During the call-in portion of a recent The Splendid Table episode, a distraught guest begged host Lynne Rossetto Kasper for help dealing with his picky-eating partner. My husband and I both lunged for the volume knob on the car stereo.
As I've written previously, my husband is a finicky eater who becomes visibly uncomfortable when forced to try any dish he hasn't tried before (He claims the abundance of caution dates back to a childhood salmonella infection which landed him in the hospital for a few weeks; he's now sure tainted raw eggs lurk in every unfamiliar dish.) He's especially opposed to anything that's creamy or oozy: His long list of forbidden foods includes clam chowder, mayonnaise, ricotta cheese and Alfredo sauce.
But food preferences are idiosyncratic, so my husband eats oysters and the desperate caller's partner apparently likes basic Greek foods. Kasper pounced on that tidbit, suggesting the caller pique his partner's edible curiosity by making nouvelle Greek meatballs. I deeply admire Kasper, but that struck me as the worst advice ever. Picky eaters aren't all the same, but inflicting a mysterious meatball - disguised under sauce, no less - on someone who's wary of various ingredients is a no-win situation.
If I knew how to help picky eaters overcome their food aversions, my husband and I would be having pimento cheese and lasagna for dinner. I'm by no stretch an expert in this field. But after years of shunning sushi, my husband recently became a fiend for the stuff, and watching his transformation gave me a few ideas about how to coax trepidatious eaters toward more diverse diets.
1. It's not about the flavor
Eaters who care enough about food to read about it (i.e. you) have usually had at least one tableside epiphany brought on by a singular flavor. They trust food to teach and transport them, to excite their intellects and engage their emotions. But either you're that kind of eater or you're not. There aren't enough meatballs in the Mediterranean to persuade a disinterested eater of food's transcendent qualities.
Enthusiastic eaters like Kasper wrongly believe that the right mushroom or wedge of cheese will lure sustenance eaters to their side. I'm sure such miracles have occurred, but if an enthusiastic eater wants to expand a partner's menu of acceptable foods, it makes more sense to meet the sustenance eater on his or her turf. Abandon the aesthetic argument. Instead, point out which foods are scientifically proven to make you smarter or thinner or stronger. My husband became interested in sushi because he wanted to find a go-to meal that wasn't fried or covered in cheese. So long as it wasn't weirdly creamy, he didn't especially care how it tasted.
2. Find a gateway edible
The meatballs Kasper suggested might work if they were first presented not as meatballs draped in tomato sauce, but as a lightly-seasoned burger on a bun. My husband started eating teriyaki when we moved to Seattle because he wanted a cheap, fast lunch (see "it's not about the flavor") and was rarely in the vicinity of a McDonald's, Burger King or Wendy's at noon. He may not have been eating Japanese food the way you or I or residents of Japan would describe it, but categorizing grilled chicken and rice as Japanese gently acclimated him to the cuisine.
3. Stop, look, taste
Sustenance eaters who don't spend their free hours poring over cookbooks and food magazines have absolutely no idea what you mean when you start talking about ground lamb and rosemary. They can't automatically summon the taste of japchae when they see the word on a menu. It's far easier for them to evaluate a food when they're looking at it, which is why the Whole Foods refrigerated case played such a big role in helping my husband embrace sushi (or so he tells me.) With packaged sushi, he could slowly and carefully assess the fish he was contemplating without worrying that a sushi chef or server would question him. For a sustenance eater, that's a very real fear.
4. Support the habit
The immediate impulse upon learning a sustenance eater has developed a new food tolerance is to pile on. You like sushi? Can we go to a sushi bar? Do you want to try mackerel instead of tuna? Should we order omakase? But sustenance eaters approach food differently. Just because my husband likes sushi doesn't mean he intends to embark on a course of adventurous eating: He'll treat sushi much the way he treats steak, pasta and other dishes on his approved list: He'll always order it the same way, and he won't get bored of it. That's OK. After years of eating raw fish alone, I'm happy to have his company at sushi restaurants. I hope Kasper's caller can hang in there.