Picky Eater

March 22, 2024

I grew up in a big Italian family in St. Louis, Missouri. Most of what I remember eating as a kid was various pastas, salsiccia, salami and cheese sandwiches, toasted ravioli, St. Louis-style pizza. Sometimes my grandma would make some beef stew or something like that. For Christmas, it was always Italian-American food. Beef ravioli, chicken spiedini. Lots of tomatoes, meat, and cheese.

My dad’s house was in the Italian-American part of town. I would sometimes walk to the Italian bakery to get some Sicilian sesame bread, then to an Italian immigrant grocer to get Volpi Genoa salami and Provel cheese. To me, these are the ideal ingredients for the best sandwich in the world.

But all bread, salami, and cheese are not the same. Child Louie was about to learn this the hard way. While my friend and I were watching Power Rangers on TV, his mom asked what kind of sandwich I’d like. I responded “salami and cheese.” What I got was not at all what I expected. It was a wheat-bread sandwich, Oscar-Mayer hard salami, and cheddar cheese, with a squirt of yellow mustard. This sandwich was tough for me to swallow.

That doesn’t make me a picky eater, right?

I went to Catholic schools throughout my childhood. And there are some side-effects from doing that. If you’re not familiar with Lent, it’s a period of 40 days where Catholics have rules for fasting. Specifically on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent, you’re not allowed to eat meat.

What they mean is meat from animals that live on land. But also you can’t eat bird meat. You can’t even have soups that use a chicken broth. Nothing that is cooked in animal fat, either. For some reason, fish is allowed.

Now, St. Louis is about 600 miles (as the crow flies) to the nearest ocean. That means river and lake fish are what we got. We’re talking mostly catfish.

Every Friday night during Lent, my school would hold what’s called a fish fry. The whole community would come and eat fried fish and hushpuppies.

Here’s a Fun Fact: the Filet-O-Fish was invented specifically to cater to Catholics in the midwest who stopped going to McDonald’s during Lent. Nearby restaurants would also adapt their menus for those forty days to be more seafood-focused. So for a tenth of the year, it was seafood time.

I didn’t always hate it. But over the years, I began to dread the smell of a school gymnasium full of fried fish.

I’m not Catholic, or even Christian anymore. It’s not for me. When I dropped that act, I also removed fish from my life completely.

That doesn’t make me a picky eater, right?

Years later, at age 19, I moved to San Francisco, and the world opened up a little. For the first time in my life, Thai, Indian, and Japanese food were readily available to me. Also, Californian Mexican food. Later, I would have Greek, French, and Russian food. My first international trip was to the UK (which is not famous for its food, sorry, not sorry). But I did get to have a proper full English breakfast.

And with every new cuisine I tried, I realized how little culinarily I got to experience as a kid.

Some of these cuisines reintroduced seafood to me. Sometimes shrimp. Or a little crab, maybe. It wasn’t long before some friends noticed I don’t eat fish and tried to “fix” me. There were two common strategies.

  1. A friend claims a fish they’re eating “isn’t that fishy.” Let me tell you, it’s impossible for people who love seafood to understand why they are not a good judge of this.
  2. A friend pretends something isn’t seafood. This is so dangerous and breeds mistrust. Lying to me about this doesn’t work and distances us.

I can’t begin to tell you how many times someone has told me that I just haven’t had the right fish yet. Or the right preparation of it yet. Or a good quality of fish yet. Maybe I just haven’t tried it a certain way that would click for me.

Some friends took me out for sushi, hoping that strategy might work. Of course, sushi is not a kind of food you can take a bite out of. It’s a whole-mouthful kind of experience. And when it’s of something that your body is rejecting, you find yourself in a very uncomfortable position.

When I visited Japan, I noticed a funny thing about tempura: you can’t always discern what’s under the breading. Surprise! That one’s fish.

After all these years of voluntarily (and involuntarily) trying, I’m nearly convinced it will never click for me.

That doesn’t make me a picky eater, right?

The variety of food available to me in the States (especially in Portland) never made me feel like I could possibly be classified as a “picky eater.” I’d go to my favorite Mediterranean, Russian, and Italian restaurants. There was a Hawaiian joint I loved. Japanese curry and spicy miso ramen. An Indian restaurant that had everything but curry. Food carts for bánh mì and Texas barbecue tacos. American Chinese food. Korean bibimbap. And pizza. Absolutely pizza. The blend of Peruvian and Japanese. I still crave the Filipino and Mexican fusion I used to enjoy in San Francisco. These are inventive things born from immigrants.

When I planned to move to Japan, fully knowing it’s an island nation with lots of seafood, I didn’t sweat because Tokyo is the largest city in the world. I’ve had great Neapolitan pizza here. There would surely be restaurants that have all the food I could want. I wasn’t worried about it.

I knew some things would be hard to find, but I did not expect some to be virtually impossible.

Where’s my Hawaiian plate lunch? “Hawaiian” here just means “pancakes.” (???) This was a tricky one to unpack. A Hawaiian plate lunch is kinda based on Japanese bento. They have some notable differences, but the Hawaiian variety has almost no appeal here. Pancakes, on the other hand, are seen as “Hawaiian” because pancakes were not well-known in Japan until Japanese tourists began eating them in Hawaii.

Fried chicken sandwiches in Japan? Except at McDonald’s and KFC, you might find something like that hard to find. The “why” stems from there being basically no culinary influence here from the American South.

In Japan, there are only three kinds of pizza: New York, Neapolitan, and Japanese delivery pizza. If you want to know what Japanese pizza is like, I suggest taking a scroll on the Domino’s Japan website. (Get ready for Mayonnaise Shrimp.)

