If you ever want to reaffirm your sanity — something I feel the need to do on a fairly regular basis these days — go to the Yelp forum “What’s your worst picky eater story?”
Rebecca H: I used to work as a Personal Assistant for a woman who was going through an "orange phase" meaning she would only eat things that were orange. As part of my job, I made her dinner three times a week. What a pain to try to come up with three all orange meals!
Chang L: i like to eat mushy things. mushy cereal (i let the milk sit for at least 1/2 hr),
mushy bananas (the one with a ton of brown spots), mushy cucumbers (i freeze them, then defrost them)
Johnny L: Were you born without teeth?
Deeeeeee: I think most people are born without teeth, Johnny.
My point is — and stop me if you’ve heard this — people eat the darndest things. And they can get pretty fanatical about it.
You won’t be surprised to hear pickiness usually starts during childhood. In her wisdom, Mother Nature hardwires infants and toddlers to be reluctant about experimenting with new tastes and textures. "If you're a caveman and you're two or three years old, it's not a great thing to be running around and eating berries off all the different trees," says Marcia Pelchat of the Monell Center, which researches taste and smell.
Now scientists at Monell are learning our preferences probably start in the womb, when the foods your mother eats become part of your flavor repertoire long before you draw your first breath. My mom actually liked broccoli and so do I. Coincidence? Apparently not.
“Obviously my mother liked ice cream,” Rich observed when I shared this factoid.
For many, the fun train goes off the rails the moment solid fare appears. After six months of giving kids warm, cozy milk in soft breasts or bottles, suddenly we’re demanding they open their mouths so we can shove in metal implements loaded with mushy, overcooked peas. Is it any wonder they express their sentiments by flinging the green glop at the wall?
“I was visiting my baby granddaughter,” a friend told me this week. “At mealtime, her mother set out little separate mounds of brightly colored food — mango, avocado, sweet potatoes — on her high chair tray. The child was encouraged to touch them, smear them around, play with them, taste them, and eat what she wanted.”
“Does that get a little … messy?” I asked, picturing mango dripping from the ceiling and the dog happily lapping up mounds of sweet potato in the corner.
“Well, yes. They have to put a tarp down under the high chair at every meal. But it’s the latest thing. It’s called baby-led weaning.”
Not having kids or grandkids, I’m seemingly the last to know about this newfangled notion that kids will eat better all their lives if they start with real food and make their own choices. I grew up in the era of processed mush laced with sugar, salt, and MSG, baby food that’s still the norm in much of America today.
Families in other parts of the world often stick with traditional fare. Italians, for instance, tend to start kids off with fresh vegetables and cheese drizzled with olive oil. Yes, I’ve already put in a request to come back as an Italian in my next life.
Think rookie eaters will find it hard to stomach mozzarella, broccoli, and olive oil? Inuit kids begin their food journey consuming nuk-tuk made of seaweed, seal, and caribou. The Chinese give babies rice with fish, carrots, seaweed, eggs, and pork. In Kenya, the little ones join the rest of the family in chowing down on the sweet potato ngwaci. Japanese babies get rice with fish, yogurt, fruit, and vegetables. In other words, most kids get whatever mom and dad are eating.
Until a hundred years ago, all kids ate and drank like miniature adults. "Coffee was extremely popular for children in the 19th century. And they sometimes drank alcohol, although that was getting less popular by then," explains food historian Dr. Helen Veit.
In the early twentieth century, all sorts of “experts” began admonishing parents to do better. Baby food manufacturers insisted processed products were safer and more nutritious than fresh. Doctors advised parents to give kids milk — as much as a quart a day if they could afford it — for strength. To build them up further, parents were told to provide snacks. That’s when “children started rejecting food for the first time,” said Veit. “They no longer were hungry when they started dinner."
That created endless arguments at mealtime — and an opportunity for Madison Avenue to join in the fun. Advertisers claimed the solution was kid-friendly foods — the ones being marketed directly to children during Saturday morning cartoons. I remember sitting with my brothers chanting the catchphrase “I want my Maypo!” We actually hated this maple-flavored instant oatmeal, but we couldn’t resist chanting the slogan in the obnoxious tone of the kid in the commercial. Thinking back, it’s a wonder any of us lived to adulthood.
Lots of people old enough to know better develop quirky food fetishes. Elvis Presley loved the Fool’s Gold Loaf: an entire loaf of bread hollowed out and stuffed with a jar of peanut butter, a jar of jelly, and a pound of bacon. He was also a big fan of the honey-fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. I actually sampled one (although sadly, not with the King himself) and it tasted pretty good. But once was enough.
Steve Jobs lived almost entirely on dates, almonds, and a huge number of carrots. "Friends remember him, at times, having a sunset-orange hue," writes his biographer Walter Isaacson. French author Honoré de Balzac used to drink fifty cups of espresso a night, saying, “Ideas begin to move like battalions of the Grand Army of the battlefield. And the battle takes place." Unfortunately, the battle was too fierce even for his strong constitution. He died of caffeine poisoning at the age of 51.
The history of food madness goes on and on.
The fact is, nobody makes dietary choices based solely on logic. My college roommate ate nothing but purple food because she believed it had the best karma. I can only assume this was a rumor started by all the ingredients of other colors, as a way to avoid winding up on the dinner plate. However whacky our choices, one of the great pleasures of adulthood is being able to make our own decisions about food. I don’t know what the karma rating is for mashed, overcooked peas, but I can tell you this: anybody who tries to shove a spoonful in my mouth is just asking for trouble. You have been warned.
I'm heading off to a family reunion in the mountains and won't have any internet access for a while. I'm not sure when or whether I'll put out a post next week. But you can be sure I'll come home with lots of stories to tell.
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I'm an American travel writer based in Seville, Spain.
Wanderlust has taken me to more than 60 countries. Every week I provide travel tips and adventure stories to inspire your journeys and let you have more fun — and better food — on the road
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