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 the lyrics to Guy Clark’s celebratory hymn “Homegrown Tomatoes.” But I’d never been willing to try one until an afternoon twelve years ago at the home of the writer Jan Reid. The occasion was a reunion of sorts. Four months earlier some friends and I had been with Jan in Mexico City. Our cab had been hijacked by two pistoleros, and Jan had fought back, ending up with a gunshot wound in his belly and a bullet near his spine. While rehabbing in Houston, he had asked me to water his cherished tomato plants. When he finally got home, the Gang of Four, as he called us, met at his house for dinner.
As we sat down, he announced he was serving BLTs, casually mentioning how good it had felt to have been able to pick the tomatoes that afternoon. He thanked me for keeping them alive while he’d been in the hospital. It didn’t seem an appropriate time to say, “I don’t eat those.” They tasted as great as food served by someone who’s saved your life should. And the affinity held up; the next time I encountered a homegrown tomato I bit into it as if it were an apple.
By then I was 33 years old. And though nowadays I’ll eat just about anything—and have never really wondered what my life would have been like if only I’d met tomatoes sooner—a new concern has arisen. At 44, I’ve finally gotten married, and my wife and I are talking about starting a family. We’ve seen enough friends have children to know that wearing regurgitated yams will be part of the bargain. But we’d like to find a way to make that stop sometime before the kids go to college. Since my genes will get the credit for any picky eaters produced, the burden of learning why they happen and how best to deal with them has fallen to me. So I started doing some research.
Imagine a caveman is eyeballing a hamburger. His reaction will be as instinctual as going to the bathroom or looking for love. The sight and smell will alert his brain that proteins and calories are available. With the first bite, chemical reactions between the burger’s ingredients and taste receptors in his tongue will send messages through his nervous system, primarily the chorda tympani nerve, which stretches around his eardrum to the stem of his brain. If there’s a tomato on it, or maybe some ketchup, he’ll get a sweet taste, which upon arrival upstairs will trigger a small dopamine release. His body will read that as good news. The same will happen with the salty fat in the meat and cheese. But if by chance there’s some arugula onboard, a bitter taste will register, signifier of potential poison. He’ll likely spit that out and pick it off the rest of the burger. As he continues, chewing and swallowing each bite, a second, internal smelling process will take place every time he exhales. This information will be more detailed than that from the tongue, which can read only the five basic tastes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and the newly discovered, ever-nebulous umami. The news will combine in the brain and be read as distinct flavors. He’ll go about the rest of his day with a good supply of energy and remember that meal as a fine thing.
Now picture the caveman eating at Austin’s Counter Cafe, rightfully considered home to the city’s best burger. Sitting next to him and regarding an identical lunch is a member of that class of Austinite that considers itself the town’s most evolved: the trendy hipster. (Though they share the same bedhead and beard, the hipster will be identifiable by the pair of Ray-Bans folded next to his plate.) His relationship with the burger will be much more complicated. Assuming his parents were middle- to upper-class, he’s at least one generation removed from foods of necessity, so he’s known only the luxury of choice. If he grew up in the seventies or eighties, his earliest exposure to vegetables was probably via Del Monte and Green Giant, black-magic alchemists who, through canning and freezing, confused an entire nation on the meaning of “garden fresh.” If he suffered from chronic ear infections as a kid, his chorda tympani may have been damaged and his sense of taste permanently altered. Or he may even be a supertaster, one of that quarter of the populace whose tongues can have twice as many taste receptors as the average eater’s. In that case, every taste will be magnified, particularly the bitter ones. Given all the variables, if the hipster chooses to leave everything off his meat patty but the bun, there’d be plenty of potential reasons why.
“When we talk about picky eating, we are talking about pleasure and people who don’t get the same hit from eating that others do,” instructs Linda Bartoshuk, the director of human research at the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste. She was one of the first experts I called, a legend in the tight circle of neuroscientists, psychologists, and nutritionists who study the way people eat. She’s researched taste for 45 years, and among her discoveries is the supertasting phenomenon. “There are major categories of things that affect how much pleasure we take from food. One is sensory, and that’s where the supertasters fit in. We don’t all taste things the same way. That’s hardwired. The other is experience, the pathologies you have encountered. That is all learned.”
