When I grew up, eating at my house was an expedition through the Wilds of Grub. You never knew what lurked on the Corelle. It was a matter of survival to devour any and all things before the bastards turned on you. Spoon, fork, and knife became shield, staff, and sword and you, the mighty conqueror.
Consider the Midwestern staple,“chipped” beef and cream of mushroom soup on a piece of Wonder toast. “Chipped” beef is, well, unnatural. Growing up on a dairy farm, I was quite familiar with the edible parts of moo, but still can’t recall the wizened farmhand wielding a carving knife, spitting through his teeth and saying, “We’ll just 'chip' a little off the underside here. Won’t that be good eatin’?” The only chipped bovine parts I know of are the hooves – and those are assuredly not “good eatin’.”
Then there was that classic Sunday dinner, with friends and family gathered around the narrow but bountiful table. Deviled eggs, dotted delicately with paprika, the “all color, no taste” spice, arranged in a smiley face on the special cut-glass egg platter (a real steal at 50¢ from the “rich neighborhood” garage sale.) Lime Jell-O bouncing with marshmallows and mandarin orange slices to cleanse the palette. A stack of doughy Wonder bread, a prime canvas for spreading rosette butterballs. It was a Hallmark moment.
“Whoopsie,” exclaimed Mom, as she placed the itty-bitty-and-what-a-bargain ham in the table’s center. Curious how the one pineapple ring and three cloves didn’t quite fit across the top and the dish served just four people. Perhaps it was because the decorated culinary creation was a byproduct that only rhymed with ham. “Whoopsie” indeed. Thank you Austin, Minnesota.
Tongue. Smelt. Peppery dandelion and mustard greens, fresh from the yard. Boiled rhubarb stalks. Chicken livers. Mountain oysters. Mulberries picked straight off the branch, with just a hint of DDT. Vinegary cucumber slices. Brain. Goat’s milk. Whole pigs, roasted in four-foot pits in the ground. Rabbit. Miracle Whip sandwiches.
On Wonder Bread, of course.
One could argue that experiencing such terrifying gastro-diversity would leave me tainted for eternity, allowing only white rice, bananas, and grape juice as sustenance.
Not me. I’m proud of my extensibility to taste almost anything once. I’m the annoying person that actually takes a bite of whatever you’re offering from your plate, even if you didn’t mean it. Or asks for “just a nibble.” I’ll also volunteer a sample of my chow to you with innocent fervor, insisting, “It’s great! Try it!” and watch in disbelief as you, the picky eater, purse your lips as you procure a smidgen of the offering, then spit it into your napkin.
Picky eaters bother me.
Extremely picky eaters are worse. Those “vanilla lickers” at Baskin-Robbins or the “plain bagel with butter” people. Those who believe, like a food replicator, their victual desires have been pre-programmed, and won’t try anything, for they just know they won’t like that...that...whatever it is.
How will you know you won’t like something if you’re not willing to put the tines between your teeth? What’s to fear? After all, once you’ve tried it, you either eat it again or never eat it again. No spontaneous combustion. No alien probe. And certainly not an alien exploding from your midsection.
Plus, have you ever noticed that one of the best ways to be a trendsetter is with meal selection? Oh, it’s true. There’s an amazing metamorphosis that occurs when the ordinary becomes haute cuisine:
Smelt: teeny fish no one wants to eat, and most don’t. Sashimi: teeny pieces of fish many are scared to eat but do so anyway.
Chicken livers: fried and served to old men wearing seed caps. Goose livers: spread on wafer-thin crackers and served as foie gras.
“Po’ folks” munch on dandelion greens. Rich supermodels graze on arugula.
With just one bite, you’ve transcended even societal boundaries. Imagine the possibilities.
As long as it doesn’t speak, yowl, or moan when sliced, I’ll try it. Seaweed. Black pudding. Alligator. Tomatillos. Cactus. Waterzooi. Squid. Toad-in-the-hole. Edamame. Ostrich. Starfruit. Terrapin. Falafel. Sharbat. Conch. Yak pemmican. Syllabub. Boniatos. Eel. I even had the stomach for haggis, and weathered a 16-year affair with Southern cuisine. See this scar? It’s from chitlins.
