Note: Find an update to this post here.
Confession time. I’m a picky eater. A very picky eater. It’s painful to admit because of all my identities I consider myself first and foremost a cultured, adventure-loving traveler. Wanderlust consumes me. And yet, I do not daydream of massaman curry on Koh Samui, or vindaloo in Goa, or haggis in Edinburgh. I might be intrigued by the pizza in Italy, but I really hope it tastes like it does in Brooklyn. While in the pre-trip throes of excitement for a jaunt to Honduras, I swooned upon reading in the usually dreaded food and drink section of a guidebook that “Honduran food is very bland.” What music to my sensitive little tongue!
You would be forgiven for thinking I’m exaggerating. For me, “picky” is not “I prefer not to eat spiders on sticks.” Picky is, spicy things upset my stomach, the smell of cooking fish makes me nauseous, and if I can’t pronounce it, I really don’t want it on my plate. The list of what generally keeps me alive on the road consists of breads, white rice, chicken, eggs, and copious amounts of bananas. Aside from your favorite destination being Disney and wearing a visible fanny pack, it is one of the most shameful things a traveler can admit to.
The worlds of food and travel are deeply intertwined. Anyone who has tried to watch the Travel Channel and then spent ten minutes banging the clicker because they think they were just stuck on the Food Network (oh wait, is that just me?) knows that in the world of TV, foodies are the current target audience, with the destination brushed upon with a two-minute opening montage. Travel magazines too seem to be dedicating more and more ink to various global restaurant scenes. And if I read one more travel blog imploring me to eat street food, my computer may actually turn into a gyro. The message is clear: go forth and eat adventurously.
So what does this mean for me? Lets start with the positives. In the same way that holiday-makers return home with great tans as souvenirs, I usually return to New York with a little post trip emaciation (that sadly fades about as quickly as a tan would). In contrast to my waistline, my wallet stays nice and padded. Foreign food shock means I avoid pricey meals, and in extreme cases, all meals, until I can find a nice bland local dish to subsist on.
But it’s not all sunshine and skinny jeans. To start, being hungry is no fun. But actually, that’s the least of my problems. Hunger has nothing on fear, shame, and humiliation. The fear of being invited to a home cooked meal that could potentially bring you to tears, the shame of not being able to “order family style!” as a restaurant, or the humiliation of being asked to a raw sushi bar by a very attractive scuba diving instructor and being forced to explain that no, you’re not quite a fan of the world’s trendiest food.
Indeed, the largest source of anxiety for me as a choosy eater is missing out on is the camaraderie that comes with sharing a meal. I avoid this by simply never turning down a dining invitation. At most restaurants there is at least one thing I find tolerable on the menu. If not, I’ll have water, the bread basket, and a fabricated story of a previous meal. If all else fails, I have decided it is acceptable to feign food allergy.
Things get dicier when someone shows you the hospitality of bringing you into their home. I learned this during a student exchange program in Costa Rica, where I mastered the fine art of smothering things in rice so that they would slide down my esophagus having never swept across my tongue. For Costa Ricans, black beans are a major staple of the diet and were served at every meal, including breakfast. Being pretty anti-bean myself, I was close to reaching my breaking point two weeks in to the trip. But salvation arrived when I stumbled upon a Pizza Hut after a long night drinking in San Jose. A breathless run to the counter chanting “no mas frijoles!” to the doubled-over laughter of my Tica friends (thankfully, this time we were laughing together) culminated in a breadsticks binge that got me through.
White Rice and Wild Adventures
I might pass hard on exotic foods, but clearly a lack of adventurousness isn’t the problem — that hasn’t held me back from whitewater rafting on the Rio Conrejal, diving with sharks in the Bahamas, or spending a summer solo in Asia when I was barely out of high school. It surely can’t be daintiness or fussiness that keeps me from eating the local cuisine, or I wouldn’t have survived molding bug infested hotel rooms in Kuala Lumpur without a hint of a whimper. I think that I simply have a limited palate, and I can live with that because it does not compute to a limited mind, nor a limited experience.
I like to think that even without food, one can know the soul of a place. By immersing myself into a country’s art, exploring its natural and man made wonders and getting to know the heart of its people I can overcome not sharing what is on their plates. I’m guessing there are quite a few Anthony Bourdain fans who would disagree with me, and that’s okay. More spiders on a stick for them. At least that’s what I tell myself to get over the shame of having to admit, yet again, that I don’t eat slimy sea creatures, most vegetables down the produce aisle, or bread any shade other than A2.
I could let my fear of the unknown keep me safe at home with my Lean Cuisine frozen dinners to keep me warm at night, but I refuse. I refuse to let my finicky tastebuds dictate my destiny. Because I have an undeniable calling to keep exploring this planet, even if my stomach isn’t the one leading the way. There are so many fears that can keep us sidelined at home: fear of a language barrier, of culture shock, of falling ill or falling victim to crime. Of long plane rides, uncomfortable bus trips and so many more excuses that could fill a book. But I have yet to find one fear, food phobia included, that outweighs the rewards to be found when overcoming it. So I will continue to cross borders into lands of unidentified meats and offending spices, and just hope against hope that white rice comes a la carte.
Are you a picky eater too? Let’s commiserate in the comments!
Note: Again, find an update to this post here.