Culture Magazine

The Subjective Truth of a Picky Eater at Thanksgiving

By Realizingresonance @RealizResonance


Photo courtesy of iStockphoto

I have always been a picky eater. Just a meat and cheese kind of guy. I wish I wasn’t as picky as I am, it has been a source of social awkwardness and frustration for me, and over the years I have been trying to adjust my habits with varying degrees of success. Nevertheless, my discriminating tastes remain for the most part. I eat a wider variety of vegetables more regularly than I used to, like broccoli, asparagus, green beans, carrots, and onions, I even enjoy them when I do, but I still can’t stand, and won’t touch, anything with tomatoes, lettuce, bananas, and raisins. It is fairly ironic that I am married to an adventurous cook and culinary school graduate, and while she claims that I am a delightful challenge I still feel self-conscious about my pickiness. It is my goal in this article to sort through the reasons why I might be so finicky about food.

First I want to get an objective sense of exactly how picky I am. In commemoration of the current holiday I am going to measure my pickiness in terms of a Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner, with items determined by the American Farm Bureau. I used the American Farm Bureau for my Philosophy of Thanksgiving post last year, in an article titled Inflation and the Cost of Thanksgiving Dinner. The purpose of that article was to discuss Federal Reserve monetary policy and the other potential factors that can affect the prices of food, including a forecast of the cost for Thanksgiving Dinner in 2011. I am sad to report that my prediction of 2% inflation in the price of the holiday feast was a lot less than the actual increase of 13%, a number that just barely fell within my 95% prediction interval. I intend to post a follow-up article about this before the end of the month, in which I hope to dive into the reasons for the sharp increase in food prices. In the meantime, the items that the American Farm Bureau uses to classify Thanksgiving Dinner provide a useful and objective cornucopia of food that can be used to measure my personal pickiness. I have tabulated the results below:


I dislike five out of nine food items served with a Traditional Thanksgiving Dinner. This means that I only enjoy about 44% of the items that are typically served. If we were to measure pickiness on a scale from 0 to 1, this suggests I would have a pickiness index is 0.56, with 0 representing a human garbage disposal who loves eating literally anything, and 1 representing a person who literally despises eating food of any kind. Since I am someone who uses statistics in a professional capacity, I recognize that this selection of food is not a proper sample for a truly objective pickiness index, which would be better if it had a larger number of food items that were chosen through random selection. But it is the season, and this is an easy way for others to measure their own tastes in relation to mine. I suspect that most readers would score lower than I in pickiness. Incidentally, my wife’s Thanksgiving Dinner pickiness index is much less discriminating than mine at 0.22.

To some extent my pickiness may be a habit, a pattern of tastes previously nurtured by myself, developed into strong inclinations and disinclinations for certain foods. According to my Mom I have been picky since I was a baby, and I would starve myself rather than eat something I didn’t like. I loved spaghetti, but I never wanted to eat it with the sauce because I did not like the flavor or the texture. To my Mom’s credit, the whole time I lived at home she never gave in and let me have pasta with just butter and parmesan, at least not until I ate at least one helping with the sauce. But she worked hard on that sauce and everyone else in my family loved it, so I always felt a little guilty about not liking it. My bad eating habits were certainly not nurtured by my parents. I knew what I liked and knew what I hated, and I did not care what other people had to say on the matter. No argument worked on me, not the need for a balanced diet, not starving kids in third world countries, and not even the specter of embarrassment on a date. The root of my pickiness must go a bit deeper than this it seems.

