Sunday 1 June 2014

Fussy eaters... and how I got over myself.

You cannot extricate your personal history from your relationship with food. Our individual narratives must include our sustenance. Our loves and loathings help define us. In all kinds of ways, we are what we eat... and what we don't.

This is undoubtedly the first image of me with food. This is December 28th 1968. I am two. I think that's my mother behind me; it could be my aunt Ali or my grandmother Mattie. I remember precisely nothing about this of course. Someone has made an effort. I imagine my mother made the train cake and my nan did the trifle. Are they sponge fingers (still very popular with me) or are they cheese straws? There's a huge bowl of sugar by my hand but there's no fruit or veg, naturally. No crudités and hummus. Quite like the red romper suit. 
Beyond a certain dislike of bitter flavours, we are not born with a sense of disgust. We learn it. We learn it well. It sinks deep. Think of your disgust reaction; that face we all pull: mouth open, tongue extended. That comes from bad taste: get this out of my mouth! So too does the hand over mouth when we witness some horror or experience revulsion. Don't want that inside.
I was a fussy eater as a child. Until my early twenties the list of foods I wouldn't accept was as long and tedious as it was depressing: mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes, onions, lamb, mayonnaise, spinach, aubergines, courgettes, runner beans, olives, cabbage, sprouts (broccoli too but it didn't exist in the 70s), fat of almost any form (even butter!), anything that mixed sweet with savoury. And on and on. Worse, I had a suspicion of food. Much like my mother, I feared the next mouthful was certain to be disgusting. Not just face wincingly bad but gut retching, scrambling to the sink; a culinary cataclysm. I'm pretty sure I lived on fish finger sandwiches between the ages of sixteen to eighteen. And dried Vesta curries thereafter.

Me eating, aged 7. I'm on the right with my younger brother and sister.

Yes, that's another story. 

My parents didn't help much. My mother's diet was very limited. Yes, working class but more so. She was suspicious of anything green and edible, especially if they were aromatic, like herbs. I never once saw her eat a salad, or even lettuce. I once offered her some mange tout in a restaurant. "You know I don't like that type of thing." She rebuked. Food had to be safe. And no, I don't mean hygienic. It should present no 'challenge'. She specialised in mince, with little added. Egg and chips was often a meal. As was a family speciality: cheese on a plate. Slice of mild Co-op cheddar on a plate, grilled. Nothing added, nothing taken away. But you can't take anything away from cheese on a plate. Unless you fancy eating... plate. Sometimes I did. 

My Dad was very different: an awesome omnivore. He was some 28 stone when I was in my teens. Dad would eat onions like apples. Seriously. He would slather white bread with soft beef fat, while my mother looked on in horror. He did however cook some unusual foods. Chinese pork was a favourite. Pork shoulder with sherry, soy sauce and I think rice wine vinegar. It was tasty but because my father ate everything he had no problem with fatty meat, or with gristle, or bacon rind. I did. I wish I could be that man, I suppose, with that pleasure in the viscera; a catholic passion. So much better than my mother's antiseptic abstinence.

So when I left home at 19 I had no palate to speak of. I was carb happy, fat free; a fan of processed food and a sugar freak.

Hong Kong changed that. And Belinda changed that.

The only picture I could find of me in Hong Kong. This is boarding a cruise ship that was owned by HSBC who were sponsoring the Far Eastern leg of the RSC tour. I was about to participate, to my eventual huge embarrassment, in some impromptu water skiing. Jeans were really blue in the 80s weren't they? 

Belinda and me cooking Thai food in the Crest
In those days we were so poor we couldn't even afford haircuts
Note the wok and the coffee grinder we used to blend spice mixes. 

I used to be a sound engineer in the theatre. At 22, It was my great fortune to land a world tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. The play was Christopher Hampton's Les Liaisons Dangereuses Half way through the tour, the winter of 1989, we played two weeks in Hong Kong. Someone took me to a Thai Restaurant; mundane now but then Thai cuisine was almost unknown in the UK. I knew none of the dishes on the menu; most anyway being in transliterated Thai. I know I had chicken with crispy holy basil and then Tom Yum Gai, hot and sour chicken soup with pea aubergines, galangal and chillies. It was a damascene moment. All these flavours were new and utterly delicious. And the aroma! I'd never had kaffir lime, lemon grass or nam pla (it was years until I learned to call it 'fish sauce'). While in HK I ate Thai food as often as I could.

On my return to the UK, I enthused to my new girlfriend (Belinda - we married three years later) about this new cuisine. I wanted her to try it; I wanted to cook it for her. But we couldn't afford the only Thai Restaurant in London and we could find neither cookbook nor ingredients. No internet then of course. Eventually I rang the Thai Restaurant and asked them where they bought theirs. So, Belinda and I took public transport across London from Palmers Green to a wholesaler in Shepherd's Bush. Yeah, they were fun journeys.

A staple of Thai cooking but offensive to some.
Because, of course, being a wholesaler we had to buy whole: whole bushes of lime leaves, bundles of lemon grass and a sack of jasmine rice. Having spent a month's food budget in one day we had no option but to cook and eat Thai food... for week after week, month after month. We were keen to have friends around and they were keen to come, eating off laps, cross legged in our little upstairs flat in the Crest, Palmers Green. It was fun to watch their food horizons broaden. It was nice to have a niche too. No one else was cooking like this.

Then we started watching the original Masterchef, with Loyd Grossman and his stretched-to-destruction vowel sounds. That was it really, the Thai gave way to French and then to modern European. I'd kinda had enough of coconut milk anyway. Friends still came round to dinner but over time we managed to buy a table. No more straining of the cruciates.

