For picky eaters worldwide, longtime Bay Area Bites and Grub Report blogger Stephanie V.W. Lucianovic’s first book, "Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate," will generate a collective fist-pump. “See? See? We’re not crazy!” I can imagine them shouting, slamming the book down among doubters at the dinner tables where they’ve been made to feel like freaks for their whole lives.
Then, for a non-picky eater like me, reading "Suffering Succotash" is a necessary, if guilt-inducing wake-up call: all those picky eaters I’ve known and rolled my eyes over are not necessarily passive-aggressive control freaks who enjoy wielding power at the dinner table, nor are they xenophobes or any of the other horrible things I’m sure I’ve subconsciously assumed about them. Rather, they are just like anyone else who is not in entire control of their own body.
Fortunately, Stephanie delivers the news with such aplomb and humor that I didn’t wind up self-flagellating with a garland of raisins for too long. There are many laugh-out loud moments in the book -- only Stephanie could write a diatribe on her mother’s nose for cat pee, after all -- but just as important, there’s more than a little something for everyone in the book (after all, everyone eats), including an introduction to the little known “sixth taste”; what tests are necessary to maybe identify a true “super taster”; useful differentiations between “lying picky eaters” and “honest picky eaters”; why from a bio-evolutionary perspective picky eating might well be advantageous; and how many a picky eater, Stephanie included, can wind up morphing into a full-blown foodie. Oh, and some kick-ass recipes (I’ve already made Stephanie’s standby roasted broccoli, originally from Food 52, and I’m moving on tonight to her sautéed okra.
What follows is a Q & A with Stephanie. Full disclosure: I’m mentioned in her acknowledgements due to a quick allusion in "Suffering Succotash" to just how vain I am about my bookshelves, a characteristic I hope at least I gain points for at least being honest about it, just like an “honest picky eater.”
The title of your book, "Suffering Succotash," is so perfect and so smart. Did you struggle to come up with that title, or did it just come to you in a flash one day?
I was simply brainstorming titles and subtitles one day, and among other less inspiring results like "Confessions of a Picky Eater" and "From Picky to Foodie, My Painful Journey of Food Waste," I scribbled down "Suffering Succotash." It was just working title for a long time, totally a placeholder, and I didn't want to get too attached to it. Given that it is the trademark expression of Loony Tunes' Sylvester the Cat, I really didn't think we'd be allowed to use it for the book. Luckily for me, it turns out that not even the Warner Brothers folks can lay original claim to "Suffering Succotash," because it's a minced oath, which is an expression that the devout came up when they needed to swear but didn't particularly feel like going to Hell. "Suffering Succotash" is the de-brimstoned version of "Suffering Savior" -- just as "Gosh" or "Golly" subs in for "God." Other lesser known minced oaths include "Cheese and rice" for "Jesus Christ," "Gadzooks" for "Gods hooks," which refers to the nails on Christ's cross, and "criminy" for "Christ's money," aka the thirty pieces of silver Judas pocketed to betray Jesus. You know, good fun.
You take such care in the book to make clear that for picky eaters, it's not so much that they won't eat certain foods, but more that they can't -- a very important distinction and one that takes non-picky eaters like me by surprise and leaves us feeling a bit like we've been horribly insensitive and ignorant. What are other important "takeaway" messages about picky eaters that you think non-picky eaters really must know?
Being a picky eater is not fun. In fact, it really sucks. It sucks to be scared of restaurants, it sucks to get anxious when traveling in foreign locations, it sucks to avoid family gatherings, but what sucks the most is the shame and embarrassment picky eaters carry. Picky eating is not a choice. Picky eaters are not being whiny or high maintenance or xenophobic, they are reacting to their instincts, their biology, their genetics, and their past experiences.
Also, people have varying success when it comes to "getting over" picky eating. Just because some people do doesn't mean all can. I'd really like non-picky eaters to think of foods they really hate and imagine what life would be like for them if those foods were the only foods out there. Food preferences are subjective, just like music preferences. You wouldn't call me whiny, high maintenance, or tween-o-phobic just because I don't like Miley Cyrus, would you?
No one would choose to be a picky eater.
What about picky eating in other cultures, specifically in ones where there is far less variety in terms of diet? Are there picky eaters everywhere, no matter what the choices and culture, or is it possible that picky eating is something of a reaction to abundance?
