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THE GUY IN THE FLANNEL SHIRT really wanted me to eat his crab. “Have a claw!” he said, waving a steaming pincer in my face with a two-foot pair of metal tongs. “No, thanks. I’m good. You go ahead,” I said. Really, it’s all yours. Take the claw. It’s the best part.” “No, seriously. I don’t want it.”
Something embarrassing was about to happen. I knew because I’d suffered through this gastronomic showdown a million times, from Paris to Paducah, and it always ends the same way. I turn down food I don’t want to eat. At best I offend somebody. At worst I make a new un-friend.
The crab pusher came at me last summer at a beach party in Gustavus, Alaska, a little town on the fringes of Glacier Bay National Park. An easy scene to visualize: Golden sun shining off the water. Friendly locals. Cans of Rainier on ice. Alaskan king crab pulled from the frigid Pacific just hours earlier, now boiling in a giant kettle. A big-hearted fisherman rattling his tongs in the pot, working through the steam, pulling out my prize.
“Have a claw!”
After my third refusal, the cheery offer started to sound more like a prison warden’s order to get back in line. The fisherman’s expression said, I am the executor of your once-in-a-lifetime experience. So take the goddamn claw and we’ll both walk away happy.
Now here it was, the inevitable moment when the personal capital I’d accrued was about to get squandered with a single confession: I don’t eat crab. I don’t care how much butter and garlic you soak it in, that sea spider’s gnarled clamper is not coming anywhere near my mouth.
“Don’t eat crab?” His mariner eyes narrowed. “What the hell’s wrong with you?”
“Any seafood, actually,” I said. “I don’t eat fish. Period.”
BEING A PICKY EATER is more than a simple nuisance or emasculating badge of shame. For someone like me, who has spent most of his adult life as an international traveler in search of adventure and work, it’s a flaw that has ruined dinner parties, derailed relationships, and led to countless hungry nights.
Economy class, parasites, and crappy hotel pillows I can handle. What torments me is the prospect of being the honored guest at some exotic native banquet, presented with a sizzling plate of halibut ovaries or octopus eyeballs. All watery creatures are on my verboten list—fresh-water and salt-water fish, shrimp, turtles, any form of mussels, scallops, ceviche, calamari—but it doesn’t stop there. A short version of my “No thanks, I’m good” food roster includes: eggs, ham, tofu, milk, jellies, jams, cocktail wieners, convenience-store pump cheese, game animals, inexplicably trendy vegetables (kale? seriously?), most things pickled, all face parts, the entire organ oeuvre, chicken thighs and legs, anything in casings, cream of whatever, cheeses that float in jars of cloudy liquid, wheatgrass shots, anything associated with lactation or reptiles, bok choy, raisins (would it kill someone in this country to make a plain oatmeal cookie?), the spines of romaine lettuce leaves, apricots, most plums, orange juice pulp (grapefruit pulp is OK), the last bite of a banana, green tomato sludge, and all mushrooms, which to me taste like soil and have the mouthfeel of sputum.
Then there are my maddening inconsistencies. Tomatoes are magnificent in pizza and spaghetti, edible as soup, fatal as a juice. Black beans are an impenetrable mystery. Sometimes they’re perfect, but sometimes they’re a pile of repulsive goop, and there’s no way to explain why to a layman.
Beef is fine, as long as it’s well-done. For you, steakhouses are places to reconnect with masculinity and big, bold cabernets. For me, they’re places to confront supercilious waiters who act like it’s an outrage to leave my goddamn $45 rib eye on the grill a few extra minutes.
So much for my reputation as a man of means on seven continents. If you’re ordering a dish with more than four ingredients, I’m probably looking for the exit.
WE HIDE OURSELVES well, but we are legion. There are so many fussy eaters in the world, in fact, that we’re now being studied.
No one knows precisely what causes people to become weirdly picky, but the editors of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the bible of psychiatric reference books) have added a description of our plight to the 2013 edition’s list of officially recognized pathologies.
“There will be a diagnosis called avoidant restrictive food intake disorder that will apply primarily to children but which theoretically could apply to adults,” says Marsha Marcus, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh. “But I’m not sure it would apply to someone like you who is merely uncomfortable with many foods. Where the line between picky eating and a syndrome lies is not known.”
I called Marcus because, for two years now, she’s been one of the lead researchers on a Duke Medical School–University of Pittsburgh study of more than 10,000 self-professed “selective eaters.” (The preferred scientific term, apparently. I would have gone with “persons of discerning taste.”)
Whatever we’re labeled, most of us don’t like our condition, and I ask Marcus if there’s hope for a cure. She says the causes of the problem are unknown, but that some people, with great effort, “have expanded their dietary repertoires.” I take this to mean that I might be able to stand orange juice pulp someday if I really work at it.
The biggest problem picky eaters face is peer pressure from people who simply cannot believe that we don’t share their precise culinary preferences, and that if we “just have a taste” everything will be fine. Oxtail soup in Italy. Beetroot in Australia. Plantains in Honduras. I’ve shocked the world by refusing them all, but the world keeps coming. The evangelists of squid ink, mayonnaise, and rhubarb have ruined so many nights for me that I’ve often pondered what motivates people to ceaselessly badger others into eating things they don’t want to eat.
Marcus thinks it’s a form of positive cultural exchange. “Food sharing is often meant to cement and reinforce human connection and show caring and appreciation,” she says. “If you reject peoples’ food, there’s the mistaken notion that you reject them.”
