Pickiest Eater Ever
Isn't it ironic.
When I graduated with a culinary degree, those who'd known me the longest were astounded. And definitely amused. As someone labeled the pickiest eater ever for most of my young life, it was surprising to me too. A fork in the road that I hadn't seen coming. I wanted to examine it and write about it.
I started years ago by sitting down with my mom to interview her about my childhood relationship with food.
"Well, this will be a short discussion. You didn't have one."
So she exaggerated, but not by much. We counted maybe five things I considered good enough to eat? Cereal, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, macaroni and cheese, pizza and…we couldn’t even make it to five. Stumped. Let’s count pizza twice. Pretty sure I ate enough of that to count it twice.
I had no interest in food nor learning how to cook. I didn't want to try anything new. I did have a little play kitchen, but I enjoyed that because I got to pretend, not because I wanted to make a meal. Making up stories and characters and settings was always my go to. Food and eating were just boring chores in an otherwise wondrous pretend world. All I wanted to do was pretend, read, sing into my Donny & Marie microphone, and watch my TV shows. My mom and dad had to drag me to the dining table to make me sit down and eat a little something.
It was the 1970’s. The era of fondue, gelatin salads, pre-made box mixes like Kraft Macaroni and Cheese and Hamburger Helper, and Swanson TV dinners. Grilling in the summertime. Slow cookers in the cold, never-ending Ohio winters.
My mom liked to collect recipes, try new dishes. One of the drawers in the kitchen held an array of recipe cards. It was pure Mom. The recipes were alphabetized, categorized, and typewritten. I loved sifting through the recipes, fingers slipping on the plastic sleeves that encased each card, admiring the sometimes handwritten ones with Mom’s perfect cursive. I learned the words canapé, tetrazzini, stroganoff, and fricassee.
In the 1970's, at family functions, there was always a relish tray with pickles, olives, peppers, beets, celery, salami, or ham. As a bashful only child in a turbulent family, I craved stillness and peace, not meals. If we were at a gathering with more than just immediate family, I shied away from the crowd. I’d stake out a corner where I could carefully wait for a lull at the buffet table. When no one was there, I’d scurry over and choose ten black olives, place one on each finger, return to my quiet place and snack away. When another lull occurred, I'd return to the relish tray and restock my fingertips. Mom’s response to those who commented on my never eating much, “Don’t worry. When she’s hungry, she’ll eat.”
Takeout wasn’t a usual thing at our house, so whenever it happened it was an event. Family legend has it that at age three I ate shrimp by the fistful. Mom said they would take me to Arthur Treacher’s Fish & Chips on Friday nights when there was a shrimp dinner special. I don't have any recollection of this. The next time I ate a shrimp, I was in my thirties.
My maternal grandparents owned vacation cottages on Lake Erie so the whole family worked there during tourist season, April-October. All that togetherness meant a lot of meals together. On rare occasions, they’d order buckets of KFC. I’d peel off that finger-licking breading and give the chicken leg or thigh to the closest grownup.
Ordering in was not the norm though since my Grandma fancied herself quite the cook. Grandma was proud of her kitchen skills, cooked with a beer in her hand, and enjoyed providing abundant meals. Unfortunately, no one in the family enjoyed eating them.
At every meal, she served enough to feed not just ours, but three other dysfunctional families. I once asked why she made so much and it turned into a history lesson about the Great Depression. “Kids who grew up during the Depression never had enough food to eat. They turned into adults who always wanted plenty of food on the table.”
At all those meals and family get togethers, the recurring theme was, "What is Kim going to eat?"
I did eat. Just in my own way.
When Mom made chicken paprikash, I ate the dumplings, but passed on the chicken. Mrs. T’s pierogies with kielbasa? I skipped the kielbasa and loaded up on pierogies topped with sautéed onion and sour cream. Shish kebabs on the grill? I ate the grilled vegetables and the Rice-a-Roni side dish.
If Mom stumbled onto something that I did eat, it was like she won the food lottery. She would stock up so that she always knew she had something I would deign to eat. Whenever I did like something out of the ordinary, my family was always astounded by what it was and scoffed. Lamb patties, Stouffer’s spinach soufflé? Seriously?
A typical school day started with a bowl of Cheerios, usually with berries or banana. I had to pack my own lunch and always the night before so that I didn't run late in the morning. My bagged lunch was the same for years, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, fruit, and a Capri-Sun. (A special perk: Mom froze the Capri-Sun's so that they'd stay nice and cold for me by lunchtime.) Dinner was always cooked by mom. Dad loved to eat, but he did not cook. I think the only time I’d see him in the kitchen was when he’d make a trip to our junk food drawer.
