Guys, I have a dark, shameful confession: I used to be a picky eater.
I was the epitome of the spoiled American child.
I never wanted to try anything new. I detested vegetables unless they were in a taco or top of a burger (preferably from an artery clogging fast food chain!). New textures scared the shit out of me. I don’t think I had clear beverage until I was like 19. Had my family been the sort of people who went on vacation to Europe, I would have been the ugly American ordering a cheeseburger in culinary capitals of the world.
Now please understand something. I’m not trying to blame my parents or excuse my behavior, but there were some additional variables in play besides me being a brat.
One contributing factor to my dietary reticence was my parents’ work schedule. They both worked stressful full-time jobs. For most of my childhood, my dad worked as a personal supervisor at a post office in a neighboring Chicagoland suburb. Except he worked the third shift. He went to bed around 5 or 6 p.m. and had to get up around 1 a.m. to go into work. That meant my mom would get home around 5 p.m. and have to feed my brother and I shortly thereafter–by herself.
Now, I’ve heard there are other cultures, particularly in Asia, that don’t stand for whiny 8 year olds’ bullshit. You eat what you’re served, and you eat at the dinner table. And that’s a goddamn privilege. Subsequently, kids grow up eating a wide variety of foods and develop an interest in food and drink.
I suppose that’s all well and good unless you’re trying to feed two growing boys with no back up. I think my mom’s main concern was just trying to get us to eat something–anything. I’m sure she, doing an informal cost-benefit analysis, figured it was easier to feed me dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets instead of arguing about the merits of broccoli.
My other issue was literally my stomach (technically my gastrointestinal tract if you want to be a nerd about it). I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease at the age of 12 and showed signs of it even before then. I’m not going to go into a long explanation of what living with it entails. You’re perfectly capable of using Wikipedia.
While I genuinely enjoyed the few foods I ate, I also learned that dinner was a crap shoot (ha!). Meals become a lot less fun when you go into them knowing there’s about a 50 percent chance your stomach will hurt or you’ll potentially have to make a break for the bathroom.
So what changed? I’m assuming you’ve gathered my culinary predilections have changed based on the title. Right?
Well, for one thing, I started a treatment that actually controls my Crohn’s. For the first time, I could eat spicy food without fear, which opened up and entire world of food to me. I was finally able to gain weight, too, which meant my appetite increased considerably.
But I think the more germane change was independence. Once I was living by myself, I had to buy groceries and cook for myself. Something funny happened, though. To my surprise, I liked cooking. It didn’t seem like a chore. Instead, it was meditative.
In a world where fewer and fewer people know wood working or any other trade skills, it felt like I had accomplished something.
Anthony Bourdain also had a significant impact on me. I couldn’t put his first book, “Kitchen Confidential,” down. I think I read it in a few short days when I should have been studying toward the end of college. I also started to watch his show “No Reservations” religiously.
Suddenly, I was interested in the “weird” foods I would have refused as a boy. He made them look good. He made them seem important. Not only that, I think he reminded me that cooking and food are soulful things that deserve respect. They’re gateways into other cultures and, in my case, wanderlust.
I mean, I wasn’t making anything extraordinary in the beginning. It started with a few dishes that I kept making over and over (a whole roasted chicken, lasagna and a braised pork roast) until I could cook them in my sleep. And my interest only grew from there.
Soon I was trying the recipes featured in my issues of “Esquire,” and I actually went out of my way to eat vegetables instead of picking them off my plate. I gradually built a healthy spice rack. By the time I moved to North Carolina, I was excitedly buying cookbooks and finding excuses to cook for people. One summer I even started a container garden, which I’m happy to say thrived!
I was cooking things the way liked them, and I was doing it well. I’m not kidding when I say I thought I didn’t like chicken for a long time. It was because (and no offense mom and dad, I know you were doing the best you could at the time) I was often served bland, dry chicken that didn’t taste like anything except for the barbecue sauce I slathered it in. But now? Now, I can name five chicken recipes off the top of my head that would make your mouth water.
My newfound interest even started to become academic. I started reading about chefs and restaurants in different cities. Every time I had the opportunity to travel, you bet your ass I knew the best places to eat and drink. I would research obsessively to find the perfect lunch or the perfect dinner or the perfect cocktail.
At this point in my life, it’s finally come full circle.
Now, I guess I’m what people would consider a “foodie.” I subscribe to “Bon Appetite.” I take pictures of meals. My Instagram is full of food porn. I can talk about tasting notes in wine. I know what blanching is (and no it doesn’t involve “The Golden Girls”).
Trust me, I enjoy doing those things, but the term makes me cringe. The funny thing is, I don’t care. You can make fun of me all you want for being too precious about food.
There’s no way I’m going back to eating like an 8-year-old kid.