How To Be A Good Eater

My cousin and I were pretty close, growing up, and we are still, I suppose, in that adult hardly ever seeing each other except at weddings and baptisms kind of way. We were similar in many ways, but not in all ways, and he had a particular hang-up about food. It was not easy to get him to eat anything apparently and this was rightly considered to be something of a problem. Nanna had lived through the Depression and seen a thing or two in her time, she’d also done a lot of child-minding, as one of the youngest in a family of twelve kids, and she decided that a little boy simply had to have an appetite. He must be able to eat, even if he didn’t think he was keen to do it.

So she used a little bit of psychology. She started with something basic, which all Australian children enjoyed eating, and decided to use Vegemite and bread. Her strategy was to appeal to the mind of a little boy, and she called it Cowboy Bread, so the appeal was in the name and what it stood for – it was a brand, as marketers and other poseurs with some claimed knowledge of human behaviour say – and he ate it because it wasn’t about the food, it was about being a cowboy and eating like a cowboy. My cousin would eat it and he enjoyed it, and for years it was one of the few things he would eat at all.

When I was a similar age I didn’t like tomato. I don’t really recall not liking tomato, but clearly I didn’t, and I do recall eating dinner one night and my dad making it his mission to get me to eat some of it. He didn’t employ violence or threats or even promises. No, he used a similar approach to Nanna. He said that the little tomatoes on our plates – cherry tomatoes, I suppose they must have been – were not tomatoes at all, but something else: a different food entirely, called “toms”. I was old enough to know I was being manipulated, but I went along far enough to eat what I wouldn’t have eaten, and I did realise that they weren’t so bad, but the brainwashing technique wore off rather quickly and I only ate tomatoes when I was in the mood, which was seldom. I was never going to fall for Dad’s line the way my cousin had fallen for Nanna’s as the stakes were lower – I already ate things, in considerable profusion, and so one food addition would never have the same impact as a kid who would eat nothing now allowing his grandmother to feed him.

When I grew up a bit more and my palate matured I began to enjoy eating some things I had not enjoyed in the past, and that made me wonder what all the fuss is about when adults try to artificially speed up the process and get children to eat what they are not ready to eat, when patience will do the trick, in some cases anyway.

A few years after the tomato campaign we were in a restaurant. It was Asian cuisine and there were small, ugly looking mushrooms in one of the dishes, and Dad thought he’d again try to cajole and dare and convince me into having a go at one of these vile little specimens. I did, and the texture was unexpectedly unpleasant, and the taste was not strong but it also wasn’t enjoyable, without being really repellent, and I just decided that I wasn’t interested in doing it again. Dad wanted me to have another. To brave another. There seemed a best little point and at worst the likelihood that my mouth would have an unwanted flavour in it which simply couldn’t be persuaded to leave. And so I said no. It was one of the first times I ever issued a categorical no.

I would not be moved from this position, as I knew what I liked and what I wanted to eat, and was old enough that this was not going to change. By this time I had grown up and my tastebuds knew what they were doing, and I could begin to say things like, “I don’t like mushrooms” and know what I was talking about and know that I meant it.

There is snobbery about food which always impresses me, and not in a good way. It makes sense for a fan of a certain food to want to promote it to friends and acquaintances and to be disappointed when they encounter someone who is not a fan. When someone like me says that seafood is too “seafoody” – smells too much like salt water and the overpowering odour of fish shops – this is not usually accepted or understood. It is as though, as an Australian, you are wasting such seafood eating opportunities as to render your behaviour almost criminal, and worse, that you may in fact be some kind of traitor. The alternative, which has lashings of pity in it, is that you can’t appreciate the taste as your palate is not sophisticated enough, and therefore your tasting apparatus is a bit childlike or even backward, and your superiors really should try to remember to be nice to you, as someone afflicted with this cavernous gap in the appreciation of eating and of life in general. Well, I don’t need pity. I’m just not a fan of most seafood. I eat fish sometimes, when it has been boned. I eat calamari – battered is preferred – and fish cocktails and other things which don’t closely resemble animals swimming in the water, as I’m not really a fan and that’s why I don’t go in for the more challenging items on the restaurant menu.

But perhaps seafood is easy. It’s a simple split. Most people know someone who doesn’t eat seafood. Even if you think it’s weird you must accept it is real. Less easy is not liking mushrooms. I’m getting better and learning more and working out that I don’t hate them all, not by any means, and there are many ways to cook mushrooms and they don’t have to dominate the dish by any means. However, it is the case that when told someone is not a mushroom fan the common response is one of muted horror. People are apt to go quiet, as they might if they found out you had a criminal record. It is amusing, for me. I enjoy watching shock spread across faces of people as they are told. I can’t work out why this is such a revelation.

And the last example of snobbery is the worst. Snobbery about foods you already like. I was alienated about wine snobbery, and still am, but good wine is definitely more worth drinking than bad is. However some of the attitudes I have encountered to cheese are just extreme, and they make me consider giving it up, which seems silly until I consider that I don’t want to be part of any of this snobbery myself, and perhaps the best course of action is to leave any group guilty of serial wankery like this.

Published in: on March 28, 2012 at 7:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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