I can only hypothesize since it’s not my area of expertise, but statistically speaking, it stands to reason that when you have a large variety of choices the chances are pretty favorable that there are going to be some things you don't like. It used to be that grocery stores carried one kind of cheese or one variety of tomato, but today we theoretically have access to a larger variety of food than we ever did before, so it makes sense people aren't going to like every piece of fruit or slice of cheese out there. This is also why I question the idea that picky eating is on the rise among children or if it's simply that we now have so many more foods that have the potential to be disliked.
I think it's also safe to say that there are people all around the world who like some foods and dislike other foods; that's just biology, access, or life experience. Whether those dislikes translate into "picky eating" as we define it is not something I can say definitively. Anecdotally, my father grew up poor, and it never occurred to him not to eat the food that was put in front of him. He may not have liked everything, but he ate it anyway.
To non-picky eaters, until they read your book, it seems strange that an entire book could be devoted to picky eating. At what point did you know that you had an entire book’s worth of material on picky eating?
I always knew I had a lot to say and many stories to tell but what I didn't know was the sheer amount of information I'd be able to dig up that could explain so many things, like why always defaulting to "let's talk about Supertasters" when talking about picky eaters is often inaccurate and a dead end. The deeper into my research I burrowed, the more information I found and the more fascinated I became with the topic. There were so many instances of, "Yes! This explains SO MUCH!" Like how the horror some picky eaters have of foods touching can be related to the Borgia "We Live to Poison" Family and extended to the idea that picky eaters will inherit the universe. Or how a chance encounter with Hare Krishna beliefs combined with something Jacques Pépin once told me turned into a quick and painless session of family therapy that would probably resonate with other picky eaters. I could go on and on about lemonade and skunk smells and picky eaters in the Bible being killed off by plagues, but I'll save space and encourage people to just read the book.
Your book is in some ways a manifesto for picky eaters, and you even suggest that picky eaters "stand proud." Tell us a bit more about what you mean by that.
Hah! I originally thought of my exhort to "stand picky, stand proud" as a battle cry, but I like the idea of writing an entire manifesto. Makes me sound like I"m holed up in a bunker somewhere plotting mass raisin deaths.
What I mean by "stand picky, stand proud" is to not be ashamed of who you are. If you are picky, so be it. Own it. Realize it's not your fault, that it's out of your control, and that anyone who hassles you can read my book to educate themselves on the facts of picky eating and hopefully gain a modicum of empathy.
"Suffering Succotash" is the first book written by a picky eater for picky eaters, and part of my mission in writing it and getting all this research, information, and shared experiences out there is to, as I say in the book, give picky eaters their day in the sun. It's time someone told their story and put a kibosh on all those "picky eaters are sooooo annoying" articles that get written every holiday season.
Imagine for a moment that you are sent off to a desert island for three months, and your only food supplies to keep you going for those three months are the foods you’ve declared in "Suffering Succotash" you hate most: raisins, bananas, oatmeal, cream of wheat, grits, polenta, the skin of tomatoes, caviar, offal, cooked green peppers, cooked green beans, particular fish, figs, dates, particular melons, stews, braises, gelatinous desserts, rabbit, veal, dill, black licorice, tarragon, lemongrass, coleslaw, mozzarella cheese, mayonnaise, rice pudding, particular leafy greens, cooked cherries, fruit flavored chocolate, fried rice with peas and carrots, tapioca, cream sauces, and grape leaves and seaweed. What would you do?
Starve. No, I'm kidding. That's the list of foods I prefer not to have in my mouth if I had the choice. However since I've overcome my hatred of so many other things, I'm pretty confident I would do okay on a weird-ass island that managed to produce cream of wheat AND mayonnaise with minimal gagging. But not raisins. Raisins are pure evil.
I guess I would just have to get myself in "I eat this or I die" mindset. It would be a far more powerful motivator than trying to impress my boyfriend, which was my original impetus for getting over certain food hates. I would take deep breaths and try relax. I would have to forget the whole "marooned on a desert island with no hope of rescue" thing, which would probably be at odds with the "trying to relax" thing.
In the face of certain death by starvation, I don't think it would be too difficult for anyone to eat the things one hates the most. I mean, people have drunk their own urine for survival!
Meet Stephanie in person and buy a copy of her book at one of these Bay Area events:
July 9, 2012
Reading & Signing
San Francisco, CA
July 10, 2012
Reading & Signing
Book Passage San Francisco
San Francisco, CA
July 26, 2012
Read-Along, Live Chat, and Raisin Bash Session
5:30 PT/8:30 ET
August 26, 2012
Litquake Peninsula Mini-Fest
Oshman Family Jewish Community Center
Palo Alto, CA
August 29, 2012
Reading & Signing
Menlo Park, CA