They deserve all the trouble we can give them.
Granted, there are kids who are finicky eaters, and they should be exempt from judgment until they have a chance to expand their horizons. With few exceptions (I was one — I’m told I would eat anything) children go through stages where they are willing to put certain foods in their mouths and not others, experience certain tastes and reject others.
Then, there are adults whose equipment has malfunctioned, whose systems cannot abide foods too sour, too rich, etc. There are also those poor souls who, with a blowout looming, restrict their intake of salt.
With the rest — adults who are just plain finicky — we must go on the offensive.
Admit it: It’s a pain to dine with them. I’m sure some are fine folks, though I can’t imagine they’re interesting to engage in conversation. They are, after all, not right in the head.
Face it: It’s a sign of mental imbalance when, confronting something generations of consumers have proven edible and desirable, you greet it with “Oooooh, ick. I can’t eat that!”
And it’s a sign of incurable goofiness to refuse to eat something you’ve never tried.
That’s my sister, Karen. To show the depth of my conviction and to illustrate the proper handling of the finicky eater, let me use her as an example.
I learned about finicky eaters by observing my sister as we grew up together. I learned to deal with finicky eaters by torturing her.
It’s OK, she’s not right in the head.
She was always finicky. Something in the double helix got bent when sperm met egg. She was on the fast track to finicky from the womb on, running at top rpm on a freeway with only one exit: Dullsville.
Why do I say she’s finicky? Her diet mainstay, from age 5 to adulthood: St. Joseph baby aspirin.
While I was trying out new foods as a kid, experimenting in the kitchen like a mad scientist, she was snacking on baby aspirin. That’s all she ate, as far as anyone could tell. She was the paradigm of picky. My antithesis.
For example: I’d belly up to the stove after a day of failing to pay attention at school, and concoct my favorite melange. I’d pop open a can of pork and beans, heat the contents in a small frying pan, slice a couple hot dogs into the beans then cube up half a brick of Velveeta and toss the cubes in. When the industrial-strength, simulated cheese product melted and amalgamated with the runny sweet bean ooze a food miracle occurred and, like all miracles, it was ephemeral. I had to chow down fast while the mess was still warm; once it started to cool, it set up like plaster of Paris.
I remember Karen watching me from the doorway, her eyes wide open, a deer caught in the headlights, a witness to unspeakable horror.
“Want some?” I’d ask, extending a spoonful of rust-orange glop in her direction. She would flee screaming to her bedroom where she’d discover yet another decapitated Barbie.
Karen had no chance to be normal: She learned everything she knew about eating from my mother, Louie, whose idea of fine dining was two cans of Metrecal and a pack of Pepperidge Farm Capri cookies. My mother once took a case of Metrecal with her to Europe, so she wouldn’t starve while everyone else ate at the best restaurants in the world.
Here’s the truly irritating thing about my sister and other finicky eaters. They know how disgusted we are with their behavior and they try to placate us. If they’d simply fade into the woodwork, all would be well. But, no.
My sister still makes poignant efforts to appear to be a regular person.
When we speak on the phone, Karen will toss off a remark about food, make a comment about the lamb she’s roasting or the fish she bought at the dockside market near her home in Maui.
She’s fibbing, yanking my chain. I can hear the crunch crunch crunch in the background as she wolfs down another mouthful of aspirin. She pretends to cough, but I know what’s going on.
It’s a sad spectacle, but I figure as long as I don’t have to dine with her, as long as she lives on Maui and I live here, things are all right.
Unfortunately, the other day I get a call from my brother, Kurt.
“It’s Karen’s birthday next week.”
“Yes, I know. She’s had one every August since she was born.”
“She’s turning 55. Big day for her, Karl. Big enough to bring her from the islands to Denver.”
“Hmmm. Does she want gifts? Can I mail something?”
“She wants to have a family get-together. A big party, with dinner.”
“Can’t make it.”
“Karl, we haven’t been together for years. She’s turning 55. You and I can work up some great food. We’ll have a wonderful time.”
“Can’t make it.”
“Listen, it’s only a five-hour drive, and…”
“She’s a picky eater, Kurt. You know how I feel about picky eaters, even if it’s my little sister. Can’t make it.”
“Oh yeah? Will she eat chicharrone?”
“I think she would.”
“Blackhearted liar. Menudo?”
“Yeah, why not?”
“Fat chance. Would she eat raw sea urchin.”
“You’re delusional. Seared foie gras?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“OK, wise guy. Would she eat pork and beans, sliced hot dogs and Velveeta?”
It feels good to win.
It’s a Pyrrhic victory, however. Kathy, and what little conscience I possess, force me to Denver.
When Karen greets me, she hugs me. Her face is close to mine. There it is: the distinct, sour odor of St. Joseph Baby Aspirin.
“I think she’s changed, bro.”
“A clever job of acting, Kurt. She’s finicky. Always has been, always will be. I told you, they can’t change. Ever. We need to isolate them, perhaps give them their own state.”
“No, really, she came over to the stove and pointed out…”
“She’s been reading. She can tell you everything you need to know about a childproof cap, but she doesn’t know a saucepan from a blender. Ask her the diff between a sauté and a sweat and she’s lost. I say we take her kids to the basement and force them to tell us the truth.”