Sometimes when a child expresses strong dislikes and refuses to eat a certain food the issue is not about actual pickiness, but about exercising freedom and control over the decision. A child’s will can be incredibly strong when it comes to what they will eat, and it is not that parents indulge this so much as they often just lose a battle of wills. A child may discover that they can win this power struggle over diet by holding out the longest, and then find it to be a useful strategy for wielding authority that they generally lack in other aspects of life. It is probably no coincidence that hunger strikes are also used for peaceful political protest, as pacifists and children are both the weaker parties in their respective conflicts, and in this context the strategy of slowly harming oneself can be effective in obtaining ones goals, as long as the stronger party is sympathetic to the well-being of the weaker party. A child may even proclaim dramatic opposition to eating a food simply to garner more attention from a parent, whether from feelings of neglect, sibling rivalry, or just plain orneriness. It is possible that early childhood control issues over food might develop into picky eating habits that persist later into life.

Not everyone is as selective about their food as I am, but for some people their selectiveness is not a choice at all, but a necessity. Food allergies prevent those who are afflicted with them from enjoying the free range of culinary choices available, including things they might otherwise have a taste for. There are those who are intolerant to gluten, lactose, shellfish, and various kinds of nuts, among other things, and these immune system issues place limitations on the menu. Other diseases prohibit or restrict certain dietary judgments. Diabetics are limited by the regularity and amount of their sugar intake. Those with Celiac disease have a complete intolerance for gluten because it damages their intestines. Irritable bowel syndrome, Crones disease, and ulcers may also encourage significant restraint on what foods one consumes. As much as I would like to use it as an excuse, my own pickiness is not due to allergies as far as I know.

Food aversion is another reason that someone might have a dislike for a particular dish. This is a psychological rather than a truly physical affliction, like having an allergic reaction, but it does create a psychosomatic reaction. When we eat something and it makes us sick, we tend to avoid this food in the future because it typically makes us feel nauseous to be confronted with the smell, sight, or even thought of it. Evolution is thought to be the driving force behind this phenomenon, because there is a clear survival benefit for those who have a mechanism for detecting poisons in their environment using taste and smell, leading to the natural selection of the food aversion trait. Anyone who has drank too much Tequila and become ill, a situation I am familiar with, knows that a strong aversion to even the smell of Tequila can last for months and even years. Even foods that did not make us sick, but that were just eaten in conjunction with something else that sickens us will cause food aversion for the innocent items (Solot). I went for a year without eating microwave popcorn after becoming ill, but I don’t think that popcorn was poisonous to me. Food aversion is a real problem that affects our eating preferences, but it is not the reason for my general pickiness.

Many people are fastidious about their diet, not because of choosy tastes, but because of lifestyle choices. One may limit or boost their intake of certain foods in order to live healthy, maintain a slim figure, or to fuel an active physical routine. There are special diets designed to lose weight or to improve health which involve a selection process that weighs the appropriate foods to consume based on things like caloric intake and nutritional facts, reducing the intake of fats and carbohydrates. Alternatively, there are diets designed to build muscle mass, promoting the consumption of high levels of carbohydrates and proteins. These are an objective way of discriminating among food items, based on measurable and comparable attributes. However, there is often a connotation of suppressing one’s gustatory desires with such disciplined dietary scenarios, an ascetic control over indulging one’s taste that is hardly the same thing as pickiness. I would argue that pickiness presents a difficult obstacle to overcome for the prospective dieter, because a healthier diet might need to include foods a picky eater can’t will themselves to eat regularly.

Ethical and political concerns also affect the dietary choices for some people, such as vegetarianism, veganism, preferences for organically produced foods, for free range and humanely treated animals, or for local produce. Peter Singer argues that vegetarianism is a moral imperative because animals have the capacity to feel pain, and suffer their own deaths, combined with the fact that consumption of meat is more a luxury than a necessity. This is a dietary discrimination based in ethical reasoning. While moral judgment can be subjective and relativistic, especially in regards to vegetarianism, the food favoritism of a vegetarian is objectively shared with other like-minded souls. The belief that meat is murder can make it unpalatable, but this excuse for such distaste is notably nobler than pickiness based in taste rather than morality.

