fighting the food phobia

this post is dedicated to js. because, well, just because. he'll know why from the first sentence.


last tuesday, i ate cheese.

this may not seem like a big deal to you, especially if you're only just joining us now and haven't read any of the back posts or have never eaten with me, but for me - this was momentous. it was scary. i was brave.

i have a very ironic relationship with cheese. to be more specific, i don't like it. except on pizza. and then it generally needs to be mozzarella. and pizza is one of my favorite foods.

i know, it doesn't make sense.

this isn't anything new, either. the love-pizza/hate-cheese relationship has always been the norm for me. i'm not sure exactly what it is, but the smell and texture of cheese turn my stomach - and not in a good way. i'm also not a mayonnaise fan, or a sour cream fan, or a mustard fan - though i generally don't mind eating mayonnaise, sour cream, or mustard when they're ingredients in other dishes. cheese, though, even in small amounts, can turn me entirely off a dish.

in some ways, having these food phobias are not a bad thing. it's almost like having a built-in diet (although my love of french fries generally kills that diet). but like any food phobia or food allergy, it also make life a bit more difficult. i've gone to restaurants where pretty much every dish has cheese in it. it's melted or layered into most sandwiches. i haven't been able to find a ready-made salad at trader joe's that doesn't have cheese in it. it can be really depressing. and then, when i do eat out, there's the added difficulty of ordering. about half of the time i request a dish without cheese, someone forgets. or assumes it's not a big deal and still makes it with the cheese. i'm terrified to order subs when we get delivery because i know no matter how much i stress "no cheese," it's going to show up forty-five minutes later... with cheese on it. and i'm going to have to call in the mistake and wait another forty-five minutes for a new one.

it's easy at a restaurant to tell the server or the bartender that i'm allergic or lactose intolerant just to make sure they'll take the time to make sure my order isn't screwed up, but i don't like to. it's dishonest. and it's not fair. we should all be granted the right to know what foods we like and want and what foods we don't. i love avocados, sushi, and mushrooms, but i understand and respect that fact that not everyone else does. i don't expect vegans and fruitarians to follow the same diet as me. and i have friends that i consider carbo-carnivores: they eat bread and meat, and that's about it. the way i like to think of all of these diets and food choices is that, by not eating foods we don't like or don't want, there's more of that food or dish for all the other people who do like and want it. it's a different kind of food cycle.

now with all of that in mind, here's where things get tricky for me. if you haven't noticed, this is an anthropology and food blog. my last several papers in college, in both my anthropology and english classes, were about food. consider the near-ubiquitous nature of cheese on restaurant menus and in various global cuisines. considering all that? remember the menu at the last place you ate out at?


when it comes to writing about food and restaurants, i'm usually screwed.

last tuesday, hb was kind enough to invite me along as her plus one to downtown baltimore's "dine downtown baltimore on charles street media tour." (if you're friends with me on facebook, you've probably already seen photos from the evening.) the tour consisted of food and drink tastings at b&o american brasserie, red maple, and brewer's art. the point of the media tour and tasting was to highlight some of the restaurants charles street has to offer and the new baltimore circulator. (we traversed up charles street on one of the new hybrid circulator buses. they were nice, but seemed surprisingly smaller on the inside than we expected. not a tardis interior.)

when hb invited me along, i didn't think too much about what the food would be or if i could eat it. as difficult as it can be to eat around food phobias and allergies, they can generally be figured it out through alternative menu options, altering dishes (i.e. asking for an ingredient to be removed), and side dishes. tasting menus, however, are another thing altogether. and looking at the b&o's picks for the evening, i knew i had a choice: be brave or go home. well, not literally go home. it was really more like "be brave, or don't be brave." and since not being brave would pretty much waste the evening, i went for it.

the market vegetable flatbread, winner of the flatbread raceif you didn't know, flatbreads are apparently in fashion. b&o featured three flatbreads: a smoked shrimp flatbread with favas, asparagus, red onion, and parmesan; a duck confit flatbread with shaved pear and roasted onions, and a market vegetable flatbread with red bliss potatoes, smoked ricotta, arugula, and a fried egg. flatbreads are a slight genetic step away from pizza, which was lucky for me, but if you've been reading carefully, you'll have noticed my dilemma: ricotta and parmesan and who-knows-what-on-the-duck-confit-flatbread are not the same as the safe mozzarella i'm used to. and to be honest, it was okay. i actually really liked the market vegetable and the duck confit flatbreads. the cheeses on both were mild enough for me; though i will admit, i did pretend i was eating mozzarella for the first couple bites so i wouldn't panic. the shrimp was okay, but the parmesan had an oily aftertaste that i wouldn't go back for. out of all three flatbreads, the market vegetable was definitely the winner - the fresh peas really made the whole dish shine. the duck confit was very nice, but the bbq sauce was a bit sweet and the shaved pear on top was practically non-existent. i pulled the shrimp off of the last flatbread after deciding the cheese was not for me. and i ate the crust, which was very nice. b&o also featured some specialty mixed drinks, of which i don't really have any notes on. blueberry happiness(i took photos and hb took notes. and i forgot to ask hb for her notes. maybe if she's nice and has a few minutes to spare, she'll describe the drinks in the comments below. hint.) all i can remember (and hopefully i'm getting it right) was the first was yellow, had lavender in it, and was a bit too sweet for me, and sort of heavy; the second was a delightful ginger-y fizz; and the third was a blueberry something that i loved, because i love blueberries.

