Confessions of a Picky Eater

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I have a split food personality. I love poring over cookbooks and have three cooking magazine subscriptions, but I just started eating tomatoes last year. The sight of a perfectly cooked scallop on Top Chef makes me drool, but I've only voluntarily eaten shellfish once and am not above inventing a shellfish allergy at dinner parties. If the world is divided into those who eat to live and those who live to eat, I am firmly in the latter camp—provided that what I'm eating doesn't have a beet anywhere near it.

The sad truth is that I am a foodie and a picky eater. Which is kind of like being a travel buff who is afraid to fly.

The world of adult picky eaters is not well understood, in part because so many of us use coping mechanisms to hide our limited tastes and are ashamed to admit our complicated food preferences. Everyone knows children who eat only foods of a certain color or insist on diets of pasta and butter. Even Michael Voltaggio, the most recent winner of Top Chef, says that as a child he was an incredibly picky eater who refused to touch broccoli. He grew up to become a chef who thinks nothing of serving banana polenta. But what about the adults who never acquire a broader palate?

A few years ago, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania conducted a study on food preferences and found that nearly 20 percent of their respondents limited their normal diets to just 10 or fewer foods. Even allowing for those who suffer from food allergies and other taste disorders, that's a lot of finicky eaters. How do you know if you're one of them?

You might be a picky eater if you often find yourself the last to order at a nice restaurant—not because you can't choose among all of the delectable options but because you're looking for just one entrée that doesn't involve turnips or bleu cheese or mayonnaise lurking under its trendier moniker aioli.

You might be a picky eater if you've ever feigned a food allergy to get out of eating something. (This is where I should apologize to several very accommodating dinner hosts. I am not, so far as I am aware, allergic to shellfish. I just find the idea of them gross, and that's not socially acceptable for a thirty-something woman to admit.)

You might be a picky eater if you consider a meal at an ethnic restaurant less an opportunity for culinary experimentation than a social ordeal to be endured. You probably also have not mastered chopsticks.

You might be a picky eater if you loathe cocktail parties, with their hard-to-identify circulated appetizers, and if you decline every hors d'oeuvre rather than risk biting into a puff pastry shell to find a mushroom lying in wait.

Some of you are nodding in recognition. Most of you—the true epicurean readership of a food site, after all—are horrified and wondering what the hell is wrong with me.

I can't say I blame you. For most of my adult life, I have labored to broaden my palate in order to become a full-fledged foodie. Each year I try to acquire a taste for foods I previously considered inedible—black beans one year, avocado the next. Considering that I ate virtually no vegetables and had never tried any seafood other than fish sticks before I moved to Washington, D.C., from the Midwest after college, I'm proud of my steadily expanding tastes. And I'm constantly discovering new recipes in the cooking magazines I've been lugging from house to house for 15 years. The steamed black cod I flipped past last year might turn out to be a dish I soon eat.

But the pace is still ridiculously slow. And now I have an added motivation to accelerate the process. Pregnant with our first child, I am more than a little worried about creating a mini-me whose tastes run towards applesauce and cinnamon toast. I want this kid to have a fighting chance of liking shrimp, of eating cherry tomatoes from the garden, and understanding that it is never okay to eat fish with ketchup.

So I am launching a project to force myself through the remaining foods on my do-not-eat list. For a food like cauliflower, it might be a matter of finding the right preparation. For others, like pears, I'd like to seek out the freshest products and try a number of varieties. For shellfish, I may have to start out with the meat sans shell and conquer my fear in stages. And I'm prepared for the possibility that I may never like mushrooms, no matter how many times my mother-in-law prepares her famous mushroom soup.

It also means understanding why people have different food preferences and how to overcome them. Does a mother's diet during pregnancy impact a child's tolerance for salty foods? What role does smell play in our sense of taste? Why does half the population like cilantro when it tastes like soap to the rest of us?

In the process, maybe I can inspire some of my fellow picky eaters to venture outside their chicken breast and potato safety zones. And maybe even foster some understanding from those of you who have never had to ask "Um ... what's in this?" before taking a bite.

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Amy Sullivan is a correspondent for National Journal and the director of the Next Economy Project. More

Amy Sullivan is a writer and former senior editor at TIME Magazine who covers politics, religion and culture. She previously served as the magazine's nation editor and as editor of The Washington Monthly. Her first book, The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap, was published by Scribner in 2008. She was a 2009 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science & Religion.

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