However, I do regard beets in any form with complete distain.
At a cultural music festival last year, one of my picky eater friends eyeballed my soft-shell crawfish po-boy with dubiousness and the slight fear one of the claws would break free of the crusty bun and tweak her nose. It didn’t have time – I ate it too quickly. Curling her upper lip, she scuttled away and beseeched a nearby Cajun vendor to no avail for a nice, tame chicken pasta. She pretty much refused to eat until we found a Pizza Hut later in the day, where her choice was simple pepperoni. No spinach. No feta cheese. No whole garlic cloves.
Exploring new tastes is dining table travel. A culture of unknown origin washes past the lips and tongue, tingling with a history that isn’t like mine and begging to tell a story. If I have yet to see this new land or sea with my own eyes, at least I can taste what grows there. No lost luggage. No money to exchange. No language barriers. At most, I’m a sip, cut, and a bite away from experiencing a different world.
So come on, just try it. Whatever it is, it can’t be any worse than haggis.
Tracey likes to shake things up and then take the lid off. She also likes to keep the peace, especially in a safe, fuzzy place. Writer, editor, producer, yogini, ('cause yoger or yogor simply doesn't work) by day, rabid WordsWithFriends and DrawSomething! player by night. You can follow her on Twitter: @traceylkelley or @tkyogaforyou
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
6.11.01 @ 9:16a
I'm definitely going to expose my Iowa roots here, but I've got to say, you haven't lived til you've been to a smelt feed. Mmmmm, smelt.
6.11.01 @ 10:13a
Shall I ship some out to you? Are you homesick? :)
6.11.01 @ 11:10a
Of all the smelts I've ever smelt, I've never smelt a smelt that smelt like that smelt smelt.
6.11.01 @ 11:28a
While I understand your disdain for picky eaters, not all food aversion is the result of pre-programmed expectation. Thanks to my well-meaning but aggressive parents, to this day I gag at the sight and smell of several vegetables which were once rammed down my throat in the name of nutrition. And while my palate has grown considerably since my adolescence, my psyche will always bear the scars of my parents' "guerilla warfare" style of dining.
6.11.01 @ 11:36a
Well, I really should rephrase myself. I understand that people have different tastes, and there are people out there who don't like a lot of foods. I don't mind someone trying something and disliking it (I personally can't stand squash or asparagus or chopped liver). It's the people who claim to dislike a food without ever having eaten it that bug me.
6.11.01 @ 11:44a
Tracey, I'm guessing smelt don't travel well. I'll have to settle for all the foods that I've come to love here in DC that cannot be secured in northeastern Iowa (Starbucks coffee, fresh mozzarella, actual non-Lenders non-HyVee bagels.)
And Mike, I still can't staand the sight or smell of scrambled eggs because my parents made me finish a plate of 'em when I was, say, three. Well-meaning but aggressive indeed.
6.11.01 @ 12:15p
Adam - HA HA!
Mike, I'm so sorry to hear of your dysfunctional familial dining experience. Perhaps you should start a support group, like R.A.V.E.: Rally Against Vegetable Eating.
Jael - No, we can do it like Omaha Steaks: a little dry ice and *poof!* a fresh taste of home! Hyvee bagels? UGH! Noooo, I frequent the Nosh bagelry for true, fresh Jewish bagels, get fresh mozzarella from Graziano's Grocery and here in central Iowa, we have Starbucks in Barnes and Noble.
'Course, I don't drink coffee. Funny, I never developed a taste for the stuff.
6.11.01 @ 12:46p
I'm actually about to sound like a bit of a snob, but it's tough to get "Jewish" bagels anywhere outside of New York because the water quality's different everywhere. I grew up with the Philadelphia version of the water bagel, and trust me, they're much better in New York. It's the water, though, not the culture. As long as they're making them by hand, you really can't go wrong.
6.11.01 @ 12:47p
Dysfunctional Family Dining Experiences: Eat or Get Beat. On tonight's Dateline.
6.11.01 @ 1:28p
Tracey -- clearly, central Iowa is MUCH hipper than Northeast. My parents have to go to Cedar Rapids for Panera bagels and a decent latte.
