Plug your nose. Count one, two, three. Close your eyes and hope not to embarrass yourself by spitting out the food you just shoved in.
Eating escargot, tarte flambee and terrine of salmon in a sophisticated dining setting in France is the ultimate challenge for a picky eater. I should know, having not eaten a burrito until the overdue age of 19.
Although traveling alone may seem like it is enough to challenge someone’s limits, for me it was not. I needed to take it a step further. For a picky eater, the best way to experience a culture and challenge oneself is by eating the unfamiliar food of another country.
Growing up as a picky eater, I remember numerous times that my mother would beg me to eat anything other than chicken fingers and french fries. Not once was she successful in making me try mac ‘n’ cheese, bologna, cheeseburgers, and never even close to any fruit or vegetables as simple as bananas and carrots. I recall a time that she sat down with me and told me that she did not know what to do about my dietary stubbornness and that I had to start trying new foods if I ever had a shot at being healthy. We clashed on my eating patterns until I moved out for college. So naturally, the first thing my parents said when I told them of my plans to study food and writing in Germany and France was, “but what will you eat?” Trying not to show my worry, this got me thinking that she was right. I had no experience outside fried food and pizza.
I was nervous that throughout the two weeks of my traveling abroad, I would not enjoy any of the food, eat less than half of my meals, and have fellow travelers asking me “aren’t you hungry?” (Don’t ever say this to a picky eater. Yes, they’re hungry. No, they don’t want to try ‘just a bite.’)
Several rational fears kept coming to mind when thinking about locals asking me if I’m hungry. I continued to wonder if I would be missing out on flavor, culture, and the entire food experience. I also was worried that by declining food or asking it to be modified that I would offend the host or chef. So in hopes of finding at least one tasty food item and to not insult the chef, I vowed to eat everything. Starting small I sampled schnitzel, moved up to bratwurst, potato soup, tarte flambee, salmon tartare, Bleu d'Auvergne, crêpes, terrine of salmon, and ended with escargot. Surprisingly, I liked it all.
If I had chosen to stick to my choosy habits, I would not have enjoyed traveling as much. From eating local dishes, I was able to feel as a part of the culture rather than an outsider. It felt good to stop hiding behind chicken fingers and french fries and bite into refinement.
The best advice that I received from a Parisian was to never ask a waitress or host to alter a meal for you. If a chef feels that mushrooms should be cooked in chicken broth, then the mushrooms will be in the chicken broth - no substitutions or alterations.
When going to a play, I do not expect to enjoy every piece of the play; I go to the play for an interpretation of a story, and this is now the same when I go to a restaurant.
I was up for the challenge to consume the classic clichè French food - escargot. Slimy, chewy, and green. Three adjectives that I would have never want to use when describing my food. But if I wanted to try everything and truly dive into French cuisine than I had to eat escargot.
Seeing escargot on the menu at a french restaurant in Paris was intimidating. I had no idea whether it would be served hot or cold, seasoned or sauced, with a fork or a spoon, etc. I was so overwhelmed with the idea that I would not like it that I decided to order something else on the menu. When the person next to me ordered escargot, I had no excuse.
I was surprised to see the green bubble-gum look alike with steam coming off of it and covered in garlic butter. Suddenly, I was less intimidated. The snails in front of me were not crawling across the table and did not have eyes to look back at me like I had imagined.
The escargot was served on a plate of six snail shells with special tongs to hold the shell with a small fork to poke into the escargot. Once I got a grasp on how to use the tongs and fork with the escargot, I felt eager to be so close to trying an unknown food.
Raising the escargot towards my mouth I smelled garlic and saw a small glob of deep green goo approaching. The savory garlic butter dripped from the chewy yet crisp ball that was effortlessly devoured. I wanted more. Shocked at my accomplishment, I had eaten escargot in France before ever trying mac'n'cheese in the States.
Expecting to get an obnoxious reaction, my fellow travelers video recorded my tasting. Disappointedly they got a ‘hmm, it’s really not that bad. Can I have some more?’ reaction instead.
From diving into these cultural foods, I learned that the French and Germans take care of their meals. Every meal must be fresh, complete, proportionate, and demonstrate the hard work that goes into preparing it. With so much thought put into breakfast, lunch, and dinner, locals prefer to sit down and fully appreciate what they are eating with family and friends.
I have learned to never ask for alterations in a dish however, to be curious to see the personal touch that a chef contributes to a meal. Because of this experience I am now more interested in the food I eat at home, why I eat it, the history behind it, the appropriate way to delight in it, where it comes from, and how to properly prepare it. This is a big change from throwing whatever is in the freezer into the oven and eating that in under 20 minutes.
Since visiting Europe, I find eating as a moment to enjoy who I am dining with and enjoy what I am eating and even take interest in cooking it. Many picky eaters will find that once they take the leap to try everything, they will find themselves to be celebrating flavor rather than hiding from it.
Back in the United States, I regularly cook full meals nightly and enjoy playing with various flavor combinations. A typical dinner for myself might be composed of a side salad with carrots, nuts, cucumbers, spinach, and olive oil, and white sticky rice with a topping of garlic shrimp and a touch of Cajun seasoning.
It is also easy for myself to understand the feeling of wanting a sit-down dinner to be over. However, since branching out of my food comfort zone, a sit-down dinner is something that I look forward to.
Dining is one of the most important things to me when traveling now. It is a way to learn about customs, culture, and societal norms of a certain country or region. Countries come together over meals, and outsiders are able to take a peek into local living by indulging into typical food of a culture.
Who would have ever thought I would swap chicken fingers for escargot? Not me. Not my mother. All it took was a college study abroad program and one simple decision to go for it..0