Picky Eaters

Dear Clarice, regular commenter here, is a self-confessed Picky Eater, and has inaugurated adultpickyeaters.co.uk in order to seek out others like her. There is also a blog.

I can eat pizza if it is margherita, I can eat some pasta, scrambled eggs, peanuts, bagels, fajitas (depending what’s inside), even smoked salmon. But I’ve still never eaten or even tasted a fruit or a vegetable (though I can eat potatoes in all their forms).

So, yellow and brown stuff, then.

Although I am very much not a picky eater, I can certainly understand how someone could not like certain foods. I don’t care for liver at all, at all, so the possibility of someone feeling that way about curry or sweet-corn is an easy concept to grasp. But for someone to have never tasted any fruit or vegetables seems quite improbable and extraordinary. How is it possible to know that you dislike a particular food, without trying it? Just as I am annoyed by people who refuse to listen to new music, so picky eaters are frustrating characters. They seem to be sealing themselves off from vast tracts of sensation, human experience… life.

Of course, one might say there are many practices and activities that I am unlikely to try. I am reminded of a character in Salman Rushdie’s first novel, Grimus. The man says he tries everything twice. The first to see if he likes it, and the second to see if he was right the first time. He ends up fucking a donkey. However, I think act of just ‘tasting’ something differs from, say, art or sex, in that it is even more primative, instinctive. We do not approach the taste of a strawberry with the same cultural baggage and preconceptions that we approach a piece of music, or an act of intimacy… Do we? Clarice suggests that maybe we do. I shall watch out for more thoughts on this.

14 thoughts on “Picky Eaters

  1. We do not approach the taste of a strawberry with the same cultural baggage and preconceptions that we approach a piece of music, or an act of intimacy… Do we?

    Very much so. The mere act of eating a strawberry makes a statement about class, wealth and culture. As you say the satiation of hunger is a basic drive but food is also a cultural and perceptual construct and we are as likely to have preceonceptions around it as around anything else, maybe more so as apart from the cutural “baggage”, eating is a powerfull visceral experince and is strongly associated with health and life. I would say eating is a more intimate (in the true sense of the word) experience than listening to music or approaching an artwork.
    I’ve always associated picky eaters with a lack of early exposure to new food and new cultures and think they are a product of conservative, and generally working class, backgrounds. This has been confounded a bit by the trend among the liberal middle class for having food “allergies” or “intolerances” which are more to do with attention seeking, assuaging guilt and regulating intake in an environment of abundance.

    Having said that I can’t stand liver either, I also cannot see any reason for the existence of beetroot.

  2. Hi Rob, thanks for posting about this. A few things:

    Picky Eaters “seem to be sealing themselves off from vast tracts of sensation ” – that’s really not what it’s like. It’s not a choice. I’d love to try loads of things, but I just can’t bring myself to put them in my mouth. That seems to be the bit that’s hard for non-picky-eaters to understand, and for picky eaters to explain (especially if you are a child).

    the taste of a strawberry” – It’s not really the taste of a strawberry that would bother me. I can eat fruit jam quite happily, and juices. It’s something about the strawberry itself. It just doesn’t seem like food to me.

    I wonder if there’s anyone apart from old people who could eat liver or kidney these days. But I think MM is wrong about the lack of early exposure to new food – I had plenty, and so did the other picky eaters that I know. I think lack of successful exposure to new foods would be closer to the mark – though the lack of success is still unexplained.

    Happy Giftmas to you all, and to all a goodnight.

  3. It’s something about the strawberry itself. It just doesn’t seem like food to me.

    The easy response to this would be: “I don’t know where you got that silly idea”. But there are plenty of things that other people eat that did not seem like food to me. Fried larvae, snails, turkey testicles, for example. Nevertheless, I’ve tried all of them, on the basis that they seemed like food to other people. And I quite enjoyed the new sensation. Indeed, conquering my own preconceptions was all part of the fun.

    Matt – You’re right about the strawberry. But note that Clarice says she hasn’t tasted any vegetables either. Asparagus might have a similar connotation. But a carrot?

