In her first book, Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate, Stephanie Lucianovic combines plenty of research, a healthy dose of science, and her own memories of growing up as a picky eater to present a thoroughly entertaining, thoughtful look at why people do and do not like to eat certain foods. The book was a revelation to me, since I'll admit I eat almost everything (or, at least, I'll try just about anything once...), and I have never understood how someone could exist in an alternate taste reality.
I recall my friend's brother, who would eat nothing but hamburgers and French fries, no matter what restaurant his parents took him to as a kid. I think of my one vegetarian friend who cannot stomach mushrooms, and the other who can't tolerate eggplant, and my sadness for their inevitable difficulties at banquet meals. I consider my Southern friend who refuses to eat any vegetable that has more than seven letters in its name (he's fine with peas and corn, of course). Now that I've read Stephanie's book, I understand all of them just a little bit better.
She is currently on a reading tour in support of the book, and fans (myself included—I should fully disclose here that Stephanie and I are friends, and her husband and I attended high school together) packed San Francisco's Omnivore Books On Food for her first area appearance in support of the book.
I had the opportunity recently to ask Stephanie some questions about picky eating, Suffering Succotash, and how blogging prepared her to write her book. Please read on to learn more!
Genie Gratto: How do you define the difference between picky eating and, you know, just not liking things?
Stephanie Lucianovic: Personally, I don't think there's a huge difference between picky eating and just not liking things, because it's all about just not liking things. However, I think the popular/anecdotal idea of being a picky eater hinges on just how many things you don't like and can't eat as a result. As to what the magic number that turns you from someone who has dislikes to someone who is dubbed "picky" actually is, I'm still trying to figure out. (As are the scientists and psychologists who define picky eating as a state where the number of things you don't eat is so great that it has a negative impact on your health and social life.)
Additionally, it may not be about the quantity of things you dislike and more about disliking the "wrong" things, the things that most people seem to like or at least don't seem to actively dislike. That's when the eaters shove the picky in the, "I can't believe you don't like [insert commonly eaten food here]! What's WRONG with you?!" group.
GG: You give a great deal of advice in the book—much of it funny, but all of it also extremely helpful. How much of the advice did you develop via experimenting on yourself, and how much of it came from your conversations with other picky eaters?
SL: I'd say that the majority of my advice in the book comes from taking a good long look my past and analyzing what exactly got me eating the foods I used to avoid. However, it's also true that by interviewing other recovering picky eaters—as I call them—and learning what they have done to overcome their food aversions, I realized that I had done some of the same things. It's safe to say that except for the clinical advice I got from scientists and experienced psychologists like Dr. Nancy Zucker, the director of Duke's Center for Eating Disorders, all the advice I give in the book was tried out by yours truly.
GG: Even as a non-picky eater (I really fall more into the garbage disposal camp), there are still a couple of foods that make me gag even just thinking about them. What was it like to work on the book and to recall those moments when you really couldn't swallow something or had to confront foods on your banned list?
SL: It wasn't as difficult as you might imagine, since I've had a good grip on my gag reflex for going on 10 years now, but I will admit that thinking about certain foods I still won't eat or thinking about eating foods that have been cooked in a way I wouldn't cook them for personal consumption did make me shudder a bit. Recalling the squash incident didn't make me gag, but it did get me all outraged that parents could do that to any child. Being able to get that incident published probably therapied all those bad feelings away. Like: "You did this to me and, look—it gave me something to write about!" I've also long been able to laugh at past incidents, which also helps keep the gag reflect in check; just like a boggart out of Harry Potter.
Fortunately, none of it made writing the book difficult, it made it...interactive. In fact, there was another incident that didn't make it into the book that had me really struggling hard to control my gag reflex. It happened while I was interviewing an occupational therapist at Stanford, and I totally exploited it for the purposes of the book. I really dug down and kind of let myself fully experience the horror of what she was telling me.
The sad absence of Vulcan mindmelds in today's society means we never really get to know what our kids are thinking or feeling, especially when they're not able to explain it themselves. Marianna has found a way to paint a very vivid picture for parents of picky eaters. She tells them to imagine getting a vanilla ice cream cone on a hot day. "And as you started to eat it," Marianna continued, "A big hair came out of it. Now for some of us, we would gag..."
I did gag. Right there in the occupational therapy offices of Lucile-Packard Children's Hospital on the Stanford Campus, I gagged hard and shuddered just thinking about "a big hair" in an ice cream cone. Of course, then I let my imagination take me on the path of, "Just what is it about hair in food that makes us gag?" It can't just be the thought that that long strand dipping in and out of our food belongs to someone else—someone with unknown grooming habits—because I can't stand the thought of eating my own freshly-washed hair, either. I think the gagging results because we know can happen when a hair gets in our mouth. Usually, half of it stays in our mouth while the rest of it has already traveled down our throats. If it were easy to swallow, we probably would swallow it, however as soon as we feel that hair's presence we scrabble at our mouths and do our best to yank the hair out. The touch, the feel of that hair pulling out of our throat automatically triggers a gag. And after writing that detailed analysis, I have committed myself to a state of perpetual gagging and shuddering for the next three hours.
