The year is 1974. My family is making the annual pilgrimage from Illinois to Florida in our trusty Oldsmobile, Mom and Dad chain-smoking in the front while my brother and I fight for prime real estate in the back seat. We finally arrive in Georgia, and I put my family through a familiar scenario:
We pull up to the drive-through window of McDonald’s. My dad calls out the orders, three variations of hamburgers-with-everything plus French fries and drinks. Then he adds, “And one plain hamburger.”
My brother groans and slumps back. My mom taps her nails on the window trim. The inevitable request comes. “Uh, sir, can you pull over and wait?”
This was no ‘have it your way’ situation. My plain hamburger meant that we waited an extra 10 or 15 minutes for it to be cooked and slapped between a bun sans all the junk that turned my stomach.
I’m sure many people can tell tales of their childhood food aversions. If you’re a parent, you probably deal with this sort of thing from your own children. What we often don’t talk about, though, is when this pickiness extends into adulthood.
I’m 51 years old, and I still don’t eat salad (or raw vegetables of any kind). If you try to sneak Parmesan cheese into my food, I will smell it and push it aside. I’ve come a long way, though. Mushrooms, fennel, balsamic vinegar and Havarti cheese all now have a place in my life. It was a long, nose-wrinkling process, however, and some foods still didn’t make the cut (sorry Gruyère – you just smell too nasty).
I was lucky enough to visit France in my late 20s. After days spent wandering Versailles, visiting the Eiffel Tower, and watching artists at work in Montmartre, I was often famished. I am ashamed to admit that the restaurant that most frequently got my business was none other than McDonald’s. I was thrilled to tuck into an order of chicken nuggets with a side order of barbecue sauce. Some days it was all I ate, after a breakfast of coffee and toast.
I don’t know what it’s like now, but Paris in 1988 was a challenge for someone who didn’t speak French. Add a hearing loss and inherent shyness to that, and ordering from a restaurant was fraught with peril. After ordering a pizza that inexplicably arrived at the table with a topping of runny eggs, I avoided cafes and looked for the golden arches.
Things started changing for me around the time I had my cochlear implant surgery in 2008. It’s fairly common for the nerves that control taste to be damaged during surgery, and I was not spared. For about a year and a half, things like bread, cookies and cake had a strange, spongy texture and no flavor. Water was oily; most flavors were flat. The front center area of my tongue was most affected, so I tried to skip that area and quickly get the food to the back of my tongue. I drank beverages through a straw.
I found that adding heat and spice livened up some of the dead flavors, so for the first time in my life I gravitated toward hot, spicy foods. (I kept that preference once my taste buds were back to normal.) While I was busy looking for ways to burn some life into my taste buds, we also started watching more cooking shows on TV. I learned how to prepare and cook things I’d never even heard of before, like jicama. I discovered Ruth Reichl’s books, and found myself curious about some of the more exotic dishes she described.
As I slowly started trying things that were new to me (and enjoying most of them), I decided to really push myself out of my comfort zone. I signed up to become a recipe tester for Cook’s Illustrated, with the caveat that I had to try recipes with at least one new ingredient. Testing a recipe means I have to follow everything to the letter – the ingredients, cooking method, pan size, and so on. Instead of, say, substituting Greek yogurt for sour cream, I have to use exactly what the recipe calls for.
I admit that just last year I sat in a restaurant, ordered a dish that had pasta salad on the side (something I’ve never eaten because I hate mayonnaise), and told myself that if my kids could follow the ‘just take one bite and try it’ rule, then so could I. It was made with aioli, which I’d never had but assumed tasted like mayonnaise. For whatever reason, I loved it. Maybe I like aioli better than mayonnaise, or maybe aioli tastes nothing like mayo, or maybe I actually don’t mind mayo anymore. Who knows. But I tried it!
So I’ve come a long way, food-wise. In all honesty, I still wouldn’t order a burger with everything on it. But ordering it plain wouldn’t even cross my mind these days.
I’ve had my cochlear implants for … wow, almost eight years now (in August of 2016). In the beginning, there are all kinds of, as we call them, “CI moments” – things we’ve never heard before, or sounds finally becoming clear, or whatever. After nearly eight years, though, you figure you’ve heard all the new things or had all the new hearing experiences you’re going to have.
So this morning I had a song stuck in my head, I’ll Be by Edwin McCain. It’s pretty popular now but when I first heard it in 1997 he was a fairly unknown artist and I didn’t know what to expect when I listened to the CD. I can still remember how it sounded, and how much I loved the song; I listened to it over and over, and knew all the nuances of his voice and the music.
Since I got my CIs, I don’t really listen to music much. When I was first activated, music sounded, well, godawful would be a kind way to put it. It just sounded like crashing noise. It got better every time I went for a mapping (where they hook you up to a computer and tweak the computer programs in the CIs) and eventually there came a time that I listened to a song (by Depeche Mode) and heard it the way I remembered it. I actually heard it better than I remembered it, because I was hearing parts of the song (various instruments) in each ear. I had never heard music in stereo before, because my right ear was always pretty bad – moderate to severe hearing loss until 1993, and then profound (i.e., I heard nothing) from 1993 on. I actually started crying the first time music sounded good through my CIs.
Anyway, Dave and I have different tastes in music and I never got into the habit of wearing headphones; it was just easier not to listen to music most of the time. Every now and then, though, I go through a phase and listen to a song or a whole CD. I am not into new music as much; partly it’s because I’m apparently an old fogey who likes ‘golden oldies’ (anything from the 70s to about 1998) and partly it’s because my memory kicks in on a song I already know and helps me shape what the song should sound like.
I dug around and found my Edwin McCain CD and decided to teach myself how to copy it to my computer. (Yes, this is the something I had to teach myself. In 2016. Leave me alone.) I clicked on I’ll Be, popped on the headphones, and … hmmm. This is not how I remember it sounding. I was pretty disappointed. Yes, he has a raspy voice but it really sounded like he was growling, not the pretty, earnest song I remember. I kept the headphones on while the files were transferring, assuming it would go to the next song when it ended. I got preoccupied and didn’t realize that the song had started over. But I did notice that now it sounded better, a buttery, smooth rich sound closer to how I remember the song. ‘Huh,’ I thought, ‘I guess he sang the end of the song differently than the beginning.’ Then I put my cursor on the progress bar and saw that it was, like, one minute into the song. He wasn’t singing it better; I was hearing it a second time and my brain was already processing the sounds better. I listened to it a third time and there it was: the song I remembered.
Seriously folks, the brain is an amazing thing. Never take it for granted.