Those lessons come early. When Bartoshuk explained the fundamental nature of conditioned food preferences and aversions, she pointed to baby rats, who sniff their mother’s breath to learn what is safe to eat. In finicky humans, the primary pathology is gastrointestinal problems. If a person of any age throws up shortly after eating, he’ll automatically develop an aversion to whatever he just ate, regardless of any causal connection between it and getting sick. “When I see a picky kid, the first thing I try to find out is his medical history. If the parents say he threw up a lot when he was young, I’ve got a pretty good idea why he finds many foods disgusting. It’s a brain mechanism he can’t help.”
The neuroscientists I consulted stressed the same kinds of physical problems as Bartoshuk. Psychiatrists and psychologists, on the other hand, steered the conversation to the behavioral side of the equation. They said that many kids between the ages of two and four will experience some measure of pickiness. It’s as natural as learning to say no. Timid children may have an ingrained distrust of things that are new. Tactilely sensitive kids, like the ones who need the tags cut out of their T-shirts, may have trouble with food textures. Others may live in the neon food world of a supertaster. In these instances, the key is the parents’ reactions. If the parent forces the kid to eat food he doesn’t like, meals will turn into power plays. With a strong-willed child, that’s the kind of problem that can stretch well into adolescence. (The chefs I talked to, by the way, piled on the parents even harder. The problem, they said, is that most moms and dads can’t cook.)
As the experts ticked off the things that typically go wrong, they sounded as if they had had access to my childhood scrapbooks. My first extended hospital stay came shortly before I turned three, during a frightful bout with epiglottitis. Because of a virus, my throat was closing shut, producing the kind of prolonged, painful eating trauma that the shrinks and neuroscientists said could lead a kid to reject a whole host of foods. But the sole connection my parents ever made to that event and my diet was of a different sort: They cited it as an example of how obstinate I could be. The hospital stay had been cut short because I wouldn’t eat the food. My folks got tired of bringing me Spaghetti-O’s.
As my teen years approached, every meal became a battle of wills. My parents would tell me to eat, I would refuse, and they’d wait me out. My brothers would finish dinner and be excused to their rooms before I could sneak them my green beans. The family dog, a supremely overfed basset hound named Bobo who was my greatest ally in such matters, would be shooed to the garage. While Mom cleaned the kitchen, I’d remain at the table. Eventually she’d sit and watch me, sometimes for as long as an hour. She never turned cruel. One doctor I talked to described parents who tell their children, “If you don’t want it for dinner, you’ll have it for breakfast,” then put the plate in the fridge to serve it again in the morning. That sounds like torture, and that didn’t happen. Instead, I’d ultimately give in, choke down my two green beans, and wash off my plate.
But those wars were fought just once a week. My dad worked days and my mom worked nights; Thursdays were the only time we assembled for what we called “sit-down family meals.” Only years later did I recognize another dynamic at work. My folks split at the start of my senior year at UT, after 29 years of marriage. Suddenly it dawned on me that they’d never exactly been crazy about each other. That explained their work schedules and the tension around mealtime and the fact that my dad moved into my room when I left for college. It also provided a new name for the suppers he had cooked solo: Dysfunctional-Family Recipes. We ate a lot of fried bologna sandwiches and pancakes made with Bisquick and water when there was no milk in the house. A favorite among us three boys was something my dad called “barbecued hot dog casserole,” which consisted of butterflied foot-long wieners spread out in a glass dish, bathed in a full jar of hickory sauce, and baked. I’d always thought that eating a condiment and a casserole represented growth.
On weekends we’d occasionally hit the McDonald’s drive-through as a full unit. I was, of course, unwilling to eat any of the already prepared items that give fast food its name. The burgers under the heat lamp sported mustard, pickles, and onions, and I wouldn’t touch one, even with everything scraped off. Instead I’d insist on one specially made.