Karen and I chat and she puts up a good front. Finicky eaters are sneaky. Sure enough, she tosses off comments about roasted lamb and goes into her spiel about fish. As she talks, there it is again, on her breath: The subtle tang of acetylsalicylic acid and artificial orange flavoring.
My first urge is to drive home, but Kurt convinces me the spectacle of the finicky eater trapped in unbearable circumstances will be entertaining. He reminds me: We have a duty to make the finicky eater’s life miserable.
We decide to keep the meal simple: burgers and sausages on the grill; Olathe sweet corn; fresh, ice-cold Rocky Ford cantaloupe. For the burgers, a Maytag and garlic mayonnaise. We’ll make some coleslaw, some green salad, fetch some tidbits to nibble on prior to dinner. And bottles of wine, three or four white, three or four red, including a Malbec or two for the burgers and bleu.
Here is where my sister makes her mistake. All finicky eaters screw up sooner or later.
“What kind of sausage are you guys grilling?”
Kurt tells her we’ll stop at the Polish deli, assess the contents of the meat counter and bring home a prize or two.
“Oooh, ick. I can’t eat that.”
Then she doubles the error. Once they stumble, they fall.
“Why don’t you go to the natural foods market and find some chicken sausage. That’ll be great.”
Yahtzee! The cat is out of the bag — out of the bag, onto the street and run down by a Buick.
I am vindicated. Now, all that is left is the torture.
We find some soft, gray, chicken sausages at the natural foods market. (The joint is teeming with finicky eaters).
Then we hit the Polish meat market down the road and ask piercing questions of the butcher. This guy is definitely not finicky. He’s wearing a bowling shirt with his name stitched on the pocket. There’s grease on everything.
“What’s that one, the big one at the back?”
“Like pork sausage, but dry.”
“Slice me half a pound. What’s that red one over there?”
“Like pork sausage, only dry.”
“Half pound of that one too, Lazlo. How about the long one coiled up in the corner like a python?”
“Like pork sausage, only drier.”
Next up, a Vietnamese bakery. Not for party goods, but for lunch. Nobody finicky here. Vietnamese subs, with paté and thinly sliced meats on a fresh baguette, the stack garnished with cilantro and assorted green crunchies, doused with hot sauce.
We go in search of hors d’oeuvres and strike paydirt at a tiny cheese shop on Sixth Avenue. The joint is run by two cheese geeks — odd, but not finicky. They wear shirts with “Fromage, s’il vous plait” stenciled on the chest. They love to give customers samples, so we spend 40 minutes in the joint chewing on 10 exotic cheeses. We purchase nice wedges of three, including a remarkable northern Italian pavia, made from cow’s milk. We snag a mix of olives highlighted by a great picholine, and top off our order with a tub of vinegary cornichons.
We are solid, and ready to put the squeeze on the Princess of Picky.
I fan the slices of meat on a platter and put each wedge of cheese on its own plate with a cheese knife parked nearby. My brother has infused a high-grade extra-virgin olive oil with herbs and we cube breads for dipping.
It’s the acid test, and Karen flunks soundly. She creeps up next to the hors d’oeuvres table, her little plate in hand.
“Well,” I say. “A gastronome like you will be knocked out by this spread. Can I serve you some of these meats?” Heh heh.
The blood drains from her face.
“Oh, I’ve already tried them. Mmmm, mmm.”
“Come on. With a sensibility as refined as yours, you gotta want a couple more pieces. I pick up a piece of the red sausage, (according to Lazlo it is like pork sausage, but drier), and dangle it in front of her mouth.
“I better not. I don’t want to ruin dinner.” She is beginning to sweat.
“Well, this goat cheese with truffle won’t ruin anything. I’m telling you, this is one of the best I’ve had in a long while. Let me put a bit on a piece of baguette for you.”
She is near panic. She knows her gig is up. She has one last card up her sleeve. She whirls and shouts: “Erica, what did I tell you. Don’t let that dog lick your face. Oh, geeez, these kids, what are you going to do with them? I’ll be right back for some of that cheese. Looks deeeeelish.”
It’s sad. Her daughter is upstairs, watching a movie with a cousin; there’s not a dog in sight.
“Don’t leave without cornichon.” Heh heh.
Get the picture?
Taunting a picky eater is a moral duty. If you know one, invite them over. Prepare foods you know they can’t force themselves to eat. Let them know you are on to them, then press them relentlessly. Watch them squirm. Blood sausage is always a fine place to start.
Fortunately, the noxious presence of a picky eater at the party is soundly negated by the gusto shown by other diners. My daughter, Aurora, alone, obliterates any ill effects as she plows through the Polish meat products like a thresher through a field of ripe wheat.
Karen makes a point to sit as far down the table from my brother and me as she can. She’s finished, revealed for all to see and to shame. We sit at the table in my brother’s back yard, staring at her during the meal, offering to pass her various foods throughout the affair, listening to excuses that grow weaker by the moment.
By the time we’re ready to serve the cake (she called from Maui and ordered her old, utterly bland favorite from Child’s Pastry) it’s getting dark. Our work is done. We toss back some port as Karen opens her cards and gifts. We can barely see to the other end of the table.
But we know she’s there. Finicky eaters never go away.
We hear the crunch, crunch, crunch somewhere out there, in the darkness.
Our work is never done.