Jason Sheehan, a former chef and current food editor at Philadelphia magazine, has suggested an even deeper resonance.
“While an anthem may be stirring and a flag might flutter in the breeze, neither tastes very good. Neither gets internalized, both literally and figuratively, the way food does,” he wrote last year. “To [reject] a country’s food is to say something nasty about its mothers and grandmothers, about the most dearly held traditions and tenderest moments.”
In other words, politely decline someone’s sweet potato bisque and you’re not just saying no. You’re telling them their nana’s mustache needs waxing.
ON THE PLUS SIDE, some of the deepest friendships of my life have been sealed over the common denominator of food hate. Seafood is a big theme for many of us.
Back in the nineties, I taught English as a second language at a college in Okayama, Japan. During my first month on the job, I barely spoke to an aloof colleague named Glasser. One lunch hour, we discovered a mutual aversion to nori, that repulsive dried sea alga that the Japanese use to wrap, sprinkle, and flavor everything from rice to soup to spaghetti. Glasser and I became great buddies and have remained so ever since. We still talk about foods we can’t tolerate the way some guys talk about women or Xbox.
In retrospect, Asia may not have been the wisest choice for me. During my travels, cuttlefish, mutton shanks, yak milk, and thousands of other culinary indignities of the Oriental table have been a constant torture. A Hong Kong writer I know recently published the following paragraph in a guide to local food. She said she was thinking of me when she typed it: “There comes a point when every visitor to Hong Kong has to confront his or her food phobias. Whether it’s bones, heads of animals or food that smells like garbage, it’s likely that you’ll find it on your plate and you won’t know what to do with it.”
Having a paragraph like this dedicated to you feels a little like having a drink named for you at the corner bar—nice to be recognized, but also a sign that you’ve got a problem.
I grew up in Southeast Alaska, dodging cedar-planked salmon flesh and venison chili, my mother keeping me alive with a steady supply of grilled-cheese sandwiches and tater tots. I thought moving to Japan would finally teach me how to eat fish. Instead it taught me how to say no.
I remember the night I finally declared that enough is enough. As the visiting gaijin in a rural town, I was the guest of honor at a banquet thrown by the local Rotary Club. I’d been in Japan long enough to have endured a number of these miseries, forcing tortured smiles while compliantly swallowing chunks of rubbery sea carnage and glugging down pails of Asahi Super Dry to keep the eels and clams and tentacles from coming back up.
At the Rotary dinner, I’d vowed that my days as a human disposal were over. Steeling myself against the suffocating intensity of Japanese protocol, I refused each passing plate of aji, ahi, anago, awabi, and every other gelatinous lump of marine life in the hiragana alphabet. Halfway through the meal, darkness spread over the face of affable Mori-san, the local Rotary Club president and a man for whom the term respected elder was invented.
“Chakku-sensei, you do not eat,” he said, gritting his teeth and sucking in air—an intensely polite display of Japanese opprobrium. “You do not like our sushi?”
In previous weeks, I might have defused the situation by bowing my head, muttering some half-memorized excuse, and swallowing whatever aquatic atrocity was put in front of me. Now I straightened my back and laid the bad news on Mori-san and his klatch of drunken cronies.
“Yes,” I said. “I do not like your sushi. Not just your sushi. The whole country’s sushi. Every country’s sushi. I cannot stomach this food.”
I was fed up. Or, rather, I was fed up at not being fed up.
This show of foreigner impudence might have sent the already unbearable pressure in the room to Bataan levels, but Mori-san hadn’t risen to the position of village poo-bah for lack of diplomatic skills.
“This is no trouble,” he said warmly. “You are American, so you must like beef. Would you like us to order you some beef?”
I nearly kissed the man. Yes, beef would be good. Beef would be a goddamn miracle.
Huzzahs filled the room. Waiters were dispatched to bring the honored guest the finest cut of beef in the house. Beer glasses were overfilled; sloppy cheers were exchanged.
Then came the beef. A full plate of it, set in front of me like a Tokugawa treasure. Two pounds at least, sliced in perfect thin little pieces. All of it as raw and bloody as open-heart surgery.
Mori-san showed me how to savor the meat, chewing it provocatively, then leaning back and letting the fleshy mulch slide down his throat. He was enjoying his revenge.
I looked at the man. I looked at the sweaty circle of expectant faces around the room. I looked at the plate of shiny, wet meat. Then I reached for my beer.
Only the eternally crucified picky eater can fully appreciate the sense of deliverance that comes with working up the nerve to say “No, thank you” to a roomful of samurai Rotarians who have just dropped $300 on a plate of inedible meat in your honor. If the experience didn’t completely change me, it did empower me. At least for a little while.
The thing is, no matter how good you get at rejecting the culinary kindness of strangers, there are some people you really do wish you could please—that crabber in Gustavus comes to mind. So invite us over for dinner; despite our phobic ways, we really are a sociable lot, and we may even make a valiant stab at your mango-encrusted trout casserole. But if the culinary going gets too tough for our tender sense of taste, please allow us both to maintain some dignity by graciously ignoring our gag reflex and accepting a simple but emphatic “No, thank you.”
Chuck Thompson is a producer for CNN.com and the author of Better Off Without 'Em: A Northern Manifestor for Southern Secession.