The cashier at the window would direct us to a corner of the parking lot, where we would sit in the station wagon and wait. My mom didn’t believe in air-conditioning, and my dad didn’t believe in bickering, so the interludes were quiet and uncomfortable. He might fiddle with the radio; she might comment that the car needed washing. My brothers and I would turn around to stare out the back window at the McDonald’s front door.
Eventually an employee would emerge and bring out our order, then wait by the car while I inspected my burger. If so much as a hint of yellow mustard showed up on the outside of the wrapper, I’d send it back.
Chef Andrew Zimmern is the co-creator and star of a program on the Travel Channel called Bizarre Foods With Andrew Zimmern. For six seasons, he’s played the part of the cheerfully daring food tourist, landing each week in a new spot on the globe to sample local staples, always something that would shock any eater back at his Minneapolis home. He’s become a devotee, for instance, of spoiled foods. “Whether it’s fermented skate wing in Japan, or hákarl [fermented shark] in Iceland, or stinkhead in Alaska, fermented and rancid foods are eaten all over the world,” he told me. He’s had bat meat on three continents. “Fruit bats are actually really clean. You can even eat all the innards because they have a very small diet in a very-small-ranging area.” He once stood with members of the Masai tribe in a corral inside the Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania, drinking cow’s blood directly from the source. “That was a big jump,” he admitted.
The segments are essentially snuff films for picky eaters, the kind of TV that would have once given me nightmares. “It’s been amazing to watch my gag reflex get less responsive,” he said over the phone after a weekend exploring Montreal’s finest seal meat dishes. “I was certainly more trepidatious about food when I started. But when you taste something that at first scares you, that you don’t understand or just don’t want to eat—maybe you’ve had a bad version of it before—if it’s good you learn to stop practicing contempt before investigation.”
Zimmern the world traveler blames limited diets on cultural forces. “I’ve been running a kind of experiment with my son, who’s six. I’ve tried to get to him before the cultural guardians can. He had a book called Yummy Yucky, and it associated worms with yucky. So he won’t eat worms, which is very interesting to me. Because he loves crickets and june bugs and all of the other funky little things that are edible in our garden in the summertime. Sometimes we just sit and eat them off the ground.”
Zimmern makes meals in his household sound uncomfortably close to meals on his show. But assuming he’s not telling his son that he can’t go inside until he finishes his bugs, his experiment isn’t far from the fix suggested by every expert I consulted on getting past picky eating: Kids learn to enjoy food from parents who model—not demand—healthy eating habits. There’s no way to predict how a child will react to a food; identical twins can have completely different diets. But as soon as a parent tells a kid that his preference is something that needs correcting, the discussion stops being about food. Nutritionists say most children need to be exposed to an objectionable food twelve to fifteen times to develop a taste for it. Psychiatrists insist that every plate at the table should have the same foods on it, but in portions that reflect what each person wants. Chefs suggest giving the kid authorship of his meals. Let him pick an item or two, then encourage him to help cook. If possible, plant a garden together. But above all, don’t create a problem where none exists. The key is to provide regular, stress-free family meals.
It’s worth noting, however, that none of the experts said those family meals had to be with people you were actually related to. Shortly after my parents divorced, I started law school at UT, and a new economic reality set in. With nothing but a student loan to fund my first year, I had to make adjustments in every aspect of living, and particularly in eating. Most meals came from boxes of frozen chicken breasts that my mom bought at Sam’s Club. But each Sunday night I had dinner at the table of Marisol Vidal-Ribas Brown.
An elegant, aging daughter of upper crust Catalonia, Mrs. Brown had moved to Washington, D.C., in the mid-sixties and gone to work for the CIA, where she fell madly in love with a spy named Glenn. They married almost instantly, then raised two sons at various Pan-American locales where he was stationed before settling down in Austin in 1979. But Mr. Brown died in 1990, while their older son, Carlos, a college roommate of mine, was off at medical school. I started stopping in Sunday evenings to tutor Glenn the younger and get a free meal.
