Friday, April 11

Eat with Respect

Dear Jacob,

Here are the foods that I used to hate:
Brussel Sprouts
Canned Peas
Green, red or yellow peppers
Sweet potatoes
Anything with a sauce on it
Anything that touched
Watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew
Any fruit suspended in Jello
Anything with dressing on it
Cold meatloaf
Fish of any kind
Wild game Grandpa would hunt
Skim Milk
Sour Cream
Hard Boiled Eggs

What I ate when I was a child was predominantly unthreatening meat products and any kind of starch: stuffing, potatoes, pasta, rice, bread. My veggies were green beans or corn...wait that counts as a starch too.  If canned peas were on my plate they'd make me gag, and they still do.  I would eat a green salad with just lemon juice drizzled over the top.  Dressing was a trickster that hid things I couldn't inspect.

If I had watermelon I'd meticulously pick out every seed before eating it and by then it would be warm and unappealing. I ate apples and oranges but they were the only safe fruits.  Fish were fun to catch, but not if I had to use worm for bait and not if I had to clean and eat them.  I think Grandma tried to give us liver once...twice.  Scrapple is new on the list, just in the 21 years since I've known Dad.  Have you smelled that stuff?  No. You haven't because he's not allowed to make it when I'm home.  Stinks.

Some things on this list have come off the list.  Many of these things, in fact.  But some of these things are still on my hate list.  Mushrooms, peaches and I are still not friends and my newest non-friend is Brie cheese. So, tastes change, but some things take longer than others.  Food tastes change over time. I've read that you have to try a food ten to fifteen times before you'll like it. Maybe I should give Brie some more chances.

I'm not afraid to try new food.  I did go to India you know and I ate everything I was handed: curry (which is gravy) over lentils and rice eaten with the fingers of my right hand - no fork, room temperature mangos and Sprite, ghee, and coconut water.  I do have enough smarts to still ask at a potluck if that casserole is tuna or chicken, but the little green things and the little red things that seem to be in so many dishes don't scare me at all anymore.

I wonder if this is news to you. I wonder if you ever conceived of the possibility that your own mother, loyal Food Network fan and menu planner, was a picky eater.  That though I roast Brussel sprouts with bacon and Parmesean cheese and actually salivate while it carmelizes in the oven, the very scent of it years ago would send me hiding out in the backyard.  That I ever "tried a bite" and then hid it in my napkin and threw it in the trash.  Or asked to be excused to go to the bathroom and then spit it into the toilet.  As often as I implore you guys to try things, to eat with us, to just take a bite, you probably think that I grew up full of courage around food.  This, I assure you, was not the case.

We don't just eat food because we like it.  We like it because we eat it.  I've read that the more bitter flavors, which might constitute most vegetables, are the last taste we acquire.  But we do that well before we're two.  So, up until two we're open to eating pretty much anything. This was true for you too.  I swear it.  However, now if we were to do a side-by-side comparison, my original hate-list would still be longer than your current like-list. It's no secret that you're a picky eater.  My goal is not to embarrass you by saying that.  My goal is to explain to you why.

When you came into this world you had a phenomenal gag reflex.  Of everything we fed to you in those first five months, sixty percent of it would come back up. We never burped you over our shoulder lest we'd have to change our shirt and clean the carpet behind us too.  We learned very quickly, to keep you in plain sight after a bottle because no meal was ever safely locked in.  Our first months with you were very damp.  This always discouraged me and made me feel inadequate.  According to all the growth charts and doctor check ups, you managed to get what you needed. However, they called your gag maneuver 'acid reflux' and so we'd try different formulas to feed you but none of them ever stopped the eruptions.

When you moved into solid food things got so much better.  You did a good job of eating whatever we fed you. Even if it was lumpy, unsavory baby food, you'd open right up and didn't over-think it.  Moving into finger foods you downed chunks of ham and sausage, cottage cheese with fruit mashed in, pasta with red, white or cheese sauce, mashed potatoes and gravy, peaches, peas and scrambled eggs.  You simply ate.

