The picky eater’s frequently-dreaded invitation.
Spaghetti is actually just one example of this dilemma. You could substitute pizza, hamburgers, chicken and noodle soup, sandwiches, or many other common dishes for it. The point is, for a picky eater, this innocuous-sounding meal invitation is fraught with danger, because the picky eater often can’t trust that the dish in question will fall within acceptable parameters.
There is no Uniform Bureau of Standards for popular dishes that dictates precisely what ingredients should or should not be considered legitimate for inclusion in that dish, or how the end result should look, taste, smell, or be textured. The closest we come to predictability in foods is with their restaurant versions, particularly in fast food or chain restaurants, where corporate Research and Development departments and taste test panels come up with the ideas and means of making a given item, and compiling standardized instructions for the employees who will do the actual assembly and cooking.
One summer while in college, I had a temporary job at the Pizza Hut corporate headquarters; I worked in the test kitchen during the time when they were promoting a thick, pie-style pizza called the Priazzo, which some of you may remember. I mixed up big batches of dough in a giant mixer, which was a lot of fun. I checked in taste panel participants. At the end of the day, I got to take leftover Priazzos home for myself and my parents to enjoy. (I, of course, passed on the Supreme Priazzo with all the onions, peppers, and other scary components, but Mom and Dad loved it.)
In the restaurant business, the goal is to develop a menu item such as the Priazzo, determine which flavors and types will sell best, and which ingredients to use for those. Then you source your suppliers and train your store managers and cooks to obtain consistent results with the components they receive. In a region or country, a traveler can hope to visit one of your outlets and order the same beloved dish, sandwich, pizza, or whatever, and have it taste as expected from prior experiences with your restaurant back at home. Sometimes your overseas locations might be a bit more hybridized, differing in offerings and preparation methods from those in your native land. Yet there are still basic commonalities that make your brand predictable.
Picky eaters, like food chain corporations, value predictability and specificity. A version of a certain dish becomes the definitive one. Some picky eaters may manage to have a range of several variants; still, nothing outside that range will meet the criteria. So when a picky eater is used to a certain spaghetti, and the picky eater gets invited to dinner where she or he has never had their particular spaghetti, he or she has no way of knowing if it falls within his/her safe parameters for spaghetti.
These parameters are often set at home, with “how Mom used to make it,” but not always. I remember picking up some new ideas in junior high Home Economics, or from the way a storebought or restaurant version tasted, or someone else’s recipe. In some cases I would present my new ways to my mom and argue my case for change. Sometimes I marvel that my parents didn’t turn me out on the streets to fend for myself, because I was awfully pushy at times about this and other matters.
As a picky eater like myself ranges beyond the confines of home and encounters common dishes in the context of social settings – restaurant meals, business luncheons, meals at friends’ homes – she or he discovers unfamiliar variations on these dishes. This happens while the picky child, teen, or young adult is also navigating other social aspects of life, and it can really complicate those. Practicing good table manners on one’s own is difficult enough without wondering how in the world you are going to tell some very nice friends, a date, your boss, etc. that you simply cannot eat the food they‘re offering you, or anything on the menu at the restaurant you go to – or at least not without having to request quirky alterations to it.
These are dilemmas that you may encounter as a picky eater when you’re at that friend’s house and they issue the spaghetti dinner invitation:
- Perhaps you don’t care for sauce and/or meatballs at all. Do you dare request plain pasta? What if it’s too late anyway, and everything’s mixed together and being served?
- If you do eat sauce, but can’t deal with any but one particular brand, is there any way to learn whether that’s the brand being prepared? Or perhaps it’s close and you might be able to chance it, but you’d still like to know a little bit of information such as how spicy it is, whether it contains “stealth onion” bits, and so on.
- If you know these people tend to be foodies, you suspect their sauce will be extra challenging to your picky tastebuds and texture senses – it will likely contain more highly flavored components, and more chunks rather than smooth puréed Can you manage to fake it out and consume enough to make a decent showing? Will they notice that you are picking around, moving rejected vegetables to a pile at the far side of your plate, adding an inordinate amount of Parmesan cheese to disguise and mellow other flavors?
- If you have clear evidence that their version of spaghetti is a deal-breaker (you see them chopping green peppers into the saucepot, for example), how can you decline the invitation or come down with a sudden reason to leave? Often you have planned to continue whatever activities you were doing after the meal, so an abrupt departure is sometimes hard to pull off.
So we see that the specifics about foods discussed in the previous post about “Rituals, Quantities, and Other Particulars” presents enough of an issue when the picky eater is in a familiar environment. It becomes a whole new and tricky business when he or she is in a public or semi-public setting. The dilemma is difficult to explain. Socially, to attempt to do so calls attention to one’s pickiness. Conceptually, the idea itself is difficult to get across. To most people, spaghetti is spaghetti. Sure, recipes vary, and maybe a time or two the average person has encountered spaghetti that’s either amazing or really lousy, but rarely would that person say they would put the stuff in an entirely different category from regular spaghetti.
For the picky eater, however, there is “spaghetti I can eat” and “spaghetti I can’t eat.” And that’s assuming they can eat any spaghetti. There’s perhaps a grey area for some of “spaghetti I can sort of eat but would rather avoid.” Anything that falls outside of the “can eat” parameter is a source of stress for the picky eater, and the reason they sometimes look like a deer caught in headlights when the spaghetti dinner invitation is casually issued by an unsuspecting friend or associate.
And as mentioned at the beginning, spaghetti is just one example. Substitute “pizza”, or “chicken noodle soup” – just about anything with more than one or two ingredients, or with condiments –and your picky eater likely will go into Yellow, perhaps even Red, Alert mode.