The Omnivore

Aug. 28 1996 3:30 AM

The Omnivore

Learning to eat everything.

Illustration by Heather Knox

"My first impulse was to fall upon the cook," wrote Edmondo de Amicis, a 19th-century traveler. "In an instant I understood perfectly how a race who ate such food must necessarily believe in another God and hold essentially different views of human life from our own. ... There was a suggestion of soap, wax, pomatum, of unguents, dyes, cosmetics; of everything, in short, most unsuited to enter a human mouth."

Though de Amicis was describing his feelings about Moroccan cuisine, this is precisely how I felt about desserts in Indian restaurants until 1989, the year that I, formerly a lawyer, was appointed food critic of Vogue magazine. As I contemplated the heavy responsibilities of my new post, I realized how inadequate I was to the honor, for I, like everybody I knew, suffered from a set of strong and arbitrary likes and dislikes regarding food. I feared that I was no better than an art critic who becomes nauseated by the color yellow, or suffers from red-green color blindness. At the time, I was friendly with a respected and powerful editor of cookbooks who so detested the flavor of cilantro that she brought a pair of tweezers to Mexican and Indian restaurants and pinched out every last scrap of this herb before she would take a bite. Imagine the dozens of potential Julia Childs and M.F.K. Fishers whose books she pettishly rejected, whose careers she snuffed in their infancy! I vowed not to follow in her footsteps.

It went even deeper than that. Humans were designed to be omnivores. Blessed with all-purpose dentition and digestive systems, we are ready for anything. Unlike those of most other animals, our genes do not tell us what foods we should find tasty or repulsive. We enter the world with a yen for sweets and an aversion to bitterness. (Newborns, it has recently been discovered, can even distinguish among glucose, fructose, lactose, and sucrose—but little else.) After four months, we develop an innate fondness for salt. And that's about it.

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The nifty thing about being omnivores is that we can take nourishment from an endless variety of sources and easily adapt to a changing food world—crop failures, droughts, herd migrations, restaurant closings, and the like. Cows will starve in a steakhouse and wolves in a salad bar, but not we.

The tricky part about being omnivorous is that we are always in danger of poisoning ourselves. That is why the most potent cause of food aversions is an attack of nausea after eating. Just one illness will do the trick—even if the food we ate did not actually cause the problem, and even if we know it didn't. Hives or rashes may make us rationally avoid a given food in the future, but only a stomachache will result in a lasting, irrational, lifelong sense of disgust. Otherwise, psychologists know very little about the host of powerful likes and dislikes—let's lump them all under the term "food phobias"—that children carry into adulthood.

By shutting ourselves off from the bounties of nature, we become failed omnivores. We let the omnivore team down. And that is only the beginning.

I have always thought that people who keep a long list of certifiably delicious foods that they avoid are at least as troubled as people who avoid sex, except that the latter will probably seek psychiatric help, while food phobics rationalize their problem in the name of genetic inheritance, allergy, vegetarianism, matters of taste, nutrition, food safety, obesity, or a sensitive nature. (True food allergies can be extremely dangerous, but no more than 1 percent or 2 percent of adults suffer from them.) The examples of neurotic food avoidance could take several volumes to fill, but milk is a good one.

Suddenly, everybody has become lactose-intolerant. But the truth is that very, very few of us are so seriously afflicted that we cannot drink even a glass of milk a day without trouble. I know several people who have given up cheese to avoid lactose. But fermented cheeses contain no lactose! Lactose is the sugar found in milk; 98 percent of it is drained off with the whey (cheese is made from the curds), and the other 2 percent is quickly consumed by lactic-acid bacteria in the act of fermentation.

I cannot figure out why, but the atmosphere in America today rewards this sort of self-deception. Fear and suspicion of food have nearly become the norm. Civil dinners have become impossible, and with them, the sense of festivity and exchange. We are as pitiable as the poor bushmen of the Kalahari who perish in large numbers during the droughts that afflict them every two or three years because they consider only about a quarter of the 223 animal species that inhabit their world to be edible.

People should be ashamed of the irrational food phobias that keep them from sharing food with each other. Instead, they have become proud and arrogant and aggressively misinformed. But not me. When I donned the heavy mantle of food critic, I sketched out a six-step program to rid myself of all puissant and crippling likes and dislikes.

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