Blissfully unaware of my disturbed state of mind, Marianna continues calmly, "...and maybe some people would throw that hair away and continue to eat..." Yeah, whackjobs would! It's a HAIR in your ICE CREAM! Bleaaargh! "...but the majority of people aren't going to eat it; they're going to throw it away, and I can almost guarantee you the next time they come to that ice cream parlor, they're going to say, 'Uh-uh, they have icky food there.' So that's what's happening with our children," Marianna finished. Clearly, it's a very effective analogy."
See? Sometimes out of great gagging, inspiration comes. (Even if it doesn't ultimately make it in the book.)
GG: You talk a lot about picky eaters' attempts to stay under the radar. Do you think that those of us who identify as non-picky eaters might be in the minority rather than the majority?
SL: Yes, I think that must be why so many adult picky eaters bury themselves deep rather than be discovered. If we were legion, what would we really have to fear from a freakish minority who doesn't see anything wrong with eating potentially poisonous fish or toxin-filled organ meat? (I kid about the freakish part, but you guys really are strange for eating that stuff!)
What I hope is that getting more adult picky eaters openly talking about their picky eating and what they're dealing with will make them realize they aren't alone and don't need to feel ashamed or embarrassed by something that is beyond their biological grasp. Additionally, I hope to foster tolerance and empathy among the walking garbage disposals to take the place of the eye-rolls and rebukes that picky eaters are high maintenance, xenophobic, or closed-minded.
GG: Do you ever have days where you revert to your childhood ways of eating—when you simply can't face even the foods you've learned to love (or at least tolerate)?
SL: Yep. When I was pregnant. Apparently, my soon-to-born Henry knew better than I did at that point and didn't want me eating the usual amounts of fish and fresh vegetables I had grown to love. My usual diet ended up being fairly unappetizing to me and the foods of my childhood (as well as a healthy amount of junk food) is what he nudged me to eat. On the the other hand, I'm possibly off corn—my previous comfort vegetable—forever. I don't know if it's just me, but it's gotten way too sweet for my preference, and I simply don't enjoy it the way I used to as a kid. This makes me sad.
However, on a daily basis, I'd say that the foods I used to hate as a kid now make up the majority of my diet, and that's not necessarily because I've become so enlightened or whatever. It's more that those are the foods I buy, they're the foods I have in the house, and eating them has become routine. To not eat them would actually be more of a hassle. That said, and as I noted in the book, anyone can have a day when they can't face one more kale salad and want to get in some really awful-good Chinese food.
GG: You include recipes in the book that have worked to change your eating choices. Have you tested those on other picky eaters, too?
I have! I converted my colorist with my greens recipe, I converted one friend with the Brussels sprouts and another with the roasted broccoli and, though I don't know whether I'd deem him pickier than any other toddler, my Henry adores the okra recipe above every other vegetable I make. I've also gotten in reports from people who read the book and cooked for themselves or their families that they have broccoli and cauliflower converts as well. I love it!
(On their last visit, I also won both my parents over with the okra recipe, which rightfully belongs to Catherine Shattuck.)
GG: Speaking of recipes, if you indeed ever get the chance to cook for Anderson Cooper, what (besides, perhaps, spinach) will you put on the menu?
SL: I won't do spinach. It's not my favorite thing to make, since I don't feel I've yet perfected the recipe to my preference. I think I'd make him pasta with beet greens sauteed in garlic with drifts of shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano, and maybe a roasted Brussels sprouts salad with nuts and currants. However, I wouldn't want to overwhelm him with too many disliked foods at once—ARE YOU LISTENING ANDERSON?—because I don't think that's the best way to approach it, either. It's also a good tactic to make sure to serve liked foods as well. This gives the picky eater something to take refuge in and keeps them from feeling like they'll starve if they don't eat the Big Bad vegetable at the table. That additional pressure is not needed or helpful. Slow and steady converts the picky. (Plus, wine.)
GG: Did food blogging help prepare you to write this book? How so?
SL: It did in that I always wanted to tell food stories at Grub Report. (I'm not so much about the recipes over there.) And in that way, blogging got me to think and write like a memoirist. I started Grub Report in 2003 to chronicle my adventures in culinary school, and always intended it for it to be a place for me to practice telling food stories. It was my first (and sometimes only) place for my food writing.
However, my years at Television Without Pity taught me how to write funny, and writing the actual book taught me how to research and present that research in what I hope is an accessible and interesting form. I think I Tweeted during the book writing process that the best way to learn how to write is to write a book. It's true, and I think I'm a much better writer on this side of the book than I was going in.
GG: What has surprised you the most about the reaction to the book so far?
SL: That people are actually reading it, enjoying it, learning, and laughing. Seriously. It's what I wanted, and I don't think I'm ever going to be surprised about it. You write a book and you hope—you really, really hope hard—that all this work and passion and pain won't just sink like a stone in a lake, but you know it's could happen. And I'm quite a pessimist, so I definitely saw that happening with Suffering Succotash. I feel extremely lucky to hear of people reading the book and having the reactions I dearly wanted them to have.
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