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. Essentially, all I ate willingly was plain-and-dry hot dogs and burgers, breakfast cereal with “sugar” in bold letters on the box, and anything with Chef Boyardee’s picture on the label. Or, rather, almost anything. I didn’t fully trust the shape of his ravioli; something told me cheese might be lurking within.
Such proclivities came at a cost. In elementary school, I was regularly disciplined for not eating enough of my lunch, sequestered to the “baby table,” where talking was forbidden and cafeteria monitors would loom overhead, pushing me to eat. When summer came, my parents would no doubt have loved to ship me off to camp but didn’t out of a legitimate fear that I’d starve. That was fine by me. I was similarly terrified that some camp counselor would force me to drink iced tea.
At home, my parents did what they could but never had much heart for the battle. According to my dad, the opening skirmish was over a sweet potato, when I was two. Though I remember nothing of the encounter, my guess is—given that my parents were children of the Depression and were neither adventuresome eaters nor particularly adept in the kitchen—that the sweet potato had been boiled, probably for longer than it needed to be. I looked at it and told him that I didn’t eat those. He responded that this was the first sweet potato I’d seen. At his strong insistence I took a bite, then airmailed it onto his chin.
Meals became a combination of accommodation and subterfuge. My mom served dinner on steel cafeteria trays purchased at an Army surplus store. That allowed her to segregate my food. She’d sprinkle Jell-O mix on banana slices to make them seem closer to candy. She’d even turn a blind eye—occasionally—when I’d slide objectionable items to my two younger brothers, neither of whom suffered from finickiness. One of them actually ate crayons and cigarettes.
My palate did broaden as I got older, though none of these victories were won at my parents’ table. And so ingrained were the food phobias that I can clearly remember each time I branched out. I first tried ketchup as a tenth grader, at the old Holiday House on Austin’s Ben White Boulevard, in an effort to look sophisticated in front of two much cooler upperclassmen. I was a University of Texas sophomore standing on the corner of Speedway and what is now Dean Keeton when I became an acknowledged fan of caramelized onions. A friend argued that they were the primary attraction in the $1.50 fajitas we’d just bought from a campus vendor, then opened one up to prove it. I was shocked. At that point I’d been enjoying them unwittingly for more than a year.
And then there were tomatoes. I’d long heard that garden-fresh tomatoes were nothing like the canned ones I’d picked out of my mom’s spaghetti. I could even recite