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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The Reformation of a Seriously Picky Eater

The Face of a Picky Eater - aka My Husband
I try not to out people when I blog. It isn't fair. Everyone deserves their secrets. But when learning comes from sharing those secrets, I think it's worth the momentary humiliation. Sorry honey - I owe you a back rub for this one.

I met my very picky husband when I was sixteen years old in Las Colinas, Texas. He was older, working at Firestone, and subsided on a diet of mostly canned or prepackaged cheese products, tortillas, beans, eggs and chips.

On our fourth date, at the apartment he shared with his sister, he decided to surprise me with dinner. He bought a Boboli pizza shell, slathered Velveeta on it, and burned it in the oven. Even at sixteen I knew that was pretty crappy.

I did the nurturing thing many of us girls do in new relationships, and made efforts to cook for my new boyfriend. Once I brought him a flour tortilla fried in butter and stuffed with American cheese, bacon and pickled jalapenos. When I brought it to him, piping hot and wrapped in tin foil, I told him what it was. He stammered for a few seconds before telling me he didn't like bacon, or any pork for that matter. That was the first of what would be an endless list of things my boyfriend and then husband refused to eat.

The menu of no-no's included spaghetti because it looked like worms, peas because they looked like bird poop, shrimp because they felt like eating a human finger, mushrooms because they felt like slugs, any ethnic food outside of his mother's village-style central Mexican cuisine (which although tasty, is also quite bland and lacking typical items like lamb, goat, fish, offal, etc.) all seafood except canned tuna, and anything with or looking like milk, aside from ice cream.

Once we married and had a child, he had no choice but to eat whatever I made, or risk starvation. Since we were poor in the beginning, he didn't have the option of getting fast food. Quickly I learned that a very picky eater can change into a very good eater, and even a little bit of an adventurous eater with the right techniques.

First - regardless of what they hate, if you cook it well it has a better chance of being eaten. Spaghetti was one of my first victories in the war against my husband's gag-reflex. I learned to perfectly boil the noodles to al dente, and toss them in a fresh sauce drizzled with extra virgin olive oil and topped with shaved fresh pecorino romano. A minced basil leaf added enough pretty green color to make the dish not only smell incredible, but look like it came out of a magazine. What my husband and I both realized was that the spaghetti he had been exposed to as a child was a pot of broken noodles cooked until mushy and drowned in a bland tomato sauce, and it kind of looked like barf. No wonder he didn't like spaghetti for so many years.

Second - make it look great on the plate. As mentioned above, the little touches like a freshly minced basil leaf, shavings of fresh hard cheese and glistening beads of good quality olive oil stimulate the brain and the stomach and override even the strongest sense of rebellion. It's easy to turn away a plate that looks nasty. Spend a few extra minutes on the details, and watch how quickly the plate gets licked clean.

Third - when #1 and #2 aren't enough, chop up the hated ingredient small enough so that it can't be seen. Mushrooms are a great example. But please, don't use canned mushrooms. Please. Anyone would think they were slugs too if that was the only forest fungi they'd been exposed to. Fresh mushrooms, regardless of the type - from button to portabella to shitake, need to be cooked in such a way that the rich, almost meaty flavor blocks out the sensation of soft and a little blubbery. I can't tell you how many friends I've seen cook their mushrooms to a sluggish slop and ask me what they are doing wrong. My answer is always the same. Stop f#@!^% with them.

Add some fat to the pan (butter or olive oil is best) turn up the heat to medium high, sprinkle the mushrooms with salt and cracked pepper, place them in the fat and don't touch them. Stop it! I said don't touch them. You need to let the heat and the pan work their magic on those little nobs of goodness. Trust me. Right when you think you need to stir them, count to 60. Then stir them once. They should be all dark golden and steakish on the cooked side. Repeat the same step again and then turn off the heat. If you've never had a caramelized mushroom, you will be shocked at how much flavor they actually have when cooked right. Now that recipe above goes more with #1, but - once you've cooked them well, and you know the beautiful recipe you want to add the mushrooms to, chop them up nice and small. Use them and maybe just maybe, don't tell your picky eater they are in there. They'll never know. It's not lying if they don't ask.

Finally, my very last step in training a picky eater to eat well, involves guilt. I would like to thank my Jewish ancestors for instilling in me a healthy sense of guilt that I can share with my family on occasions where they refuse to do my bidding. When steps #1, #2 and #3 have failed, I have been known to pull out my magic guilt-saber and slice through resistance like butter. Only better. But I caution my readers to only use this step sparingly, and only when you know the dish on the plate is so damn good that your little guilt-trip wont leave any lasting scars.

The result? A person who can stare in the face of any cuisine and salivate. A healthy wide-reaching eater who will appreciate the finer tastes in life. For my husband specifically, we were able to overcome almost all of his food phobias, except the milk --which is fine since it turns out he has lactose intolerance and I've smelled, I mean felt, the reprecussions of his dairy intake.

The biggest shock was the day he decided to try raw oysters with me. He sucked them back like a trooper, and now we have frequent oyster and beer dates that we both look forward to. My husband went from a guy who kept his arms crossed and his nose up when presented with new, strange foods, to someone that is excited to try the next exotic thing I find.

The effort has been so worth it. Thanks honey.

A happy eating man indeed!

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