We took the kids for dim sum last weekend. Lizzie said the restaurant reminded her of Mulan’s house. Katie practiced reading Chinese. Henry drummed on the table with chopsticks, and cried when there were no hot dogs.
My husband and I like to believe that we have become better parents over time. We are more patient and better listeners. We no longer get swept up in arguments about combing hair or whether wearing a princess dress to church is a sin. And neither of us has locked anyone in any room in a really long time. And yet, our son Henry subsists almost entirely on a diet of processed meat, mac and cheese, French Toast, and cucumbers.
Our oldest daughter has the palate of a 42-year-old. She eats bleu cheese, oysters, mussels, wasabi, Sriracha, and okra. She pickles her own root vegetables and blends her own curry paste. Her latest obsession is homemade lemon curd, which she likes to pair with a braided rosemary loaf. When we dine out, she frequently orders the bouillabaisse.
Our middle kiddo, while slightly less eclectic in her gastronomic enthusiasms, still enjoys a wide variety of foods. Some of her favorites include king crab, salmon sashimi, kale chips, chicken korma, raw spinach, and any variety of homemade pie. During dessert last week at the Pie Hole, she horked down a slice of pumpkin in under two minutes flat. She also polished off Katie’s apple, my chocolate, and Ken’s earl grey pie, and made a bit of a stink when I said we could not order any more.
Henry did not eat pie that day. He wanted a hot dog.
In his book, The Man Who Ate Everything, food critic Jeffrey Steingarten studied his own food aversions and concluded that most food “phobias” are simply learned behaviors. You catch a flu bug after eating noodles, and thereafter, lo mein is banished from your menu. The texture of tofu is initially off-putting, so you add it to your iffy list. However, Steingarten found that he was able to cleanse his taste buds. He conquered nearly all of his food fears, from kimchi to clams, simply through repeated exposure. The more often he made himself sample dreaded dishes, the more likely he was to tolerate, even enjoy them. He claimed the same was true for young people. “Most babies,” he wrote, “will accept nearly anything after eight or ten tries.
Which means that we only have to pile pork buns and radish cakes in front of Henry nine more times before we might actually get him to stomach them. Of course, multiply that across the three hundred other foods that he routinely eschews, and it looks like we will be resetting his taste buds — not to mention making embarrassing scenes in restaurants — for the rest of his childhood.
It is not just that I would like to see my son eat his vegetables. I want him to grow up and experience the world more fully. I want him to savor sushi in Tokyo. I want his first trip to Paris to include both pain au chocolat and escargot. And I fear that closed-mindedness towards food might cause him to overlook life’s other pleasures – wine, the opera, off beat travel, or even visionary ideas. Might not a love affair with hot dogs predestine an existence devoid of intellectual subtlety and nuance?
The only thing that gives me hope is that I was also a crummy eater. Peanut butter sandwiches nourished my childhood. I would never have consumed pie. Or cheese. Or mushrooms. Or cured meats. Or any of dozens of other foods that, as an adult, I now enjoy. Even as a teenager, I remember being afraid of typical teen fare: Cherry Coke, sweet and sour chicken, nachos. But after repeated exposure, even I evolved to enjoy those (admittedly terrible) foods.
So for now, we will keep plopping it all in front of him – the eggplant, the soybeans, the soup — in hopes that the scent, the memory, even just the essence of these flavors will be stored somewhere in his sausage-loving brain. And one day, maybe Henry will stop drumming his chopsticks long enough to be mildly intrigued by a dumpling or a rice ball, and take a big bite out of life.