Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Food, part 2

PhotobucketLast time, I wrote about my strange childhood eating habits. This time, I'd like to talk about how all that changed, and I became a normal (I think) eater.

Looking back from an adult perspective, I think the basic reason I was able to change was that my dietary peculiarities were based mainly on familiarity rather than taste. That is, I didn't restrict my diet because the tastes of other foods were repulsive to me. That was true in only a few cases, cucumbers, pickles, and tomatoes, for example. I didn't even know what many of the foods I rejected tasted like, because I wasn't interested in eating unfamiliar food. Like most Aspergians, I don't like change, and the idea of trying new foods made me nervous. Since I had foods I liked, I saw no need to eat anything else. So I usually didn't.

How did that change? Well, part of it was just getting older. The older I got, the more foods I was exposed to. Some foods I tried because they were like other foods. I liked tortilla chips, so I tried crisp-shelled tacos, and they tasted OK. So I would eat crisp-shelled tacos sometimes (but never burritos or soft-shelled tacos). Some foods I tried because social conditions made it difficult not to. It's nearly impossible to be an American teenager and not eat pizza. Sometimes my friends wanted pizza, so I ate it too. It tasted good, so I started eating pizza (but only pepperoni pizza, if I had a choice).

So I gradually added a few new foods just by osmosis, I suppose one could say. But the big change came when I became a Mormon missionary. Before I went on my mission, I knew that food could be a problem for me no matter where I was sent. Depending on where I went, some of my favorite foods might not be available, and certainly when I visited people in their homes, they were going to often serve me food that I wasn't accustomed to. My mother and sister were quite worried about this, they told me later. Then I was assigned to Japan, where I knew I would be exposed to a whole lot of unfamiliar and even exotic foods.

I felt like I had a choice: I could cling to my dietary peccadilloes, which would probably annoy and offend people, or I could suck it up and represent. I felt like I was on a mission to serve God, my church, and my fellow human beings, so I decided that I wouldn't let food interfere with what I was in Japan to do. I decided that I would try to eat whatever was put in front of me for as long as I was a missionary.

That worked just fine. I discovered that when Japanese people served me food, they didn't expect me to like everything, but they did expect me to try everything. If I liked the food, they were pleased, and if I didn't like it, they were amused, so things worked out either way, just so long as I tried everything.

I also discovered something else: food tastes good. That probably sounds like a strange thing to say, but I'd actually been pretty indifferent to flavor before I went to Japan. That probably comes naturally when you spend your life eating only a narrow range of foods. The idea that it could be enjoyable to try new foods and experience new flavors was something that had simply never occurred to me.

But I found that I liked many of the new foods I was trying. There was sticky white rice, steamed or fried or covered in curry sauce. There were all kinds of different noodles, ramen, udon, soba, and somen, each with a different flavor and texture and served in different ways. There was a tremendous variety of seafood, both cooked and raw. (The only fish I would eat before I went to Japan was cod. I liked fish and chips, and since cod was the usual fish used for that, I accepted it cooked in other ways too.)

I tried all sorts of vegetables for the first time, raw, cooked, in salads, in tempura, and found I actually liked most of them. Japanese cucumbers are so mild, almost sweet, that I found I didn't just tolerate them, I liked them. (We grow them in our garden now, and sometimes I'll just pluck one off the vine and eat it like a carrot.) After I came back to America, I found that I could even stand American cucumbers, although I'll never like them. I discovered new favorite fruits, Mandarin oranges (I ate 30 in a single day once when we were snowed in with nothing to do), Asian pears, and Fuji apples as big as a baby's head.

And thus my eyes were opened....

Where am I now? Well, food still tastes good. If I go to a restaurant, I enjoy trying things I haven't eaten before, or at least haven't eaten at that particular restaurant. I can tell the difference between good food that is well-prepared and over-processed ingredients indifferently prepared, and I truly enjoy only the former.

But I'm not quite a foodie. I retain a certain indifference. I don't think about food very much, I'm not very interested in talking about food (I consider this post more about psychology than about food) or watching cooking shows on TV, and I don't really like to cook. I genuinely enjoy good food, but I much prefer indifferent food with good company to good food with indifferent company. I would never think of going to a restaurant alone. No matter how good the food is, it wouldn't seem worth the trouble.

And I still have my old habits in a couple of areas. If I eat a hot dog, I never put anything but ketchup on it. When I eat fast food, I always get the same thing at the same restaurant. I get the Double Whopper with Cheese, and never the Exotic Burger of the Month (although now I eat everything that comes with the burger except the pickles.)

And I also have traces of my childhood cookie compulsion. I didn't mention this last time, but starting when I was a kid, I would only eat either 3 or 5 cookies. I mean I would only take that many at once. I would never eat 4 cookies, for example. And if I wanted a lot of cookies, I would take 5 and eat them, and then take 3 more or 5 more and eat them. I would never just take 8 cookies or 10 cookies and eat them. It wasn't that I couldn't, exactly, it was just that that was the way I ate cookies. Always. I don't do that anymore, but whenever I eat cookies, I'm conscious that I'm not doing it. I suppose I even make it a semi-point to not eat them 3 or 5 at a time, just so I can prove to myself that I'm not doing it anymore.

Other than that, though, I think I eat pretty normally now.


  1. I thought I was normal once.

    My friends and family and a small handful of complete strangers on the internet assured me that I was mistaken.

  2. On our honeymoon, we ate at a fancy restaurant and my husband suggested I try something new: pan-seared tuna. I normally would have shied away from a new food, especially at an expensive restaurant, but I was in loooooove, so I agreed.

    It was delicious, like a bit of heaven in my mouth. About halfway through, I noticed what the dim lights of the restaurant had concealed, that the fish was only cooked on the outside. You know, pan-seared.

    But I had been enjoying it and it was expensive, so I went ahead and finished it. Now, I love sushi and a whole host of other foods I might not have ever tried had it not been for the pan-seared tuna.


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