My sister Darcie is a seriously picky eater. Not PB&J picky, not even pasta-or-bust picky — we’re talking merciless, shameless, I could-count-what-you-eat-on-one-hand Picky XP (Xtra Picky).
And yet, in a strange twist of taste buds, Darcie loves weird cheeses. Forget Kraft Singles — I have never seen anyone demolish a hunk of Garrotxa or Manchego with so much relish (metaphorical relish, I mean). My sister can barely be in the same room with a strawberry, but she will fearlessly taste a thousand varieties of what is essentially spoiled milk. At some point, you can’t help but ask: Where did THAT come from?
It’s a curious notion if you think about it: Whence our personal tastes in food? There’s been a lot of scientific speculation that correlates taste with biology — finicky eaters might have more taste buds than regular folks, for example, or a certain stomach enzyme might prefigure chocoholism. On the other hand, we can’t discount the influence of upbringing on our preferences; even Yale has tapped into this, serving us things like “My Mother’s Pot Roast” (Mother Earth? Mother Eli? Whose frickin’ pot roast is this?).
If you ask me — and by “me” I mean “a foul megalomaniacal food whore with virtually no knowledge of psychology” — I think our tastes in food are best traced by, or to, our personalities. The processing mechanisms are analogous: you might be predisposed to take the low road or the frozen burrito; you might decide you like your tea with a lump of sugar or your Plato with a grain of salt; you might grow out of having a sweet tooth or being a colossal pain in the ass (but not necessarily).
In some strange nonscientific sense, our plates are like personality tests: What goes on at the table might predict what goes on upstairs.
Take eggs, for example. Pretend for a second that you’re in a windowless, doorless kitchen with a chef and a carton of eggs, and you have all the time in the world but no means of escape. (Calm down. This is a test.) How would you take your eggs?
Maybe you’d want them scrambled, soft, with a little salt — sounds like you’re a pretty agreeable, straightforward kind of eater/human being, with a taste for life’s fundamental pleasures (cozy sweaters, packages from home, Snood).
Or maybe you want a soft-boiled egg, served in a dinky egg cup shaped like a chicken — now you’re coming off as a perfectionist, with an eye for detail and a measured precision (and maybe a touch of OCD).
Perhaps you just love huevos rancheros — you’re kind of a nutjob, but you’re also fierce and outrageous and I’m a little afraid of you. Or else you like five dozen eggs at a time — in that case you are either Gaston or you’re the varsity athlete in front of me on the Commons line (dude, leave some for the rest of us).
I may conceivably be taking one or two creative liberties here. At this juncture I can hardly pretend to understand the mysteries behind the butter-vs.-cream-cheese debate, or why some people insist on putting ketchup on everything. But on a more general level, I do believe that our choices belie personal origins. My sister’s weird cheese affinity isn’t completely baseless; she likes it because something about the saltiness or ripeness or stinkiness of it appeals to her sense of things. If you’re ever doing some soul-searching, it might be worth turning a discerning eye to your own cravings — why bittersweet chocolate and not milk? Why red pepper and not black? What is it about intense flavors that you find comforting? Not all hungers are created equal; we have to eat to survive, but what we eat depends on who we are.
Meanwhile, perhaps a better take-home message is that food gives us a handy way to judge people — which might be why I like it so much. (And just for the record: I love my sister. Mom, don’t kill me.)