by Michael Snyder; pictures: Ana Lorenzana
Aside from my father, who only started cooking in his late 30s, the Jewish half of my family isn’t particularly accomplished in the culinary arts. This meant that our frequent family gatherings usually revolved around those big, black plastic deli trays, the size and shape of wills, piled with lox and whitefish salad and cold cuts and garnished with kale before kale was a thing people ate.
For years I claimed (ridiculously) absurdly, not to like sandwiches, principally on the basis of the ones I’d tried off those deli trays, and yet it was one those sandwiches that, in retrospect, might well have been the single most important thing I ate in my entire early childhood. I was maybe five or six years old and the family had gotten together for a birthday or one of the many obscurely depressing holidays that populate the Jewish calendar. At some point in the afternoon, my brother (nine or ten at the time: an ideal age for intra-generational torture) handed me two slices of damp rye bread smeared with yellow mustard and stacked with long red slices of meat – corned beef, he told me, my favorite.
As I chewed happily, he flashed a sly smile, a mean little leprauchan’s grin, and informed me that the meat wasn’t corned beef at all. It was cow tongue. I duly gagged at the surprise, as though compliance with his little joke were somehow contractually obligated in the terms of our fraternal bonds, but I don’t remember anything like real disgust registering in the moment. He ran off cackling. I swallowed the tongue and took another bite. I’d liked it as corned beef, after all. What difference did it make what part of the animal it came from? Since then, I can honestly say that I’ve never found something disgusting based purely on the basis of what it came from.
Memory being what it is, I’ve probably imbued that sandwich with way more significance than it really had at the moment. I was five years old and bored and playing my part in the performance of low-level sibling rivalry at a boring family event. It’s helpfully literary to identify a single experience as the central one in forming my attitudes toward eating, which, in turn, have become my attitudes toward and experience more generally: every experience is worth having at least once. But really that attitude probably formed more gradually, handed down over many years from my parents.
When it came to food, our house had one rule with two important sub-clauses: you cannot say you don’t like something until you’ve tried it, you have to try everything at least three times before declaring it unpalatable, and those tastes have to be spread out over a period of time TBD by the heads of the household, i.e. Mom and Dad.
The unwritten corollary to this rule was that each of us had an unimpeachable right to dislike a couple of things without question (again, once we’d tried them), but not more than that. My brother refused to eat fat, a premonition of the gym rat he would become, and would surgically remove any trace of it from steak and pork (at restaurants he ordered lean cuts, which must have been a relief to my parents). At some point I decided that I really hated wild rice, plus also that idiotic sandwich thing. My sister, being the youngest, got more leeway from parents, which she made up for by tolerating all sorts of scorn from me and my brother when she decided not to like shrimp and, for a truly baffling stretch of months, pancakes.
On the whole, though, these passing antipathies toward particular dishes were treated as childish quirks, indulged with a mocking roll of the eyes. In our household, to describe someone as a picky eater was the worst insult imaginable. To dislike a particular food sight unseen was more than just a lapse in imagination: it was, at least in my eyes, a moral failing.
I doubt this is what my parents intended – despite our combination of Jewish and Catholic roots, shame and guilt really aren’t their preferred parenting techniques – but the notion stuck. When I use my brain, I can accept and even understand the fact that certain people just don’t like certain things. When people tell me they won’t eat liver because it’s liver or that they won’t eat a head-on fish because it has eyes, my instinct is irritation followed by mistrust, probably similar to the feeling ultra-religious people experience when they encounter an atheist.
The irony of all this is that my parents were not especially adventurous eaters until we forced them to be. Like most practically perfect parents (which mine really are), they had their own small hypocrisies. I found out later in life that the reason we didn’t eat Brussels sprouts and beets as kids was because my mother didn’t like them, though she has since seen repented of those errors. My father, for his part, still makes me crazy by claiming that all wine “tastes like vinegar.” When my parents visited me in India a few years ago, my dad claimed that everything we ate had tasted the same to him. I was speechless with the special kind of furious contempt you can only feel toward the people you love.
It’s worth keeping in mind that the 90s and early 2000s, when I was kid, were a time of pretty seismic change in the way Americans perceived and consumed food. My parents are both first-generation subscribers to Bon Appetit. They loved America’s Test Kitchen and were the exact target demographic in the Food Network’s early boom days. They had visceral reactions to Ina Garten (affection for my Mom, something closer to worship for my Dad) and Paula Deen (total repulsion for both).
Food at the time was also, for the most part, resoundingly white. This was pre-Bourdain, pre-Chang, pre-Jonathan-Gold-as-National-Messiah, a time when “Californian” was considered an actual cuisine. Other recognized cuisines included Italian, French, Japanese (but only sushi and teriyaki), and Chinese (but only of the strip mall variety). Avocado and jicama counted as exotic. Tapas were a novelty.
Mom and Dad were early adopters on all of these, but flavors that I now consider central to my day-to-life were, in retrospect, conspicuously absent from the dinner table where my parents served home-cooked meals just about every night. When my brother turned 16, for instance, my parents poured him a shot of fish sauce from a bottle they’d bought for a vaguely Thai fish dish they’d made months earlier and dared him to drink it if he wanted a car (they burst out laughing when he put the glass to his lips and told him the car was already parked out front.) Point is they’d had that bottle of fish sauce for months and the only use they could dream up for it was as a very creative torture device for an insufferable teenage boy.
The food world has changed since then, and not entirely for the better. The combination of the Food Network and Bravo and, worst of all, Instagram has turned dining into a predominantly visual medium, which has yielded quite a lot of very pretty, very dull cooking. Wellness culture has gifted us a whole new variety of culinary Puritanism that views food as a vector for nutrition rather than pleasure, like hard-line Catholics who still see sex only as a mechanism for reproduction. The twin totems of local and organic cooking have, ironically, yielded an increasingly homogenous global culinary landscape as cooks everywhere reproduce the same dishes with the same techniques using their local variants on onions and mushrooms and ferns.
But there have been other, better changes, too. Notions of the ethnic or exotic in food have finally been recognized as othering and pretty much racist, which is a step, albeit a small one, toward eliminating the idea of “ethnic” cuisines entirely. People view Mexican and Thai and Chinese cooking with the reverence they deserve; sometimes and in some places they’re even willing to pay the same for those cuisines as they will for French or New American cooking. It’s true that most Americans still understand every world cuisine through a single iconic dish (tacos! tikka masala! ramen!), but it’s better than nothing.
Most importantly, people in general seem to be learning the lesson that my parents taught me from a very young age, a lesson that my siblings and I have brought home to them with a vengeance: that you will always be better off for having tried something, for taking a chance on another culture. It’s a lesson America needs.