My teen years brought changes, as they do. Dad found out he had high blood pressure and needed to address that and lower his cholesterol. All of a sudden, words like whole wheat, olive oil, yogurt, and wait for it, salad were introduced into our food vocabulary. I’m pretty sure before this event happened, salad only meant lettuce in a bowl with tomatoes (but not for me, tomatoes, yuck), croutons, bacon bits from a jar, and was liberally doused with French Catalina dressing.
Next up, braces were slapped onto my teeth along with the joys of wax, rubber bands, and night guards. The question turned into, “What CAN Kim eat?” This ushered in the Jell-O and pudding era. As a teenager, I felt like that era would never end. More often than not, I’d have a smorgasbord of Jell-O to choose from after each monthly orthodontic appointment. “What will it be today? Orange or lime? Strawberry or black cherry?” Mom would say as she opened the fridge and played Vanna White. This was also about the time I started a committed relationship with Taco Bell bean burritos; they were inexpensive, required no chewing, and somewhat tasty when doused in mild sauce.
In eighth grade, it was time to choose my first electives, home economics or shop. Shop was out of the question. I had enough self awareness by then to realize gracefulness and coordination were not my strengths. I liked playing piano and enjoyed having all my fingers. I left home ec with the knowledge that the only thing domestic about me was that I lived in a house. Oh, and I left with a recipe for something called a Tuesday Pancake that turned into a family favorite. (Instructions: crack eggs into a blender and add flour, sugar, milk. Press the blend button. Pour into hot skillet with melted butter. Bake in the oven for twenty minutes.) Decades later, I discovered that I’d been making a Dutch Baby since age thirteen.
By high school, signature meals appeared. Dad worked nights at that time so Mom and I were on our own for dinner during the week. I always felt like Mom was freed from the responsibility of making family dinners Monday-Friday without Dad around. She didn’t have to provide a meat and potatoes dinner and she didn’t have to provide it at a specific and dedicated dinnertime. Mom and I ate whatever she felt like making and eating herself, whenever we wanted to eat. Some of our favorites were Campbell's tomato soup topped with croutons, grilled cheese and sweet pickles, Steak-Umm’s, Stouffer’s French bread pizzas, and breakfast for dinner.
My involvement in the kitchen at that time became setting and clearing the table and washing dishes. Still no cooking. Then, I cut open my hand while washing a glass and got stitches for the first time. This mishap easily became another excuse to excuse myself from the kitchen.
When I went off to college, the dining hall offerings did nothing to improve my food experience. Mystery meat, bland sauces, overcooked vegetables. I ate what I could find and got out of there. This was when I officially declared myself a vegetarian. I lived off of the salad bar. I discovered hummus. Whatever I found to eat in the dining hall was supplemented by pilgrimages to the uptown Taco Bell and pizza deliveries.
After interviewing Mom, writing about all these memories, I can see why I was picky. My family had no remarkable culinary legacy. Grandma’s Croatian roots gave us pots of goulash and stuffed cabbage, heavy, dark stews that filled copious amounts of Tupperware for us to take home. And not eat. Mom kept a strict budget at home, so only so much money was spent each week at the grocery store. We didn’t eat out much because of our tight budget. The years of braces interrupted any phase of becoming interested in food. The physical act of eating itself was difficult.
Food didn’t excite me because everything was packaged or boxed or canned. Potatoes came from boxes, flaked or scalloped. Biscuits, muffins and rolls came from Pillsbury tubes. Soggy green beans and slimy mushrooms came to the plate from cans.
Not until road trips in college did my tiny food world begin to expand. Spring breaks spent in Tennessee taught me about grits and biscuits with honey. Visiting my college roommate in Cincinnati on summer breaks introduced me to Skyline Chili and Montgomery Inn. (I said no thanks to the chili, but was still hungry for the knowledge of regional food.) My college internship on Long Island gifted me the experience of ordering pizza by the slice and different types of pizza at that. White pizza. Veggie pizza with roasted red onions, broccoli, and breaded eggplant pieces. Yes, that made a big impression with me.
Looking at food as another opportunity to learn things fed my ongoing desire to always be a student. Finally saying yes, when people said, here try this.
Little did I know that this unremarkable background and these first outings into the world were the start of a path of bread crumbs that led me to a passion for food and cooking.
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Thanks again for reading! I care about you. Please don’t forget to eat your greens.
***Written to Snow Patrol’s Take Back the City on repeat.