Her dinners were different from anything I’d ever known. The dining room walls were covered with black and white photos of her parents and twelve siblings from before she left Barcelona, the women in gowns and the men in morning coats, some with a hand tucked inside their lapel. They each had Mrs. Brown’s same long, somber Spanish face and seemed to be watching to make sure she held to her Old World upbringing. She did. There was always a crisp white tablecloth and polished chargers, along with the rest of Mr. Brown’s family silver. We said grace. We drank wine, but never to excess. And we never stacked plates when clearing the dishes.
She would hold court at the table’s head, fingering her pearls and Mr. Brown’s wedding band, which she wore on a long chain around her neck. Her stories were incredible, often summoned by the meal she was serving. If she had been lazy that day and only managed to fix chicken, it might be good, but never as good as the chicken roasted by her governess, Tata, on a beach in Genoa when her family fled Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. If she made Spanish rice, she’d point out that it wasn’t Spanish at all but a variant of something she’d first tasted in Honduras, when Mr. Brown was keeping an eye on the Cubans.
The great lesson from her wasn’t just to try food but to experience it. Well-mannered as she was, she wasn’t above dropping her fork at a satisfying bite and grunting loudly, “Oh, wow!” And though she took an immigrant’s pride in her American citizenship, she never let go of an ounce of her Spanishness. “In Spain,” she explained, in an accent that grew thicker as she got older, “food is as big a part of who we are as Picasso or Gaudí.” Gradually, because Carlos had been a picky eater too—he and I didn’t fully bond until he introduced me to the magic of late-night ketchup-only Whoppers at UT—she started bringing out her native dishes. Paella made with saffron sent by one of her sisters. White almond gazpacho with frozen green grapes sunken in and topped with a dollop of aioli. She cleaned out the fridge like her mother had, by making what she called a “tortilla apartment building”: four egg omelets, each with a different “roommate,” like potatoes, mushrooms, spinach, and shallots. She’d stack them one on top of the other, cover them with a simple red sauce, then cut slices, like a cake.
I ate there once a week for the next ten years, continuing after Glenn left for law school, with a regular group of his friends that she called her “stray dogs.” As I started to experience adult life’s little victories and defeats, she coaxed me through career changes and romantic entanglements, and our relationship became about more than meals. But food was how we expressed it. Before she moved away in 2001 to join Carlos’s family in Los Angeles, we determined that our last outing together should be a trip to Central Market, where she would teach me how to “buy Spanish.”
On the day after Christmas 2006, I joined her and Glenn in Barcelona for a week of meeting her family and seeing her country. All I remember are the meals. Each day a three-hour afternoon feast was scheduled at someone’s apartment, every one a rerun of our Sunday nights. But we decided to skip out on the final day’s invite. Mrs. Brown wanted to take me to a famous restaurant near the harbor called Les Set Portes, which is Catalan—not Spanish—for the Seven Doors. “I know it is touristy now,” she said, “but this is where my family came when I was a little girl.”
In a huge formal dining hall with two attendants at our table, Glenn made the boring order, a simple seafood paella. Mrs. Brown had monkfish roasted in romesco sauce, a traditional Catalan accompaniment that looked like a creamy tomato sauce but was actually made from almonds, pine nuts, olive oil, and roasted sweet peppers. But I ordered best. I had a fideuà negra, a paella variant with tiny Catalan pastas that looked like minced straw. They were soaked in squid ink and cooked with mussels, oysters, shrimp, and small, whole squid. The fish had clearly been caught that morning, and the taste was as rich as cake icing. It was the single greatest meal I’ve ever eaten.
Shortly before I left on that trip, my mother asked me to bring her back a gift. By that time, the nature of our food fights had changed, if not the outcome. When picking a place to eat, she would suggest something Southern fried and I’d push for sushi, just to get under her skin. She’d get as irritated at that torture as she once did the tantrums. But on this occasion she had a surprise: She asked me to return with a Spanish cookbook.
We flipped through it together when I got home, and I showed her some of the dishes I’d eaten. Most of them struck her as far too exotic. But then she saw a recipe for a lightly battered, pan-fried tilapia. We agreed that would be a meal we should prepare together.
Sweetly, she made no mention of pickles. To this day I’ve never tried one. Maybe I’ll wait and do that with my own kids.