked them off? Can you actually eat the pizza then?
JS: If I’m hungry enough, I can. I guess it depends. The black olive penetration on pizza is not as extreme as biting into a whole olive.
SL: No. I think the kind of olives they use for pizza are …
JS: Sort of defanged?
SL: Yeah. They’re just not as bitter as the whole olives you find.
JS: Are there foods you’ve grown to like where you still feel some residual pickiness? It sounds like asparagus may be one.
SL: Sweet potatoes and squash are two others I’m still on the fence about. I have to be very careful about how I make them. Lentils — maybe legumes more generally — are foods I don’t love unconditionally. They have to be prepared a certain way. Broccoli, too! I will only eat broccoli made according to the recipe I give in the book or, failing that, roasted but without the vinaigrette. Just because I like a food does not mean I fully accept every rendition of it. Speaking from a cook’s perspective, you just can’t disrespect vegetables. I will not eat broccoli steamed, I just don’t think it’s fair.
JS: Fair enough.
SL: I’m still pretty picky about how I like even the foods that I like.
JS: OK, death is not an option: a dish with a flavor you’re picky about and a good texture, or a dish with a texture you’re picky about and a good flavor?
SL: That’s so hard.
JS: You really want death on the table?
SL: It depends … How bad is the flavor? How good is the flavor?
JS: So, if the good is good enough, you might be able to deal with the challenging part?
SL: I think texture really gets me more. For example, I don’t have a problem with the flavor of flan or panna cotta. Very good flavors. Mango I’ve had, and the flavor is good, but it’s so gelatinous and slimy.
JS: To your palate, it’s wrong.
SL: Yeah. It just gets the gag reflex going for me more. But thinking about it now, I probably wouldn’t do bad flavor/good texture.
JS: So flavor might have a slight edge?
SL: Yeah. I’m thinking about stew: for me, bad all around. Everything is mushy and everything is one flavor, and it’s just very un-fun for me. But then there’s something like bananas, where my problem probably started as a texture issue, but because I disliked the texture so much, I started to associate the smell and the flavor with that texture, and now I don’t like anything banana flavored. I don’t like banana bread. I’ll eat it, but I don’t like it.
JS: And banana flavored cocktails would be right out.
SL: Auugh! Anything that’s a banana flavored cocktail is usually creamy too, and I have a problem with creamy cocktails. I used to be able to do the creamy cocktail in my youth, but now I think there’s something very wrong with them. Unless it’s got coffee.
JS: Did pickiness make culinary school harder?
SL: Yeah, it probably did. I noticed I wasn’t the only one who didn’t want to eat certain things. If you’re picky, you do have to really steel yourself to touch certain things that you might not want to touch, like fish. In general, I don’t like handling raw chicken, although I love to eat cooked chicken. I don’t mind handling red meats at all. There’s more blood to it — chicken, by comparison, is more pale and dead looking. So yeah, being picky probably made culinary school more challenging, but I was so into food by that point that it overrode some of it. I knew I would have to eat stuff like veal, stuff that would be difficult for me, and that it would be embarrassing if I didn’t, because the chefs told us we would have to taste everything. I was totally scared about that. But, the fact that it was probably harder for me than it was for someone who was an unabashed lover of all foods probably made it more of a moral victory. Just like becoming a foodie in the face of pickiness, I knew I had to work harder at it. I wasn’t born that way, I had to earn my stripes by getting over a lot of hurdles.
JS: It was a bigger deal because you overcame more adversity to get there.
SL: I think it meant more to me personally.
JS: Did you find that some of the stuff you learned in culinary school gave you more tools to deal with your own pickiness?
SL: Oh, yeah, because it just taught me better methods of cooking things that maybe I didn’t yet know. And, it really made me fearless about adding salt. Roberta Dowling was the director of the school, and nothing was ever salty enough for her. I started calling her the salt-vampire. There was a character on —
JS: Star Trek! I know that one!
SL: For every dish she tasted, she’d say, “Needs more salt,” even if we added all the salt the recipe called for. She tried to get us to recognize that the recipe was just a guideline. And salt really does do a lot for food. People who are not so confident in the kitchen get infuriated by “salt to taste,” but it really is all about your personal taste. What’s going on inside your mouth is so different from what may be going on in someone else’s, which means only you can determine whether it’s enough salt.
JS: Does pickiness look different when you’re on the parental side of the transaction.
SL: Yes. It’s so frustrating! It’s so, “Oh my God, don’t be like me!” I know my mom was like, “Whatever. You guys were picky. I wasn’t worried about it.” The doctor was like, “Give ’em vitamins.” I do think that writing the book, especially the chapter on children, relaxed me. On the other hand, I feel the same way a lot of other picky eaters who are parents feel: I’m just a little bit more conditioned to understand what they’re going through and not push it. But I have to be careful, because sometimes you can still fall into “No, no, no! I know you think you don’t like it now, but really, just try it and you’ll like it.” I have to remember that it’s him and what tastes good to him and what he wants to do. Later on in life, if he changes his mind about whatever it is he doesn’t like this week, great. This week he told me he didn’t like grilled cheese. My response was, “You’re no son of mine! How does a person not like grilled cheese? It was always there for me.”
JS: I think the right answer to, “I don’t like grilled cheese, Mom,” is “More for me!”
SL: Exactly! But yeah, it’s a very different perspective on pickiness. But again, I’m probably more conditioned to be understanding about it than a non-picky parent who gets a picky child might be. They just don’t even know what it’s like.
JS: It’s an interesting thing as they get older. Until this school year, I was the school lunch packer of the house for both of my kids, and I’d get the complaints along the lines of, “Why do you pack us stuff we don’t like?” Of course, I’d say, “OK, tell me what you would like,” but then within a few months they’d be sick of that. This year, I’m still packing my older kid’s linch, since she has to get out the door early to catch a bus, but my 11-year-old has been making her own lunches, and I catch her making these sandwiches that two years ago she would have claimed she didn’t like any components of them at all. The other day, she made a sandwich on home-baked whole wheat bread with a honey-mustard marinate she dug out of the back of the fridge, and smoked gouda, and arugula. I said, “I didn’t know you liked those things.” She said, “Me neither, but they were here, and I tried them, and they were good.” Another day, she made a sandwich with some homemade lime curd, and the parent in the vicinity said, “What about some more protein on that?” so she put some peanut butter on that sandwich and later reported that it tasted kind of Thai.
SL: Of course it did!
JS: I’ll take their word for what they like (or don’t like) this week, but that’s not going to stop me from eating other stuff in front of them, and if it smells or looks good enough to them and they say, “Can I try some of that?” maybe I’ll be nice and I’ll share.
SL: That’s the way to do it, no pressure but you keep offering the stuff, exposing them to it but not getting hurt feelings if they don’t like it.
JS: And ultimately, who cares if the kid ends up liking it? If it’s less hassle for me, one less fight? I have enough fights. I don’t need more fights.
SL: You don’t really need the bragging rights, either. “Oh, my kid is so rarefied!” Who cares?