How I went from the pickiest eater of all time to food connoisseur

some dishes from one of my absolute favorite restaurants, Swallow in Huntington, NY

Okay, so connoisseur is a mild exaggeration, although I feel comfortable calling myself a pizza connoisseur, or pizzaficionado, as I like to say. If nothing else, a connoisseur of frozen pizzas, since, growing up with a single mom with two jobs and being the Pickiest Eater of All Time until around age 20, I’ve had my fair share of frozen pizzas.

Growing up, going to restaurants gave me intense, unshakeable anxiety. I knew there probably wouldn’t be anything on the menu I could eat. The list of things I “could” eat was very short: chicken fingers (but only certain kinds), hot dogs (but only certain kinds), mozzarella sticks (only certain kinds), and pizza (most kinds, but only plain cheese, no toppings. I didn’t try pepperoni pizza until I started working in a pizzeria in college).

my favorite dish I have ever eaten -- grilled octopus on a black risotto of cuttlefish and its ink
my favorite dish I have ever eaten to date — grilled octopus on a black risotto of cuttlefish and its ink

I ordered off the kids menu far beyond the appropriate age because the dumbed down, picky-eater-friendly cuisine was the only thing on the menu I wasn’t terrified of. On Thanksgiving, I had to be served a completely different meal than everyone else (usually pizza), because I didn’t eat turkey, I didn’t eat stuffing, I didn’t eat that yucky cranberry stuff, and definitely not mashed potatoes (I actually still don’t like mashed potatoes, one of the few things I may never like).

Last night, for dinner, I had frog legs, seared sea scallops, pork belly, onion soup gratinée, and grilled lobster tail over black squid ink risotto with little baby squids in it at an amazing French restaurant. I tried frog legs for the first time with no panicked fears about having to spit it into a napkin so my parents wouldn’t see. I now have the capacity to appreciate flavors and enjoy cuisines from all over the world falling far outside the realm of my anterior brand of “Extremely-Picky-Eater-American-Kids’-Menu” foods.

How could I have wasted so much of my life thinking, “I just don’t like food; I’m never going to like food”, not experiencing everything that this earth has to offer in terms of culinary experiences? How is it that I never tasted octopus, now one of my absolute favorite things to eat, until the past year? Why was I too scared to try calamari, mussels, scallops, prosciutto, jalapenos, lamb, risotto? Even normal, totally tame and non-foodie-friendly things like pasta with anything other than just parmesan cheese. I was even afraid of a simple tomato sauce — you could not impress upon me the logic that sauce was the same stuff on my beloved pizza. How on earth did I consider having anything other than plain, naked cheese pizza a daring risk too daunting to be worth taking?

scallops at Bin 56 in Huntington, NY

I feel regret for the time wasted, but grateful for the added appreciation it’s given me. At 21-years-old, I’ve had so many new food experiences in the last year or two, and it has been the best and happiest and most incredible time in my life. It’s been a food awakening of sorts; my pickiness was so extreme that it’s been like discovering a whole new layer of reality and a point to human existence that I never even realized was there. I’m not proud of that, not proud of how pathetically close-minded, unadventurous, and downright stubborn I was about food, but I relish the joy I get now, sitting in a restaurant and drinking in the atmosphere, perusing menus online just for fun, looking up recipes and cooking with my boyfriend, when just the word “dinner time” used to bring me to a state of sheer, blind panic, up until I moved out for college.

As is the case with so many things, when I go back to the root of these negative feelings, it makes more sense. I don’t have any pleasant, family dinnertime memories. My earliest food memory is also one of my worst memories. When my parents split up, it came as a complete surprise to my dad when he woke up after passing out wasted in a hotel room on our annual family beach trip to find us packed and gone. Earlier that day, we had had to leave my favorite restaurant as a kid, Fish Tales in Ocean City, MD, because my dad, drunk again, had caused a scene, screamed at me for complaining about wanting my smiley face fries. “Here are your fucking happy face fries,” I remembering hearing. When I got them, I didn’t want them anymore. Those happy fries seemed to be mocking me with their smiles.
After that, Daddy didn’t live with us anymore. I went to Daddy’s (well, really, my grandma’s house) every other weekend and our Friday night meal was always the same: a frozen pizza.

chile relleno at Elaine’s in Chapel Hill, NC

My mom married a man who I never liked from the beginning and it only got worse. He had no patience or tolerance for my pickiness, and every family dinner revolved around me getting screamed at or shamed in some way, or made to sit at the table long after everyone else was excused. I was screamed at for how I held my fork. I was screamed at for putting too much salt on my steak. I was screamed at for cutting my food into too small of pieces for his liking. I didn’t want to be yelled at to try new things, didn’t want to be yelled at for not liking the new things I did try, didn’t want to be yelled at for anything, really, because I was the most sensitive and picky child on the face of the earth, but in all other aspects, was a good kid. I just don’t like food, I don’t think I ever will. To me, “dinner time” became associated with stress, panic, and intense fear. I was just a little girl, and here was this grown man who couldn’t help but search for any tiny thing I had done wrong, be it something as ridiculous as the size of the pieces I cut my food into.

