August 21, 2006

Learning To Eat

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I think I’ve made it abundantly clear that I love to cook, to bake (despite repeated failures), to putter around the kitchen and most importantly to EAT! That being said, it’s hard for me to understand why everyone else doesn’t enjoy food as much as I do. Ok, maybe that’s a little much. All I ask, however, is that people can at least appreciate food, where it comes from and the process of making it. It would be nice if people were not afraid of trying new things, if every now and then they would venture out of their comfort zones to experience other foods. A lot of people don’t do this, and for the life of me I can’t figure out why. Perhaps this is due in part to how they were raised. If your parents don’t expose you to a variety of foods when you’re young you may not know what’s out there. This excuse is limited. There comes a time when you leave your parents home and at that point you’re free to explore on your own. When that time come, some people don’t know where to begin, I say it doesn’t matter, start anywhere, just do it! I have a friend who’s like this, who never tries new things (sadly many friends like this, but I’m thinking of one in particular) and this summer I helped to expose her to some new things. I took her away from the world of frozen M&M Meats dinners in a box and to a nice Thai restaurant. She would not have gone on her own, but was willing to try something new with me by her side. Food for her, at home and in restaurants had always been typical North American fare, that’s what her parents ate and that’s what she ate too. She said that her Mom would never dream of taking the two of them to a Thai restaurant, it just wouldn’t occur to her. I was determined to break her old habits.

While perusing the menu she was unsure of what to order but refused curry of any type. With a little guidance she picked a cashew dish that I was confident would be both familiar and exotic for her. I chose a peanut and coconut curry for myself in the hopes that I could convert her. I had a feeling that she had never experienced a real curry before and was right on this point. In her mind, curry was bright yellow and overpoweringly spicy with mushy vegetables. I informed her that this could not be farther from the truth. Curries come in all sorts of varieties, yellow, red, green, and they vary in spiciness, some being actually quite sweet. You can get shrimp or chicken or beef or veggie curries and they can include coconut or peanuts and pleasant Thai flavours like lemongrass. I convinced her that she had to at least try a little bit of mine. When the dishes arrived she conceded that my curry did indeed look appetizing and better still it tasted great! We ended up splitting the two dishes between us and she admitted that curry was not at all what she had originally thought and was happy to be proven wrong. On our walk home I proceeded to point out some excellent dishes on menus posted outside of the restaurants we passed and encouraged her to try some of these on her own. You can imagine how thrilled I was when I recently received an email from her saying that when her Mom came to visit she took her out to eat both Thai and Moroccan food. My pupil had become a teacher.

I was fortunate that as a child my parents always ate a variety of foods and as I’ve grown their tastes and mine have continued to expand and encompass new and interesting flavours and food from other cultures. I never thought that the food we ate was unusual but as I got older it became increasingly clear to me that not everyone ate the same things my family did. Friends would come over to my house and some of them were wary of what I would try to feed them. I couldn’t believe it when someone had never eaten zucchini or shrimp or morels or mussels or grapefruit! I ate half a grapefruit almost every morning when they were in season, I thought everybody ate these things. It never ceases to amaze me when someone tells me years later “the first time I ever had that was at your house.” It’s not that my family didn’t eat the typical pizza, pasta, hamburgers and hot dogs, we did, but we also had so much more than that. That doesn’t mean that I always loved everything my parents put in front of me or that I shunned foods that other children craved, macaroni and cheese was one of my absolute favourites, I lobbied for it for many lunches. I loved it so much that I learned to make it on my own at a very young age so that even if my parents weren’t having it, that didn’t mean I was going to be deprived.

There were times when I didn’t fully embrace a new food, but I was always encouraged to try it, and I always did. As a child, the only foods, that, after trying, I decided I didn’t like were white mushrooms, olives and asparagus, everything else was fair game. I used to turn up my nose when my Grandpa would eat olives and try to feed them to me too. I would push them away, and he would tell me the same thing every time; that he didn’t like olives either when he was a kid, but then his Dad sat him down and made him eat 10 of them in a row and if I sat down and ate 10 of them, I too would like olives. Gradually over the years I learned to like asparagus as my mom just kept on growing it in the garden. I learned to like all types of mushrooms, especially after I had eaten them marinated and then grilled. And finally, after years of claiming to hate olives, my weekly trips to the Farmer’s market in Australia proved me wrong. They had olives of all different sizes, colours and flavours. Some were stuffed with cheese, others were marinated in lemon and oil and herbs, and all of them were available for sampling. The thing about olives was that they had always been visually appealing for me, but I had never enjoyed the taste. The friendly Aussies fed me all sorts of olives and convinced that they did indeed taste as good as they looked.

Currently, there are no foods that I can think of that I don’t like. But there are also tons of things I’ve never tried. I’ve never had foie gras or truffles, but I’ve never been offered them either. As much as my parents exposed me to new and different foods at home, we never went out to eat in restaurants and there are lots of things that I didn’t get to try until I moved to Toronto for University. There I was able to try sushi and sashimi, things that don’t even exist in the town that I’m from. I explored Kensington market and sampled Jamaican patties and doubles from Patty King, a variety of cheeses from Global Cheese and different fruits and vegetables from the stands in the market. I wandered around Chinatown and have developed a love of sweet red bean buns and taro bubble tea. In Koreatown I had bul go gi, at Pho Hung I had Vietnemese soups and in Little Italy I had canoli. Every where I went was a chance to try something new. Traveling in Australia, (aside from finally making me like olives) exposed me to all sorts of things I had never had- oysters, Greek yogurt, passion fruit, some great wines, Tim Tams (!), vegemite, (I didn’t say everything was great, only that I’d never had it before, I hear it’s an acquired taste) and an abundant use of sweet chili sauce. I look forward to traveling to other parts of the world to sample what they have to offer too.
I actively seek out new foods to try because eating is more than just something you do to survive. Eating is an experience, it’s an integral part of life. You employ all of your senses in a meal. Think about it. Taste. How does a piece of fresh piece of pineapple taste? Smell. What does the house smell like when there’s bread baking in the oven? Hearing. What kind of sound does a piece of meat make when it hits a hot grill? Touch. What kind of texture does a high quality ice cream have in your mouth? Sight. Does lobster make your eyes light up when you see it spread out on the dinner table, or do you love the sight of fancy desserts at a bakery? I would even go so far as to say my “6th sense” is food related too… I always knew when there was something tasty being created in the kitchen. My brother used to call me a vulture as I would appear with an empty glass every time he made a milkshake. Food is just important in so many ways other than sustenance. In many cultures meals are a time of celebration. And when you visit other countries, perhaps the best way to get to know the people, their customs and traditions is to break bread with them.

Anyways, I’ve rambled on for far too long and I never even got around to explaining what got me started on this rant, which was that my younger cousins were picky eaters when they came to visit and this made me sad. So to make me happy (and to end this post now, for everyone’s sanity) you can all try something new and report back on what that was. Bon appetit!

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