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Leave picky eaters alone

The other day, while my friend Julian and I were looking for a nice study spot to cram for our midterm, I got frustrated by how much time we were wasting trying to find a quiet and uninhabited enough table to claim in the Bryan Center. 

“Let’s just sit anywhere,” I told him. “Don’t be one of those super picky people who spend an hour deciding where to study.”

“Dani, this is what it’s like to eat with you,” he responded. And boy, did it feel like a punch to the taste glands. 

I am a notoriously picky eater, and have apparently been since I was three years old, according to my mother. She says that from one day to the next, I decided I’d no longer eat whatever was placed on the plate in front of me—but rather only my favorite foods. That included chicken tenders, pasta, a selection of meats (but only when accompanied by rice) and all of the traditional Venezuelan breakfast pastries that consist of basically bread and cheese. If I spotted so much as a trace of ham in our morning empanadas, they were not getting near my mouth. 

Of course, I’ve made significant achievements over the years since eventually it became a nightmare to be the only girl on the cross country team who did not like sandwiches and Gatorade, or the only one at the barbeque who didn’t eat burgers (It’s true: I didn’t eat burgers until I was fourteen and my mother finally convinced me by imploring, “C’mon, Daniela, it’s just meat, bread and cheese.”).

Now, although I still have a fairly limited menu that excludes most fruits, vegetables and seafood, I make an effort to eat somewhat healthful food that won’t make me hate myself. After all, one can only eat so many ABP chocolate muffins for breakfast before deciding that, ok, maybe my stomach will not hurt as much during my 10:05 if I start the day with some oatmeal instead.

And so I learned to love oatmeal. But no raisins, of course. Just sugar and walnuts, so it doesn’t entirely taste like pureed toilet paper. 

I know that my pickiness makes me a frustrating person to have around sometimes. I’ll only accept invitations to eat at Thrive on Central Campus after 5 p.m., when they ditch their healthy, salad-infested lunch menu and offer their more edible dinner selections, like pizza and chicken nuggets. 

But honestly, no one has had to suffer from my eating more than myself. Do you know how much I genuinely wish I could shove a piece of fruit from those Saladelia fruit cups in my mouth and force myself to love it? You know how great it would be to not gag every time someone pressures me to eat a piece of sushi? 

My life would be exponentially easier if I didn’t have such a limited palate. After all, I go crazy on Duke’s campus every semester because I get (literally) fed up with Duke’s menu for picky eaters: Div Cafe’s grilled cheese or its occasional buffalo mac and cheese, The Loop’s pizza options and chicken tenders, Pitchforks’ spaghetti and quesadillas (without the sour cream, obviously) and of course, everything from West Union’s beloved Il Forno. I get the chicken alfredo pasta without spinach or mushrooms. Or a margherita pizza, hold the basil. 

You can only alternate these options so much without beginning to feel your stomach slowly shrivel away into a miserable, resentful shadow of an organ, so I’ve really had to explore. I can’t tell you what a relief it was to discover that the lovely sandwich-makers at ABP were willing to make me a plain ham-and-cheese, even though their menu items each have three different vegetables or gross mustards injected in them. It’s really a disgrace to picky eaters everywhere. 

But we’re a breed that doesn’t get much sympathy. Stephanie Lucianovic, author of “Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest to Understand Why We Hate The Foods We Hate," wrote in the New York Times that “People aren’t choosing to dislike food. There’s a lot of shame involved. There’s not a lot of empathy for picky eaters.”

She’s telling me. You know how many times I’ve wondered whether I could put down “strong hatred of vegetables” as a dietary restriction? 

Apparently, there may be some genetic explanations to why people are picky: for example, variants in the expression of TASR38, a gene that codes for bitter taste receptors, can affect how people “feel about certain foods.” As Natasha Cong Cole, a doctoral student in nutritional sciences at the University of Illinois, explained, “It’s not just bitterness. There’s a whole suite of genes that determines taste preferences.” 

It’s comforting to know that my own stubbornness isn’t the exclusive cause of my eating habits, since in college I’ve had to deal with a fair share of people rolling their eyes when I beg them to, please, just let me eat my damn bread and butter without giving me the “How do you live like this?” spiel. 

So next time you’re with that friend who gets the same thing from the kids’ menu every time they go out to eat, cut them some slack. And if you are that friend, let me know when you want to go grab a judgment-free, plain as possible, deliciously simple meal. 

Daniela Flamini is a Trinity junior. Her column runs on alternate Mondays.

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