red maple was the ridiculous "restaurant" of the tour, namely because it's not a restaurant, it's a club. and because they didn't seem to know what they were doing. or that they were hosting media types, who were reviewing them. there was no one to introduce the dishes or explain what made the restaurant/club special or a worthwhile stopping place. the only clue we had as to what we were eating were a couple quick printouts. the food itself was awkward, it was too difficult for club consumption (i.e. you needed two hands and silverware for just about everything) and the seating was all uncomfortable low tables and ottomans, which made restaurant dining awkward and out of the question. it was a bad in between all-around. the first dish they served, which in my opinion was the highlight, was an avocado ceviche. it was good, but not great. then there was overdone shrimp and pineapple on sugarcane (i think? pretty sure, someone correct me if i'm wrong) skewers. had the shrimp not been so tough and had they removed the tails, it would have been perfectly fine and a great, portable club snack - though still nothing special.

but then came the watermelon salad. with red onions, mint, and feta.

remember how brave i was trying to be? i took one bite and thought i was going to be sick.

feta is not for me. no, nay, never.

the last dish was a lamb skewer with a (very vinegary) beet salad and thread-thin fried potatoes that half of us thought were onions at first. the lamb was dry and tough, but the potatoes were kind of okay and the beets, when eaten with the potatoes, were only mostly over-powering. all of these dishes took forever to come out of the kitchen, by the way - but you'll notice, none of them were incredibly intense. in fact, just about everything could have been prepped well in advance, leaving only the skewers and the potatoes strings to fire right before serving. so, it's curious we were stuck there for so long. it's also very curious that, for a food and drink tasting, red maple served... water. maybe they're a club that specializes in tap water and extreme lightweights. who knows?

our last stop, brewer's art, specializes in drinks of course. and, still reeling from the monstrosity of the feta (i know, i know, it probably wasn't that bad - it's just me), resurrection (in a can!) followed by a glass of red wine were divine. brewer's art also served up a creamy green (broccoli-ish, i think) soup, crab dip, (lobster, i think?) ravioli, mussels, and a marscapone and prosciutto pizza. the green soup-y thing (technical term, there) was nice, but while drinking soup out of champagne flutes looks good, it probably isn't (and shouldn't be) the tableware wave of the future - at least, i hope not. the crab dip and the ravioli were both cheese dishes i tasted - and decided weren't for me. yum... mussels.mussels... i love mussels. i think i'm going to try making them myself at home one of these nights. i've already started collecting possible recipes. by the time i got to the marscapone pizza, i was all braved out. i gave my slice to hb and called it a night.

so why was fighting this food phobia of mine so important? besides the whole food blogging bit, i've been thinking a lot recently about the introduction to jeffrey steingarten's book the man who ate everything. before even delving into the book, steingarten discusses food aversions, his own food phobias, and how ate himself out of them - literally. "the nifty thing about being omnivores," he says, "is that we can take nourishment from an endless variety of flora and fauna and easily adapt to a changing world ... yet, by the age of twelve, we all suffer from a haphazard collection of food aversions ranging from revulsion to indifference" (steingarten 1997:7). a lot of these aversions, steingarten explains, come from practical fears or past experiences (whether accurately attributed to the correct food or not) with allergies, food poisoning, or whatever. but, he reminds us, "by closing ourselves off from the bounties of nature, we become failed omnivores. we let down the omnivore team" (steingarten 1997:8). besides not wanting to let down the "omnivore team" by not addressing and overcoming food aversions, we're often cheating ourselves. think of how often we reject a food based off of appearance, only to discover later how delicious it is. the only thing to do, if we don't don't want to cut ourselves off at the knees (figuratively - though i suggest not cutting ourselves off at the knees literally, either) is to "try and try again" foods we fear. notably, steingarten has this to say:

exposure, plain and simple. scientists tell us that aversions fade away when we eat moderate doses of the hated foods at moderate intervals, especially if the food is complex and new to us. (don't try this with allergies, but don't cheat either: few of us have genuine food allergies.) exposure works by overcoming our innate neophobia, the omnivore's fear of new foods that balances the biological urge to explore for them. did you know that babies who are breast-fed will later have less trouble with novel foods than those who are given formula? the variety of flavors that make their way into breast milk from the mother's diet prepares the infant for the culinary surprises that lie ahead. most parents give up trying novel foods on their weanlings after two or three attempts and then complain to the pediatrician; this may be the most common cause of fussy eaters and finicky adults - of omnivores manqués. most babies will accept nearly anything after eight or ten tries (steingarten 1997:10).

keeping this in mind, steingarten goes on to tackle his own food phobias. and while not every food he had feared before became a food favorite, just about everything he had found unfavorable became at least palatable. if that's not impressive, i don't know what is. (okay, i do know: that guy who was in the news recently who apparently hasn't eaten for decades or something. i don't fully remember the story. but that's impressive in the opposite sort of way.)

i don't know if i'm fully ready to tackle my food phobias steingarten-style, but the main point of being brave was to prove to myself that, when i'm ready, i probably can conquer my fear of cheese. for now i'll stick with my homely mozzarella on pizza, but i know now that i won't die from tasting ricotta or who-knows-what-that- was-on-the-duck-confit-flatbread-at-b&o-cheese. i also know that feta (and goat cheese - tried that one a few months back; it tasted like something had died) is not for me and most likely never will be. and crab dip and the cheesy ravioli filling - eh. i can pass. but these are all good things to know. and, while i may not be supporting the omnivore team on the cheese frontier, i can definitely hold my own when i comes to blueberry cocktails and avocado anything.