And Adam, I'd think you were making that up, except I recently saw a Food TV special on pizza and there's an LA pizza place that makes New York style pizza crust by chemically manipulating LA water to be more like NY water. It's true.
6.11.01 @ 2:17p
Oh, yeah. I don't joke around when it comes to bagels.
6.11.01 @ 4:49p
Hmmm, something to talk to Bill the Jewish bagel man about, as he prides himself on making everything as authentic as his heritage and Chicago/East Coast connections allow. He's a rabbi, after all.
Or is this just another one of those "there's New York, then there's everywhere else" type of things? What is in the New York water, anyway?
Jael - new Des Moines' tourist slogan: "More Than Just the State Fair!" nooo, not really....
6.11.01 @ 4:52p
I get to go first!
What is in the New York water, anyway?
6.11.01 @ 5:14p
That's part of it, sure. I've heard it has something to do with the minerals in the water, what cooks out vs. what's left in when the bagel bakes.
6.11.01 @ 5:22p
Minerals. Like calcium. From the bones. Of the dead guys.
6.11.01 @ 5:30p
Hey, if it works...
6.13.01 @ 11:11p
Definitely better than haggis.
6.21.01 @ 9:43a
That's where I'd draw the line: organs. I do consider myself a fairly adventurous eater, but "variety meats" don't appeal to me at all.
6.21.01 @ 12:03p
It was a dare from a Scotsman. The Irish in me had something to prove.
6.21.01 @ 12:49p
I'll bet the Scottish wasn't in you for too long after that...
6.21.01 @ 3:04p
Damn, faked me out. I thought he was going to go for the cannibalism joke again.
And I think it was Mike Myers in "So I Married An Axe Murderer" who said "I believe all Scottish food is based on a dare." Of course the only Scottish food I know is haggis, but that's enough for me.
6.21.01 @ 4:00p
That's the right reference. I believe it followed up "I find haggis repellent in every way."
3.12.02 @ 10:53a
I am sad. I found out today that the aforementioned Bill, my favorite Jewish bagel man, owner of the Nosh bagelry, died of a heart attack yesterday at age 49.
He was a great, great guy in the DSM community.
3.12.02 @ 11:50a
Sorry to hear your bagelman has been deli-ted. It took me seven years to find the right one here in STL. Hopefully someone will continue on Bill's work @ Nosh. Maybe buy the place up, lox stock and bagels?
Haggis: It's better than it looks.
3.12.02 @ 11:58a
Haggis: The vegetarian kind is tasty.
3.12.02 @ 12:17p
i think a big part of the NY bagel explanation has to be that compared to most cities, NYC water is CLEAN. most people don't believe this until they come for a visit, but it really is. it comes from this enormous reservoir system upstate. if they tried to make jewish bagels with D.C. water, we'd all die of chlorine poisoning.
re picky eaters: my roommate is from the midwest, and before she moved in with me, she had never eaten any of the following: 1)beef stew. 2)popovers. 3)spaghetti and meatballs. (okay, she'd eaten spaghetti, but never with meatballs. i mean, spaghetti and MEATBALLS??? hello??) 4)any kind of cream cheese other than plain. 5)a number of other things i thought were very basic american but of course can't think of now. she'd also only had chinese food (other than won ton soup) once. do the smelt feeds preclude these foods?
3.12.02 @ 12:35p
I don't know, my roommate is from the midwest and she was familiar with all of those. Of course, she lived near Cleveland, which is something of a metropolis. I did have to introduce her to Indian food, though, and in return she introduced me to chicken paprikas.
3.12.02 @ 12:40p
My roommate's from Kansas and he loves bagles with whitefish salad. Go figure.
I tried stuffed derma a few months ago. That's basically the Jewish equivalent of haggis. Somewhat tasty, but I just couldn't get the awareness of what I was eating out of my head enough to truly enjoy it.
3.12.02 @ 5:43p
Would that be called "derma-titis?"
I'm scared to ask what stuffed derma really is...