We had to stop eating family dinner together because we knew my stepdad was going to explode into a fit of screaming rage and someone, whether it was me or my mom or one ofmy siblings, was going to end up crying. So we didn’t bother. We couldn’t eat together anymore. My mom gave up and let me eat what I wanted to, which normally consisted of frozen foods, since she was exhausted from working two jobs, anyway. We didn’t eat a meal together as a family for years.

sesame crusted tuna, Bin 56 in Huntington, NY (my favorite restaurant)

Things didn’t immediately change when I left home for college. I now had the freedom to choose all my own meals, and meal points to do what I pleased with. Finally, no one could stop me from eating pizza or chicken fingers (or both) every day. In fact, pizza and chicken fingers were about ten steps away from my freshman dorm, so I could have them whenever I wanted, with just a swipe of my student ID. I spent most of my meal points on snacks and soda instead of meals. I became known as the Pizza Queen, a title which I wholly embraced. I was proud of how much pizza I ate, because I knew it was unprecedented for a human being (there have been weeks in my life where I ate pizza every single day), and it became my schtick.  The first thing I said when introducing myself at sorority rush was something like “I’m Erin and I like pizza”, and my sorority nickname later became “Little Margherita”. “Like the pizza, not like the drink,” I’d explain to new members.

At some point, it dawned on me how hard it was for me to go out to eat with friends or with boys because I didn’t like anything, and literally didn’t even know what 80% of the things on any given menu even were. Slowly, at my own pace, without anyone telling me to or yelling at me or waiting expectantly and saying “so..?” after I tried something, waiting for inevitable reaction of “it’s gross”, I started exploring, and found out I actually like salads and pizza with toppings on it. Gradually, I took more risks.

my alternate nickname could be the Crostini Queen, because I love making crostinis. Here is one I made with mozzarella, fresh basil, prosciutto, tomatoes, and a balsamic reduction

Then, suddenly, something changed overnight. It was like a switch flipped. I met my boyfriend, who knows a ton about food and always wanted to go to nice dinners. This would have really freaked me out of it had been literally anyone else on earth trying to take me to dinner. The panic of “oh my god, what do I order so I don’t look like a complete child” never set in. He figured out my tastes and I trusted him to tell me what I would like. A year later, I still ask him what he thinks I should get at any given restaurant, because he knows way better than me what I actually like. My boyfriend made me feel safe and comfortable and like I could finally be completely be myself and admit, “I know it’s crazy, but I’ve never tried that… but if you think I’d like it, I’ll try it”. I’ve tried some things I’m not crazy about, but I tried them without tears, and without the fork literally shaking in my trembling hand as someone yelled at me to “stop being so picky and just try it”. He makes me feel brave, like I can conquer any fear.

the first octopus I ever ate, at American Ale House in State College, PA
the first octopus I ever ate, at American Ale House in State College, PA

The first thing I tried that I thought was absolutely crazy was calamari. People actually eat squid?! I thought. After that, I wanted to order calamari every time we went out to dinner. You should try octopus, he said, it’s like the chicken of the sea, you’ll love it. Well, I don’t know, but if you think you’ll like it, I’ll try it. I tried it, and I liked it even more than I liked squid. Now, relatives who used to mercilessly make fun of me for my pizza-only diet haven’t tried half the things in their entire lives that I’ve tried in the past year, and seem in disbelief that I’ve become this complete different person, not understanding that I never wanted to be the pickiest eater on the face of the earth.

the one I have to thank for everything
the one I have to thank for everything

The willingness to divert from the restrictions of my preferred foods as a child has given me a whole new world to explore as an adult, like I’ve just woken up and suddenly there is so much I want to try and experience. I’m so thankful that the part of me that’s passionate about food finally woke up. I’m so grateful that now I get to experience food as just that — an experience, not just something I simply have to do when I’m hungry. Food is not just sustenance. Food is not a punishment. It’s an art form, an experience, it is one of the purest incarnations of love. 

I think it’s amazing, how a dish can bring together flavors and ingredients that would never exist together naturally in the environment, like lemons and fish. One from land, grown in a tree, one from the water, born in the sea, yet they just seem made for each other when joined on the plate. Even more enchanting than bringing together different ingredients is food’s enchanting capacity to bring together people. There is something so exciting and so uniquely lovely about sharing a meal with friends, family, someone you love. I feel dumb that I didn’t appreciate that for most of my life. There is something even more special about preparing a meal for people, prepping ingredients and creating something completely new from the resources the earth has to offer. Food is amazing. (Not to mention, it’s also opened a whole new category of television/documentaries for me to devour.)

“shrimp from the devil priest” made by my boyfriend and I, based on a recipe by Mario Batali

Finally, this past year, after my mom divorced that crazy man, I was able to go home and sit down to a home-cooked meal with my mom and sister for the first time in so long, without even the remotest trace of fear or anxiety about eating. My mom has apologized to me for letting my stepdad treat me the way he did for so many years. I can understand the frustration of having someone as picky as me as a child or step-child, but, the truth I’ve realized now is that I’m not a picky eater, and maybe would have shed my fear of food sooner if not for equating food with a reason to panic and cry. I’ll eat pretty much anything now, I just draw the line at ground beef, wasabi and cilantro (cilantro only because it tastes like soap to me).

I have had more than enough amazing food experiences in recent history to make up for the bad ones when I was a kid. Even more awesome than that is knowing that there are still so many left to be had, so many things I’ve yet to experience, so many uniquely different dishes to try, restaurants to fall in love with, cultures and cuisines to explore. With a love of food, even the mundane act of self-sustaining becomes an event. So, thank you, food. I’m sorry I ever said I didn’t like you.

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