Different ethnicities, religions, and cultures may enjoy very different kinds of cuisine. Hinduism forbids the consumption of beef, Islam prohibits the eating of swine, and Judaism has guidelines for what is, and what is not, kosher. Unless they were starving I doubt that most Americans would ever eat rodents, canines, felines, or insects, but these can be common food choices in other countries. When my wife and I traveled to Peru in 2007 we sampled some eccentric local delicacies, such as alpaca and guinea pig, animals that many in the US might shy away from as food choices. Although diets are shaped by culture, and this can determine taste preferences to a significant extent, it is not a reason for pickiness in regards to the cuisine of one’s own society. It is not the root of my pickiness.

The texture of food plays heavily into my pickiness, which may be more an issue with my sense of touch, than taste per se. But it is difficult to unravel taste, smell, and touch when it comes to eating food, and even sight and sound play a part in its enjoyment to some extent. For me texture is very important, it might also be certain texture and flavor combinations that I enjoy or dislike, but it is hard to say. For example, if I eat a cheeseburger I often eat it plain without any condiments, both because I do not like the textures nor the flavors that are produced by adding ketchup, mustard, onion, lettuce, and tomatoes. However, my wife makes burger meat with the onions caramelized and mixed directly into the patties, which I enjoy even more than a regular burger patty. The change to the texture makes all of the difference for me, resulting in a burger I absolutely love, and suggesting that the source of my pickiness is not altogether just about my sense of taste.

Relative preferences are another factor in my pickiness. If we do not know what foods we do not like, how could we know what foods we really love? This is akin to the argument that you cannot know what pleasure is without pain. As I mentioned earlier, my mother allowed me to get second helpings of pasta, with just butter and parmesan cheese, after I ate at least one helping with her sauce. Part of my pickiness stemmed from my relative preference for eating pasta one way over eating it another. Americans are privileged with many culinary choices, so many options that many of us customize our diets so as to indulge are particular tastes. Having my favorite foods as easy alternatives to tempt me away from other possible choice certainly must contribute to my pickiness. It’s possible I might come to enjoy bananas if I was stranded on a desert island, but alas I am not.

There are some foods that I really enjoyed for a long time, but after eating them too many times I got completely sick of them. You really can have too much of a good thing. When I was still a young boy I really liked eating fries with ketchup, but at some point before I turned ten I started hating ketchup and never dipped my fries in it again. In high school I decided that I had forever had enough with cereal, switching to toaster waffles, and now I am sick of both of those breakfast options. Many people experience this phenomenon with food that they eat too often, but it still does not explain my general pickiness.

There are physical differences in people that may explain why we have different taste experiences than each other. The sense of taste is conveyed through taste buds located in bumps on the tongue called papillae, and everyone’s tongues exhibit different distributions of both papillae and taste buds. About 20% of the population have large concentrations of taste buds and are considered supertasters with high flavor sensitivity, while another 20% have small concentrations of taste buds and have a correspondingly weak sensitivity to flavors (Korsmeyer 87). I am not sure where I fit on this scale, but it may be a factor in my idiosyncrasies. I imagine that a picky eater could fall anywhere in the spectrum, but it seems unlikely that someone who does not physically discriminate between tastes very well would be as incredibly fussy as me.

In the end I believe that pickiness and taste belong to the realm of subjective truth. The 19th century Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard argued that religious and ethical choices are subjective truths. For most philosophers subjectivity and truth are not compatible notions, with the concept of truth dealing with objective facts, and subjectivity relegated to matters of mere opinion. However, for Kierkegaard the notion of subjective truth does not conflict with objectivity, but can apply in situations where there is objective uncertainty (Solomon). There are subjective truths in matters of faith, where the belief in an unobservable divinity is held deep within one’s own heart. Beliefs, commitments, and promises are subjective truths, because no one else can know with certainty the sincerity of these internal feelings for anyone else. This is how I feel about my pickiness. The subjective truth of my taste experience is within me, a fact of my consciousness, at the core of my identity and my existential awareness. I am not able to demonstrate this objectively, or in way that anyone else could truly understand.

Jared Roy Endicott

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