I’ve never eaten a pickle, at least not on purpose. It’s not a claim I make with pride, though it comes up somewhat often, especially in the summer months. Backyard-beer-and-burger-flip season. For much of my life, such occasions were actually harrowing affairs, hardly conducive to the relaxation for which they were purposed. The stress typically kicked in at the end of hour one, just as the congregants moved to the fixings table. The sun might shine and the birds might sing. A piñata might even hang in the yard. But the spread would stretch out like a minefield. Plates stacked with onions, tomatoes, and lettuce, items that, to my mind, had no more business on a burger than peanut butter. Bowls filled with potato salad and coleslaw, two concoctions whose very names I preferred not to let pass my lips. For dessert, the dreaded watermelon. My only solace would come when the chef called, “Who wants cheese on their burger?” at which point, if I was lucky, I’d spot a five-year-old wearing my same look of disgust. A compatriot. We’d get our burgers first—less time was spent in their construction—then go eat at the swing set. “You know,” I’d explain, “I’ve never eaten a pickle, at least not on purpose.”
On one such occasion a friend’s son got curious. “Does that mean you’ve had one on accident?” he asked.
“Actually, your father once snuck four pickle slices and some mustard on a hamburger he fixed for me. It was at a cookout shortly after we got out of college, an engagement party for him and your mother.”
“What did you do?”
“I took one bite and spit it all over the table. I think your grandmother was pretty grossed out.”
He looked up at me skeptically, causing me to worry for a moment that he might be pro-pickle. But as he turned to examine the burger on the paper plate in his lap, I knew it didn’t matter. I could make him understand by likening the pickle to the beet. Or to broccoli. For that is the essence of the picky eater’s dilemma: Whatever that foodstuff is that he finds most objectionable, nothing will be as terrifying as the thought of having it in his mouth.
I say that with intimate authority. I grew up the worst eater I’d ever heard of, the kid that my friends’ parents always sent home at suppertime, a sufferer of bizarre food phobias that were absolutely nonnegotiable. I’d refuse to eat cheese, except on pizza, and then only with pepperoni. Mac and cheese and grilled cheese sandwiches were out. By a similar logic, french fries were in but mashed potatoes were out. Condiments were unthinkable, and so too soup, fruit, and any vegetable that wasn’t corn. Those few foods I did eat could never be allowed to touch on the plate; “casserole” was the dirtiest word I could think of. I would eat a peanut butter sandwich but had no use for jelly and would refuse to take a bite within an inch of the crust. Chicken was fine, turkey was not, and fish was just weird.