Have personal diets replaced personal philosophies?
Rules of everything from morality to etiquette no longer appear to apply. People will eagerly discuss their open relationships, their dismissal of religion, the fact that they didn’t vote, their contempt for handwritten notes and their sexually transmitted diseases.
Yet these same people will also threaten never to speak to you again if you serve them runny eggs, pasteurized milk or any dish where the mashed potatoes have touched the peas.
We might eschew dogma when it comes to our ideologies, but we’ve embraced some fairly rigid systems when it comes to intake. Even those with fairly promiscuous palates construct their own boundaries.
My pal Tim, who adores sweetbreads, fois gras and tripe — organ meats that make others blanch at the very mention of their actual origins (thymus, liver, stomach) — won’t eat anything that looks the way it did when it was alive. He’ll have lobster rolls but not lobster. Even though he’s originally from Texas, he won’t eat barbecue if it’s still on the bone. (His wife Nancy, my old college roommate, makes up for it by gnawing delightedly on whatever bones are close to her plate; she’s like Hannibal Lecter’s adorable little sister.)
And certainly Tim won’t eat oysters, given that they’re technically still alive when they’re served.
Tim is the person who told me that the oysters are probably still alive as I eat them. I really like oysters. Tim made me like oysters a little less. What he told me didn’t exactly make me like Tim that much more, either.
We often have a visceral reaction to what’s unfamiliar when it comes to food.
The first time my husband and I went to a sushi restaurant, for example, Michael remarked that the elegant establishment — chosen by friends for a celebration — lacked two things he expected from a dining experience: chairs and a hot meal. We sat on silk cushions and ate deliciously fresh fish, but I could tell he regarded the whole business as unnatural.
But what’s natural or normal when it comes to food? Seny Yin Salvon says that her brother refuses to eat mushrooms because he “limits his food to the plant and animal kingdom only” and mushrooms are a fungus. Go figure. I had a student who was a vegetarian for ethical reasons — which I can entirely understand and respect — except that she ate pepperoni. Not exactly a farm-to-table item, pepperoni is as far from a non-meat product as it is possible to be and remain edible.
Yet she made room for this anomaly in her gastronomy. This is not surprising. We set firm boundaries only to blur them as we slide our chairs up to the kitchen table.
Others are lactose-intolerant except for their mom’s macaroni-and-cheese or gluten-free except for pie. Personally, I don’t like pie and people challenge me on this fact. Cooks are positively evangelical about pie: “If you had my pie you’d like it.”
I eat almost anything and I drink almost everything, but I like beer even less than pie. The omission of these two items from my menu is so upsetting that some communities regard me as not only un-American but perhaps inhuman. Refusing pie and beer might well have been how they decided who was a witch in the 16th century. I wouldn’t have lasted long.
I might have done all right in ancient Greece, however. The word “diet” comes from the classical Greek “diaita” for “mode of life,” so it’s not surprising that we’ve spoken for years of “regular diets.”
Now the word “diet” is increasingly shunned, according to my friend Kate Monteiro. Kate warns, “We don’t say diet anymore. We say ‘way of eating,’ which is, I kid you not, abbreviated on the internet as ‘woe’.”
Our appetites are no doubt spoiled by prosperity. Chris Rock famously argued that, “They say red meat will kill you. Red meat won’t kill you. Green meat will kill you.” If we sit at life’s feast and make choices not according to our needs or desires but governed only by taboos, fears, custom or sanctimoniousness, it becomes difficult to savor any moment — not only the gustatorial ones. Raise a glass in celebration. And if it’s beer, you can have mine.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at UConn and author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at ginabarreca.com.