I was at one of those once-in-a-lifetime parties this summer when someone asked me a question that has been on my mind ever since. It was a fundraiser for my synagogue, and the host was a good friend who is both an outrageously creative and joyful cook and a whiskey enthusiast on another level (you can actually buy his whiskey blends). He designed the entire meal to complement different whiskeys he and his good friend had collected over the years. Every course was complex and flavorful and gorgeous. On a spectacular summer evening, I had what was, for me, the rare opportunity to eat a meal to which I had contributed absolutely nothing: no cooking, no prep, no decorating, no emotional labor, nothing. I just sat and waited as the food came to me. It was delightful.
Of course, there’s a wrinkle when it comes to me and food, or maybe a few wrinkles, not unlike my forehead as I contemplated how to handle graciously my food allergies and other dietary restrictions at an event like this. The host knew about me being a vegetarian, and about my fatal seafood allergy, and about my lactose intolerance. I also don’t drink alcohol very often. I’d been invited at the last minute, and my husband was helping out with serving that evening; I knew the company would be wonderful and that the food that worked for me would be outstanding. I weighed my options: go, and manage my discomfort over anyone making any kind of fuss about what I was eating; or skip it, and miss out on some fun.
I decided to go, obviously, but not without a lot of trepidation. As I’d suspected, the food was ridiculously good, from the smoked almond butter stuffed inside dates, to the gazpacho made of ingredients that had grown ten feet to my right, to the fish-free poke bowl with spicy candied ginger. The rest of the folks at my table ate delicacies like homemade avocado ice cream, Welsh rarebit, and jerked leg of lamb, among many other spectacular bites. As I nibbled spiced nuts during the courses that weren’t a fit for me, I hoped no one was watching.
But someone was.
At the end of the table, a man who’d come without his wife seemed to notice what I was avoiding and gently asked me about it. His wife, he said, had similar food restrictions to mine, and in a moment when conversation around the table had quieted, he inquired, “Debi, what do you like to eat?”
I literally could not imagine how to answer. I tried getting him to qualify the question further: for breakfast? For dinner? When I’m really hungry? For comfort? For fuel? What did he mean, what do I like to eat? He was resolute – he meant in general. What did I like?
In the end, we were all so intrigued by this question that we all answered it. The responses were so lovely and varied that I’ve been thinking of asking this of all my friends. One woman said she liked eating the perfect thing for the moment, like the first barbecued chicken and cole slaw of the summer. Another said she liked baked goods – bread and pastries. One couple said they liked popcorn and regularly ate it for dinner. The man next to me said he liked simple food, traditional American dishes that he was used to eating.
We went around the whole table. In the end, I said that I liked eating really high-quality versions of the foods I prefer: peaches from Georgia (I buy them from The Peach Truck every summer now), Brussels sprouts I get still on the stalk, specific brands and shapes of pasta, garlic I get from our CSA and preserve for the winter, warm bread I make myself. I like eating yogurt with those specific peaches and the specific slivered almonds from Trader Joe’s.
It’s such a great question. And after years of restriction in our household for all kinds of medical reasons – some of which, for me, persist – it’s a blessing to be able to say not only that I do have some preferences but that they’re reasonably easy to procure. Do we like a way eating because we’ve cultivated the habit of eating that way, or do we like a way of eating and work to make it happen? Who knows? It must be partially nature and partially nurture, as evidenced by my two daughters who have very different palates. One loves beans and rice and berries; the other loves pasta and cheese and apples. One will leave brownies on the counter for days on end but eat leftover pasta for breakfast; the other will eat all the sweets available to her but choose rice cakes first thing in the morning. They were never served different meals. Some of this is just who they are.
What do YOU like to eat? I’d love to hear.
(In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that my book about the wild food-related journey our family took is now six months old! If you haven’t gotten a copy yet, don’t worry! The nice people at my publisher cooked up plenty of copies – you can order directly from Rowman & Littlefield or via Amazon.com. And if you have read it, can you leave me an Amazon or Goodreads review? I’d be very appreciative!)