One Masterchef recipe called for wild rabbit which one of the three butchers in Palmers Green supplied (there are none now). However, the animals came with fur and heads - two steps too far for me. I returned after an hour to claim the carcasses, now decapitated and skinned. Not gutted though, as I discovered. Too late to return to the shop, I ended up literally filling my kitchen sink with rabbit gore. Arms bloodied to my elbows as I tried very hard not to ruin the rabbit rack by plucking out the kidneys too hard.

During my 20s, all my food phobias were challenged. The very process of cooking meant I was forced to meet (eat) my demons. I discovered how onions were the essence of savoury, that tomatoes gave flavour and acidity, that mushrooms were delicious when not slimy, and especially with parmesan and parsley. But in truth - I still struggle with brassicas.

Yes I still have foods to overcome. Olives are a problem. It's only in the last few years, months even, that I've managed to embrace cauliflower, lamb, courgette, aubergine and whiskey. You have to keep trying.

I categorise the food phobics into five categories: 
  • Innate 
  • Medical 
  • Religious proscription 
  • Childhood trauma 
  • Squeamishness 
Of these, the last is the most annoying. We are getting more squeamish. Once we'd chow down on offal: tripe, kidneys, liver, trotters, heels, brains, melts, lights, heart and sweetbreads. I suppose because with supermarkets and modern packaging we've lost a real relationship with food origins. There's revulsion at the visceral revelation. The innards have been removed from the windows; the blooded sawdust swept out of memory.
Mind, I know people who won't eat berries off a bush (germs!) but are happy to kiss their dog. Yeah, and you know what dogs like to lick? Not berries.
I'll pass, thanks.
There's not much argument with numbers two or three. Although I'm sure some add weight to their aversions by aggrandising a dislike to an allergy. 'I don't really do dairy' they say, through ice cream lips. I used to be that way with milk. I am of the generation, pre Thatcher (...Thatcher, milk snatcher) that was given a bottle of free milk during the first break time. I loathed it. Having no fridge large enough and having no inclination anyway, the milk bottles were left to stew in the sun, or in winter, some kindly soul would usually kick the crate close to a huge, cast iron radiator. Consumption was compulsory. It was like liquid cheese. Ghastly.
The first category, innate, are very rare. There are some people, super tasters they're called, who are born with more tastebuds than the rest of us and are very sensitive to bitter flavours. They find beer, coffee and even dark chocolate hard to stomach.
Others are born with very particular sensitivities. You can, for instance, inherit the OR6A2 or 'coriander-hating' olfactory gene. But it is possible to train yourself out of these.
The vast majority of aversions are borne of childhood trauma - like my lukewarm milkmare. Fish bones in throats, sickness following meals, badly butchered meat; all are culpable. Childhood habits are horribly hard to break. Even now (milk again) I shake a bottle out of the fridge. Of course it's been homogenised for decades. I don't drink the last swig of tea in a mug. One mouthful of tealeaves when I was five or six was enough.
School dinners put me off many things. I can still remember a nasty nursery dinner lady who insisted I finish my cabbage. I was refusing on account of the large piece of brown stem therein. She insisted. I complied. And threw up on the spot.
School meat too held no end of horror for me. It was the gristle: those pieces of jellied sinew and gobbets of connective gubbins that the made your jaws judder off in opposite directions and took my legs to the toilet. School beef was full of it. Oh God, and greasy Bisto gravy. And mash with grey bits. What the hell was that?
Yes? Many would until they hear the name.
This is head cheese. Brains.
Since I've been cooking for the restaurant I've been shocked at how picky people are. Fish is the one proscription that saddens me. No fish shuts down a huge larder of options. I understand though; eating bad fish must be a memorable experience. Pea hatred I really don't get. How can anyone actively dislike the loverly little legumes? Eggs, tomatoes, anchovies, offal, sausages, broad beans, beetroot, goats cheese, blue cheese. All have been denied by my diners.
Sometimes I chat afterwards to people and invariably there's some infant incident behind it all. Friend of mine loathed fish - it began at his Catholic upbringing: Friday fish. Being forced, very unfraternally, by the 'brothers' to ingest badly cooked and doubtless not-so-fresh. Not knowing any of this I'd served him smoked haddock (in a splendid mustard and cheese sauce). Within a few mouthfuls he was a convert.
Our taste changes with age anyway. As children we are much more sensitive to (potentially fatal) bitter and almond flavours. This lessens with age. I remember taking a furtive sip of my dad's pint of Brain's bitter (a Cardiff brewery) and being appalled. How could anyone do that for pleasure. I have no such issues anymore. Sadly. 
When I started writing this I had no idea it would become such a personal reveal. And despite my journey of inclusion, I still don't think I have a healthy relationship with food. I have far too sweet a tooth for a start. I'd love to be one of those true omnivores who can pull almost anything from the fridge and tuck in; pull bits off a carcass or the bottom of a roasting tin. Or pull together a 'supper' (I have an atavistic hatred of that word) of artichokes, pilchards, bitter leaves and some other back-of-the-shelf bollox. I still can't. A way to go yet. I have to keep reminding myself to get creative with veg. It's too easy to have family favourites and ignore the new. Keep trying, keep tasting.
Doing some research for this I stumbled upon a food so revolting that I don't even want to describe it. I wish I could unGoogle it. Far worse than anything fishy from Northern Europe that invariably involves putrefaction and urine. If you're brave, look up 'Balut', a delicacy in the Philippines. Not for me thanks.

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