x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Eating with an open mind

Picky eaters know no age or nationality. Some books and websites, however, offer some suggestions on how to broaden their diets.

Tomatoes have come to symbolize happiness for Nouf Al-Qasimi.
Tomatoes have come to symbolize happiness for Nouf Al-Qasimi.

It wasn't an outstanding, warm-off-the-vine garden tomato that was responsible for converting me to a lover of this oft-loathed summertime staple. Rather, it was watching my mother reunite with her sisters around a bare table laid with nothing but a plate of tomatoes, a salt shaker and a serrated knife. I remembering thinking: this is love. Tomatoes are happiness. And once the women had scattered, I pulled up a chair.

What saved my childhood from the sturdy mandibles of inflexible eating was the myriad ways, beyond flavour and nourishment, in which eating affects the mind as an appetite stimulant. It started when food, which I have always loved reading about, began to move me through words and images. Paperback series in which icy cartons of milk were sipped through straws in noisy lunchrooms led to a judicious, apprehensive venture into milkland, armed with a glass, a box of UHT whole milk and a stimulating piece of literature. Though my heart pounded and I gagged throughout, the milk stayed down and, though it never became a favoured beverage, I never feared it again.

Much has been written on the topic of picky eating, and some children's books, including Gregory, the Terrible Eater by Mitchell Sharmat, I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child, and the stalwart classic Bread and Jam for Frances by Russell Hoban, made their ways into our family's rotating menu of night-time reading material. And The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten documents the writer's mostly successful self-appointed mission to overcome his many food dislikes.

Hugh Garvey, an editor at Bon Appétit magazine, documents his travails at www.gastrokid.com, a blog he created with a friend about his family adventures with feeding their kids. "At least they're eating gummy vitamins," wrote Garvey in 2006 when the blog was first launched, lamenting his son's sudden disdain for foods not brown, beige or cream-coloured. Mayo Clinic staff provide an online list of suggestions to deal with picky eaters, and though formatted for parents, some of the sounder advice provided could be applied to any relationship where people find themselves breaking bread in the face of friction: a partnership with a picky eater; a loved one in recovery from an eating disorder; a challenging houseguest. I liked the suggestions to respect the eater's hunger "or lack thereof", the warning to not offer dessert as a reward, and the recommendation to "boycott the clean plate club? (which) may only ignite - or reinforce - a power struggle over food". But in an ironic twist, the advice to "set a good example" is positioned immediately before the suggestion to "be sneaky".

We were once a family of fussy eaters. Holiday meals were unadventurous, and I can only imagine how frustrating it must have been for my mother, a vegetarian with a preference for plain foods, to find something that would please all four children, including a condiment-phobe and a daughter who subsisted on little more than cheese. We were the product of a generation whose elders were still holding on to an insidious fear of fat, something we now know to be woefully complex and misunderstood. As a result, societal notions on the foundation of a healthful diet included such fallacies as: margarine beats butter, filet mignon is the only permissible cut of beef, and egg yolks are bad news.

Ellyn Satter, a child nutrition expert whose book Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense is considered gospel to many parents of picky eaters, believes it's perfectly natural for a child to challenge new foods. Even when children are introduced to a plethora of choices, raising open-minded eaters is not guaranteed. It is difficult, friends tell me, to be an enthusiast of food and cooking, only to discover that your spawn have agendas all their own that have nothing at all do with exposure and everything to do with the fact that child-rearing isn't an exact science. Moreover, a recent University College London study has determined 78 per cent of neophobic (fear of the unfamiliar) tendencies to be genetic; something to be considered the next time you want to blame fate after your child kicks up a fuss over your first attempts at getting her to fall in love with gazpacho.

One of my best friends, a vegetarian since birth, was in her mid-thirties and working in Uganda when she travelled to a tiny village, where a goat was slaughtered in her honour. Far from a phone or an airport, she watched a platter of steaming rice and rare, still-bloody goat's meat be carried in her direction, and wondered what to do. She ended up eating as much as she could manage, then quickly finding a quiet place to purge. For years, I felt certain that my life and travel experiences had converted me from a picky eater into an open and easy one. What I didn't know at the time was that I had grown too discerning and judicious to ever be able to relinquish full control of what I eat. And this is especially true in a foreign place, as food can be among the fastest and most pleasurable access to an unfamiliar culture.

As with my friend in Uganda, I had been inspired by folk tales premised on the value that it's more virtuous to break a spiritual vow than to insult one's host. And then it happened that during the dead of winter, I was a guest in a remote part of Poland, and found myself having a difficult time finding something to eat. In Poland, my last-ditch resource was a two-kilo globe of Gouda in red wax, intended as a gift for my hosts. From that moment onwards, the cheese became known as "Le Grand Fromage" that saved my life. I broke into it with a Swiss army knife after a meagre dinner each night, and rationed it for the remainder of the week.

There is a widely held perception that US Midwesterners gravitate towards the conservative. Predominantly of German, Scandinavian, Polish and Dutch ancestry, their diets are no exception, and the Midwest is the heartland of meat and potatoes - with a side of corn, and maybe a salad of iceberg lettuce. Conversely, the Spanish, French Cajuns and Italian descendants of New Mexico, Louisiana, and New York are known for celebrating and maintaining a serious passion in and around the kitchen and have far more varied diets that incorporate everything from offal to heavy seasoning.

Where do Emiratis fall on the spectrum? Overall, we're much more similar to Mediterraneans than other Europeans when it comes to expectations, predictability and general squeamishness in the food department. And with the exception of the ubiquitous combination of green peppers and seasoned ground beef that seems to be the national pizza topping, Emiratis are fairly open to new tastes and concepts. What will hopefully follow is a raising of standards that shields against new outcrops of mediocrity in the form of bad takeout, lame and costly "fine dining", and overproduced chain restaurants from abroad.