  4. Yes. I’ve never eaten a strawberry or a carrot. But then I’ve never eaten a pot noodle or a baked bean or a pickled egg, either, for the same reason.

    I guess, rob, it depends what “seeming like food” means to you. For me, the not seeming like food prohibits me from being able to try stuff, whereas for you it clearly doesn’t. so either we mean different things, or else it just doesn’t have the same importance to you as it does to me.

  5. As so often on this blog I find the discourse very interesting. I can see that to try something that doesn’t seem like food would be difficult but for Clarice and other picky eaters it is impossible. So what is the fear which stops you trying something, is it the fear of being poisened or of being contaminated or changed in some way? I wonder Clarice whether you could explore this a bit for us ? It seems there must be some element of the food being dangerous in some way which is what stops you trying something as simple as say a carrot. There are plenty of foods I don’t like and would prefer not to eat but I can usually make myself try it even if it takes a bit of effort. There must be something in your cognitions about the food which precludes even trying. I mean I would not “try” arsenic, absolutely not, because I know it would poisen me and it seems you are as equally unable to try fruits and vegetables. I look forward to your response.

  6. Hi GR

    Well, from a pragmatic sense, there is a learned social fear, which is that I might gag on certain foods or even vomit. Which would not be a compliment to the chef. Could be quite embarrassing. I say this is a learned fear, because experience tells me that there will quite likely be a gagging reflex if I force myself to try things, which I can’t guarantee I’ll be able to overcome.

    But beyond that, the only thing I can point to is some sort of anxiety about knowing what to do with the thing once it is in my mouth, especially with complex-looking textures, like a strawberry or a tomato. Obviously, this doesn’t apply to all excluded foods, but I think to some extent it underpins the gagging fear.

    I truly can’t say there is any conscious fear of being poisoned or anything like that. I do think it’s possible to have a non-specific fear of “something bad”, but un-named, though you may beg to differ. I suspect if I explore the psychological underpinnings of the gagging thing, there might be some mileage there, because it *can* be overcome if I can manage to control my thoughts adequately (it’s difficult though, because I’m not exactly sure what they are).

    It’s also hard to say which of my feelings about it are just the result of an “untrained” palate, and which are causal to the problem. For instance, I once tried a tiny tiny piece of fresh tomato, less than 5mm square. Well, it gave me rather a shock, it was so flavoursome, and, shall I say, wholesome. It overwhelmed my whole mouth. Didn’t really change my feelings about it though. I wouldn’t do it again willingly. With fruit and veg and rice, I really do feel it’s a texture thing. I also don’t think it’s an accident that certain of my excluded foods are or used to be considered “foreign”.

    I also agree with Matt that intimacy is definitely a factor in eating, though I haven’t really interrogated my thoughts fully on how it relates to pickiness.

  7. Being a picky eater is a luxury available only to a (relative) privileged few. Having moved to Sakhalin Island where decent food is very scarce, and living among Russians generally, I tend to eat whatever is available without complaint.

    I also cannot see any reason for the existence of beetroot.

    You’d struggle here then. Variations of beetroot soup are part of the staple diet.

  8. I once tried a tiny tiny piece of fresh tomato, less than 5mm square. Well, it gave me rather a shock, it was so flavoursome, and, shall I say, wholesome.

    Herein lies the issue for me, why I find this entire concept quite odd and alien.

    Have you never, in all your years, done any kind of experiment, Clarice? If you know that most people consider (say) bananas or apples to be relatively benign (compared to, say, a vindaloo curry or sauted frogs’ legs)… why have you never tried one in the privacy of your own home, surrounded by people you love? That way, the worry over the gag reflex would not be a factor.

    Its not the idea that people don’t like food which I am questioning here… it is the idea of not even enquiring into whether one might like the food.

    Sure, tomatoes are really wholesome. They have a myriad of textures and flaours. These are the precise qualities that other people go for.

    To put it another way: Does there exist a food that you actively like? You say you eat pasta and potatoes. Which do you prefer? What are the features of that food that make you prefer it? I cannot shake the feeling that, even on your own terms, there are foods out there that you really should try.