In contrast, there are more than a dozen varieties of pizza in the States. There’s no way I’ll find Detroit pizza in Japan. Even Sicilian pizza remains elusive. But I could get both in Portland. I could find more than a dozen styles at just one San Francisco pizza place alone. I’m not talking about toppings. I’m talking about totally different methods of making pizza.

The places I love to go to are the ones that I relate to most: a New York pizza joint, an American sandwich shop, and a small taco chain. I even found a great Philly cheesesteak. All of these are made by Japanese people who learned about and love this food. Of course, I also eat Japanese food much more frequently than I did before.

One day, one of my Japanese friends teased me about only eating pizza and tacos, and never eating Japanese food. And then another friend—on a completely separate occasion—said almost the same thing.

I realized just then that I’ve been insecure about people thinking I’m a “picky eater” all my life. I started to defend it in my head. So what? I’m eating what I like.

Due to those insecure feelings, I looked back at the previous week to see if I’m really eating pizza and tacos all the time. And the truth is that I hadn’t eaten pizza or tacos even once. Instead, I ate a fair amount of Japanese food: curry rice, hayashi rice (twice), yakiniku, and ramen.

That’s when I remembered that some Japanese people don’t consider these things to be Japanese food. Curry is Indian. Hayashi rice is yōshoku (Western-influenced food). Yakiniku is Korean. Ramen is Chinese. You may be thinking: Wait—what?

Of course, like most places in the world, imported cuisine is adapted. That means ramen in Japan can sometimes be considered more Japanese than Chinese. Kinda like how pizza in the US can be considered more American than Italian. This is when you see places differentiate by using words like “authentic” or “street.”

Sometimes, immigrants make approximations (and I think those still qualify as authentic, but that’s beside the point). Other times, in order to appeal to the local palate, dishes are adapted or misappropriated. Examples are like crab rangoon as Asian food in the US, pancakes as Hawaiian food in Japan, and beef and cheese skewers as Japanese food in France.

As a side note, what’s really silly is when the origin country imports their own export. I was once in a grocery store in Italy where I found a “Big Americans” frozen pizza with corn on it. Like yeah, I get that corn is from the Americas, but you know what else is? Tomatoes. Look it up. Though now widely associated with Italian cuisine, Italians didn’t even eat tomatoes until at least the 1500s. It wasn’t common until the late 1700s.

So maybe I like Japanese interpretations of foreign food more than I like native Japanese food. I’m still noodling on that, but from the perspective of Japanese people, I am eating more non-Japanese food than they would, which makes me stick out a little. It’s noticeable. It’s something a few people have said to me.

That doesn’t make me a picky eater, r— wait a minute.

My Japanese friends are eating more Japanese food than I would. Maybe some of them are even eating more Japanese food than non-Japanese food.

The US is chock-full of immigrants from all over the world. As a result, it’s got so much variety in its cuisine. You can find so many kinds of food. But in Japan, for instance, there are very few immigrants or people from immigrant backgrounds, especially western immigrants.

Cheese is not found in Japanese cuisine. It’s almost exclusively reserved for foreign food. As a result, many people here grew up without cheese in their diets.

For me, that was fish. Because of the geographic and societal configuration of my childhood, fish was not an important part of my diet.

There were two things in the last couple months that made me become more appreciative of these differences and of my own identity.

The first happened in Shinjuku. I went to get some Volpi prosciutto. Amazingly, that’s possible. Prosciutto from my hometown in Tokyo. Incredible. When I spoke with the deli counter staff, I requested 500g of prosciutto. This totally caught her off guard. She responded, “Fifty grams?” “No, five hundred grams.” “One hundred grams?” I said, 「五百グラム!」

She stood there, puzzled, looking to the other staff, seeing if anyone speaks better English to make sure I’m not making a mistake. I relent, and say, 「二百」(200g). “Oh, okay.”

A couple days later, I was at Eataly for lunch, and walked around to the salami counter after. The guy here is Italian, but grew up in Iran. Lived in Japan for more than 20 years. He mentions that he’s seen me around here before, and asks if I live here. I tell him I live nearby. I mention the prosciutto incident from the other shop, and I only said “500g” before he knew exactly where this story was going. He looks at me before I can get to the next bit and says, “Japanese people cannot understand wanting that much prosciutto. It’s not even that much!” THANK YOU, MY DUDE. I felt so validated.

The second was at a Mexican restaurant here. One of the people cooking is this woman from Paraguay. She moved here to study Japanese and cook Japanese food. (Well, she’s doing one of those things.) Anyway, we usually chat when I’m there, and she mentions how they’re serving up some fried fish soon. I tell her I’m not super interested. She says she doesn’t eat fish either. I asked her why. She tells me that Paraguay is one of only two landlocked countries in South America, and that she only had fried river and lake fish growing up, which didn’t do much for her. SAME, GIRL. I GET YOU. Again, I felt so validated.

The circumstances around our childhoods often determine what kind of food we eat and love. In turn, food shapes who we are. It is part of our identities and it reflects the culture we grew up in. There are emotions imbued in the food we eat; memories are brought out when we take a bite. Some of those memories aren’t great. A bad memory may distance you from some foods. But good memories can make you crave certain food.

Though I feel some insecurity around being labeled as a “picky eater,” I realized through traveling to other places and living in another country that this configuration is different for each person. And sometimes just as strong. My best friend can’t stand raisins. In a way, that feels far more trivial than my dislike of fish. But inside of that distaste for raisins is a bad memory that can’t be erased.

This stuff is deeply personal, and what’s considered “normal” or even “authentic” is not universal. I don’t think, then, that there is any value in labeling “picky eaters.”

All our experiences that developed into what we like and don’t like to eat are valid. Instead of making ourselves feel bad about it, I think it’s better to embrace it.

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