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.

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.

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.

The Catholic Church was dead wrong. I would have starved—if my companion had not saved the day by ordering for both of us. I believe I had a composed salad with slivers of foie gras, a perfect sole meunière, and sweetbreads. Everything was delicious.

Step Six: learning humility. Just because you have become a perfect omnivore does not mean that you must flaunt it. Intoxicated with my accomplishment, I began to misbehave, especially at dinner parties. When seated next to an especially finicky eater, I would amuse myself by going straight for the jugular. Sometimes I began slyly by staring at the food left on her plate and then inquiring about her allergies; sometimes I launched a direct assault by asking how long she had had a fear of bread. And then I would sit back and sagely listen to a neurotic jumble of excuses and explanations: the advice from her personal trainer, her intolerance to wheat gluten, a pathetic faith in Dean Ornish, the exquisite--even painful--sensitivity of her taste buds, hints of childhood abuse.

While it is perfectly all right—even charitable—to practice this kind of tough love on those of one's dinner-party neighbors who are less omnivorous than oneself, the perfect omnivore must always keep in mind that it is an absolute necessity to get invited back.

Jeffrey Steingarten is the food critic of Vogue, and has won several James Beard Awards and a decoration from the French Republic in the process.

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