Something happened one day at home when we were well into the Mac-n-Cheese era which was probably in your third year. You suddenly didn't want to eat it.  This wouldn't have been that big of a deal except that you didn't want to do a lot of things at that point in your life.  Daily, your "no" quota was filled by 9 a.m. and my time-out quota was duly realized much to our great frustration and woe.  They were hard days and yet they were entirely formative.  When I made you sit there and finish your lunch and when it ended in defeated, disgorged vomit I found myself cleaning the carpet again with my own tears.  That experience formed a pathway in your brain that equated cold, cheesy noodles with raw, uncontrolled fear.

No one likes throwing up, but when faced with that possibility your stage of terror is a red-level threat. You have an altogether stronger sense of panic than any of the rest of us, than anyone I know.  I think you're even capable of keeping yourself from puking when you get stomach bugs, which is a skill all in its own right.  I'm convinced that this has to do with the sheer number of times you threw up in your first couple of years.  I get it.  I'd want to avoid that nasty uncontrollable, cramping stomach spasm too.  But try as you did, these were the severe reactions you often had to "try a bite" or to pancakes that tasted oh-so-differently at IHOP or the spaghetti sauce that I bought from a different store. They never left your memory and they continue to add bricks to your wall of avoidance.

It's time for the neophobia to be conquered.  Food isn't an enemy. New food won't do that to you unless you're tapping into that supposition of fear that you've walled high around your thinking. It's time to tear the wall down, because there's so much that you miss when you stand behind it.

When you step back from food you step back from the table and when you step back from the table you leave community and bonding, nourishment of the soul, care and recognition.  We eat to live.  Food is necessary, but it carries with it a social benefit that can't be replicated in any other setting.

We all don't play basketball, guitar or poker.  We all don't paint, perform or program.  There are so many things that differentiate us one from another, but there is this one public thing that we all do, eat.  Food is the great equalizer. We all need it.  We are eaters and drinkers.  It's the ultimate act of respect to share a meal with someone because food opens us to our very basest place of existence. We are not just matter consuming matter.  We are matter that matters to and reflects God.

Shared meals bring us together in gratitude.  When we sit around a table to a carefully prepared meal, we can recognize the effort and love that went into that, an hour or more of someone's life for  your enjoyment and sustenance. When we gather to pass the plates of rice and tortillas and shredded green chili chicken we are giving each other equal regard, saying I need this as much as you do.  Eating isn't utilitarian.  It's neighborly.  It's personal.  It's kind.  And kindness leads to repentance.  So there's still more to it.

When we show care and concern for one another, particularly around the table, we open up a whole new conversation.  We give one another the recognition that we, you, me, they are valuable and relevant and seen. When we show care, we show God, his character, his purpose, his point.  When we show care, we show his welcoming presence to people who even in their own skin feel often times like strangers.  No one wants to be a stranger, to be unsupported, to be alone. Food brings us together. Food is the contrivance that opens the conversation that makes us feel comprehended.

Today I still avoid cooked cabbage, hard boiled (or runny) eggs and any buffalo burger on the menu.   Yet, I don't avoid finding something on the table that I can share with others, that we can consume together that we can embrace sometimes with difficulty and sometimes with joy.  My own reluctance to eat the cuisine of others' choosing insulted more than a few of my family's friends, garnered some ridicule from friends and even embarrassed me on some dates.  So there too exist some negative social weights to being too selective. You've already experienced the negativity that comes from a detrimental relationship to food.  It's time to experience the joy.

This week here's the menu: syrupy sloppy joes and sweet potato fries, asian chicken lettuce wraps and fried ginger rice, savory chicken tomato curry and shredded cheesy chicken enchiladas.  I invite you to the table to join us.  I invite you to recognition and repentance and respect.