The Omnivore

Aug. 28 1996 3:30 AM

The Omnivore

Learning to eat everything.

(Continued from Page 1)

Step One was to list my food phobias, which ranged from mild to psychotic. They included dill, kimchi (the national pickle of Korea), swordfish, miso, mocha, chutney, raw sea urchins, cinnamon, California chardonnay, falafel (those hard, dry, fried little balls of chickpea flour unaccountably enjoyed in Middle Eastern countries), chickpeas generally, cranberries, kidneys, okra, millet, coffee ice cream, refried beans, and most forms of yogurt.

I was also convinced that Greek cuisine was an oxymoron. Nations are like people. Some are good at cooking, while others have a talent for music or baseball or manufacturing VCRs. The Greeks are really good at both pre-Socratic philosophy and white sculpture. They have not been good cooks since the fifth century B.C., when Siracusa in Sicily was the gastronomic capital of the world. Typical of the Greeks' modern cuisine are feta cheese and retsina wine. Any country that pickles its national cheese in brine and adulterates its national wine with pine pitch should order dinner at the local Chinese place and save its energies for other things. The British go to Greece for the food, which says volumes to me. You would probably think twice before buying a Russian or Algerian television set. I had thought for 10 years before buying my last Greek meal.

This had to stop.

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Step Two was to immerse myself for several weeks in the scientific literature on human food selection. Did you know that babies who are breast-fed will later have less trouble with novel foods than those who are given formula? The reason is found in the variety of flavors that make their way into breast milk from the mother's diet and prepare the infant for the culinary surprises that will follow weaning.

Food phobias can be extinguished in five or six ways, of which I considered only brain surgery, medication, and mere exposure. Bilateral lesions made in the basolateral region of the amygdala seem to do the trick in rats and, I think, monkeys—eliminating old aversions, preventing the formation of new ones, and increasing the animals' acceptance of novel foods. But the literature does not report whether this brain operation also diminishes the ability of these phobia-free animals to, say, watch the entire Republican Convention on C-SPAN, or get an external CD-ROM changer to work under Windows 95, key skills I might even value over becoming phobia-free. I am kidding, of course—nobody can do these things.

Administration of the drug chlordiazepoxide also seems to work. According to an old PDR, this is nothing but Librium, the once-popular tranquilizer also bottled as "Reposans" and "Sereen." But the label warns you about nausea, depression, and heavy machinery. I just said no.

Bribery does not work. Children who are offered more playtime for eating spinach may temporarily comply. Those who are offered Milky Way bars in return for eating spinach quickly learn to value Milky Way bars.

Step Three was to choose my weapon. Exposure was the only answer. Researchers have found that eating moderate amounts of a novel or hated food at moderate intervals is nearly guaranteed to work. The reason is that omnivores are born with neophobia, a fear of new foods that accompanies our biological need to explore for them—an ambivalence that protects us from unbridled banqueting. Most parents give up trying out novel foods on their weanlings after two or three attempts, and then complain to the pediatrician; this may be the most frequent cause of finicky eaters, of omnivores manqués. Most babies will accept nearly anything after eight or 10 tries.

Step Four: I immediately made eight or 10 reservations at Korean restaurants, purchased eight or 10 anchovies, searched the Zagat guide for eight or 10 restaurants with the names "Parthenon" or "Olympia" (which I believe are required by statute for Greek restaurants), and brought a pot of water to the boil for cooking eight or 10 chickpeas.

Idedicated the next six months to this effort, and by the time I had finished, nearly every food aversion (along with every positive preference that had kept me from exploring freely) was gone. Now I yearn for miso and am a noted connoisseur of anchovies. Try to find those packed in salt rather than in oil.

Step Five, the final exam and graduation ceremony. I was in Paris, France—a city that my professional duties frequently compel me to visit. I was trying a nice new restaurant, and when the waiter brought the menu, I found myself in a state unlike any I had ever attained—call it Zen-like if you wish. Everything on the menu, every appetizer, hot and cold, every salad, every fish, every bird, and every meat was terrifically alluring, but none more than any other. I had absolutely no way of choosing. Though blissful at the prospect of eating, I was completely unable to order dinner. I was reminded of the medieval church parable of the ass equidistant between two bales of hay, who, because animals lack free will, starves to death. A man, supposedly, would not.

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