  9. “I also agree with Matt that intimacy is definitely a factor in eating, though I haven’t really interrogated my thoughts fully on how it relates to pickiness.”

    The situation you were in the first time you were picky may give you a clue. Eating is in part a social act and issues around it tend to be subconsious statements about relationships between the group you eat with, and are often set in childhood or adolesence.
    There is a separate issue about food making you ill – this is a reflex developed to protect you from being poisoned – and accounts for the fact that people will often avoid for life any food/drink they consumed prior to becoming ill, even if it was not the cause of the illness. Your brain becomes hardwired with the idea that the food which preceded illness must be poisonous which, in the days before supermarkets when knowldge about food was aquired soley through direct experience, would have been a usefull and life saving reflex. e.g you would learned not to eat red berries and saved yourself and your family from being potentially poisoned. This type of conditioning is hugely resistant to any form of retraining, even when you know it was not the food which caused the illness.

  10. Well, Rob, I’ve done quite a few experiments in my time, it being my sort of job.

    I have heard a whisper that bananas are fairly benign, but the spirit in me just can’t bear to face trying one. Or even a bit of one. It’s a strange thing, I have to sort of have the urge, as I did with the tomato. However, as I have learned, tasting a tiny piece does not necessarily enable one to suddenly go gorging oneself with delight on that particular food. The things I have grown to quite like, I have done so rather gradually, through building up familiarity.

    Also, the gag reflex is not only a social issue. I don’t know about you, but I personally do not enjoy vomiting – in fact I have quite a strong instinct to avoid it where possible. Maybe you are different.

    But in answer to your question, yes, I have tried to try certain things, in the privacy of my own bedroom – peas would be one, oranges would be another. Without success. Having lived a life like this, I kind of think I am rather more qualified to pronounce on the paramenters of experimentability. Every day I look for the moment to try something new, or cement a developing taste for something.

    Also, you would not believe the pressure that has been put on me by other people in the course of my life to “just try” things. One could hardly argue that it hasn’t occurred to me – your suggestion is far from the first. The thing is, it doesn’t work like that. If it were that simple, I wouldn’t be in the situation I am today, would I?

    I have three categories of food: Foods I actively like, foods I can eat but don’t like, and foods I feel like I couldn’t possibly eat if my life depended on it.

    I think Tim Newman sort of misses the point: Picky eating as I define it is not a “luxury”. That’s the whole point. It’s not a choice. What I would say is that surviving picky eating is a luxury not available in places where food is scarce or limited. To me, being able to “eat whatever is available” is a luxury I can only dream of. Lucky old Tim.

    I don’t doubt that there are foods out there that I “should really try”, but as I say, it doesn’t work like that. One good example would be candy floss, which I was scared to eat for years, even though other people clearly liked it, because of the weird consistency. Until one day, I got the urge to try some, and my god, it was just sugar. People had told me as much, but I had to find it out viscerally. How delightful. I nearly bought some in Leicester Square today actually, it is so delicious. But you’ve got to be in the mood for eating pure sugar, and today wasn’t it.

  11. I went out with a very picky eater for about a year. He couldn’t eat garlic, onion or any strong seasoning at all. He also couldn’t bear it if I ate anything strongly flavoured… or even if he had heard that I had eaten something strongly flavoured shortly before seeing him. It was a whole year of eating in the Harvester. I have suffered. I have suffered horribly.

    Having said that, I was once a very picky eater myself, and I really, really understand the feeling of not being able to bring yourself to put a piece of food in your mouth. I can now eat most things, and although there are things that I would rather not eat (raw celery, kidney and beetroot being the main ones) I can make myself eat them without trauma if they are served at someone else’s house. It’s been a gradual process of extending my palate since I was about 18 and decided to try mayonnaise (previously an absolute no-no), and I can’t really say what it was that turned me from someone who was picky into someone who wasn’t. I can only say that it isn’t a disease, and you can grow out of it… but it probably doesn’t really matter if you don’t.

  12. I’m sorry but I don’t really understand picky eaters.I can’t imagine eating primarily one kind of food and not tasting many other kinds of meals.I cna’t find any sense in it.

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