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.