“Food is to be feared” is the mantra I absorbed as a child. Though my mom never said those exact words aloud, nearly every meal we consumed screamed “Caution!” or “Are you really sure about that?”
Salad dressing of all kinds – forget the varieties in which it came — was disgusting and never to touch a leaf of my lettuce. And that salad? Don’t even think of mixing anything more wild and flavorful than Iceberg in there. Sandwiches, hamburgers, and pasta ordered in restaurants were all carefully inspected, layers separated and noodles pulled back and apart, before even a single bite could be taken. I’m not sure a tangy drop of mustard even crossed my lips until I was in college.
My mom has particular tastes – aversions really – and as a kid who didn’t know any better, I followed my mom’s lead. I figured she’d been around the food block and knew how to sort the good from the bad. No mayo, mustard, or dressing of any kind. No basil, parsley, or any other visible herb or spice. Forget about olive oil. Her dislike of beans and rice meant no ethnic food save for the occasional visit to the most American of Chinese restaurants (a real tragedy growing up in Seattle) where she ordered cashew chicken for us both. I mimicked her careful sorting of the chicken pieces and cashews from the dish, leaving islands of onions (terrible, ruin everything), peppers (too spicy), and other wan vegetables in an oily clear ocean of sauce. Our mounded bowl of white rice grew cold with our neglect and disdain.
In high school, a revolution occurred: I began eating dinner at friends’ houses. Worried about the food potentially served but also too shy to make a scene, I ate my first tentative bites of Caesar salad. I didn’t die. Not only did I not die, I actually liked it. Glistening Romaine lettuce, damp with dressing was actually good, delicious even. Soon, I had pesto, sweet potatoes, and carrots dressed with a white sauce that my friend’s mom called “company carrots.”
Over the next few years, I began trying all kinds of foods I’d always thought must be avoided at all costs. And I loved nearly all of them. For the first time, eating out wasn’t fraught with peril and caution. Dish dissections occurred only to add more mustard or to straighten a tomato threatening to slither out from between my bread slices.
By the time I graduated from college and moved 2,000 miles away from home, I finally understood those photos I’d seen in magazines of people, families, laughing and smiling as they passed mysterious steaming bowls around a table. I could see myself in those photos now, and I wanted to know what was in those bowls not to request that something be removed but to savor each bite. It was corny but the power of food to bring people together in shared enjoyment – rather than suspicion – at last made sense.