3.12.02 @ 8:21p
my roommate is from a suburb about an hour outside chicago. i have to assume she at least had the opportunity to be exposed to various foods. but she won't eat any "ethnic" food (other than italian). and she says she doesn't like "anything with sauces" (except pasta, i guess). that kinda tends to narrow it down. i have to admit, before i went to college i had never had sushi, indian or thai food, among many other things. but once i had the opportunity, i enthusiastically tried them. some stuff you're gonna like and some you aren't, but why not at least try? and there are still more things i haven't tried but would like to (korean food, for example).
moreover, it just seems odd that there are a lot of basic american foods on the long list of things she's never tried or even heard of. seriously, when i made spaghetti and meatballs, her reaction was not just that of someone who hadn't tried the dish before, but of someone who had never HEARD of spaghetti and meatballs before. i think her family just ate chicken, baked potatoes and broccoli for dinner every night or something. she's starting to get annoyed when i ask her if she's ever tried such-and-such.
8.14.02 @ 5:00p
My God. There's a whole 'nother discussion on this from months ago that I never read. It's like my birthday all over again!
I started laughing, Donna, at the "MEATBALLS?" == and singing to myself "On top of SPAGHETTI...all covered with cheeeeeeesee, I lost my poor MEEAtball..."
well, y'all get the idea.
2.10.06 @ 4:46p
Amazing what happens when you read over something three years later with fresh eyes...
Tracey, just what kind of 'chipped beef' was it in your family? Because there are two varieties. One, the traditional military SOS, uses ground beef, while the one I grew up with uses a jar of that Hormel pressed dried beef, finally chopped (chipped?). I've heard of (but never tried) the mushroom soup variant; we always used a plain white sauce (or to be saucy about it, bechamel). So...that's how it is in our family.
I squandered a childhood spent in the culinary wok that is Hawaii. I was a terribly picky child, though I was brave enough to try some things. Poi was nasty, manapua was scrumptious, and coconut seemed to serve no purpose but to lodge in my windpipe. Thirty years later and poi is as repulsive as ever, but I can't get enough coconut. Time passes, tastes mature. Get exposed to stuff enough times and you start understanding 1) it's not out to kill you; and 2) if other people find it delicious, maybe there's something to it after all.
Still, it's appalling that people in central Wisconsin have never even heard of prosciutto.
2.10.06 @ 6:52p
Oh, wow--what a discussion.
I don't eat organ meats either--I never did like liver, and after learning what all those organs do, I'm not interested in eating them after they've been "used", so to speak.
Vegetarian haggis? Isn't that an oxymoron? How can it be haggis if it isn't a stuffed sheep's stomach, and how can it be vegetarian if it IS a stuffed sheep's stomach?
Adam's right, water DOES make a difference. I know that my homemade Southern iced tea doesn't taste the same (even with the same brand of teabags and amount of sugar) here in Pennsylvania (or in Idaho or Nebraska) as it does in NC or SC. Howver, I wonder how much difference the flour makes to those bagels as well. Not all flours are created equal. Southern flour brands such as Red Band and White Lily are made of a much softer wheat than national brands such as Pillsbury or Gold Medal (yes, wheat can be soft or hard--as well as spring or winter). In fact, you can feel the difference if you rub some between your fingers. Southern flour brands feel more like cake flour---and while they're great for biscuits and other quick breads, they are not good choices for yeast breads---not enough gluten. I can't make proper biscuits without my Red Band self-rising...which is why even when I lived in Idaho and Nebraska my flour came from NC!
Still, it's appalling that people in central Wisconsin have never even heard of prosciutto. There are also people in Kansas that don't know where grits come from...and they live in the middle of the corn belt. Prosciutto: the Italian version of country ham. ;)
2.10.06 @ 7:03p
Chipped beef with ground beef? Noooooooo....that's virtually the same thing as ground beef and Pablum--and that's what we used to use to get puppies started on solid food. I can still see Happy, all four paws in the dish, a face covered in Pablum, wagging as he burped. Chipped beef should be made with a medium white sauce and dried beef. Accept no substitutes.
2.11.06 @ 8:40a
See, Lisa -- now you know how the Marines turn recruits into Devil Dogs! Eat up, pups!
2.11.06 @ 10:51a
Well, they do say an army crawls on its belly.