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I am a notoriously picky eater. It’s been a family joke for years. I eat like a kid. My favourite meal? French fries or tater tots. If I hadn’t gotten married my dinners would still be a rotation of spaghetti, burritos, and Kraft macaroni and cheese. I also have a slew of food-related compulsive behaviours. Like all compulsions it’s hard to know what came first, was I always compulsive about food or did something cause me to become so?
I don’t believe in blaming my psychological issues on my parents or my upbringing. Sometimes I blame genetics, sure. Even then, what’s the point in using crappy genes as a crutch? Still, if in the battle of nature versus nurture, my upbringing did have something to do with my compulsive eating habits, well, I can think of a few instances to point at in support of such a hypothesis.
My father was particularly uptight about meals. If I didn’t finish my food I had to stay at the table until I had. Usually this meant I sat at the table until bed time. And more often than not I passed this time by seeing how long I could hold my fingers in candle flames, sometimes because my sister dared me, sometimes just for something to do.
When, inevitably, the remains of my dinner stayed untouched, I would be sent to bed only to wake up to my dinner being placed before me at breakfast. There’s no more horrifying breakfast than a bowl of tomato soup. I haven’t eaten tomato soup since it stopped being forced on me, and I have no plans to ever do so again.
Other foods of particular disgust: my former stepmother’s macaroni and cheese, which was ruined by its breadcrumb topping; all seafood, but especially salmon, which once made me ralph all over the table during a dinner party my dad threw for his co-workers; 99.9% of vegetables. To this day the only vegetables I’ll eat are potatoes and carrots, the same ones I was willing to eat as a child. It’s been pointed out that in general I don’t like green foods.
Which brings us to the artichoke. Artichokes are vegetables, but they are also cardoons, thistle-like plants of the Asteraceae family. The same plant family as sunflowers. As a kid it seemed like my family was always eating artichokes, a practice from which I abstained. Seriously, who wants to eat a thistle? Not that I was aware of its thistle-hood as a kid.
As a parent myself now, I totally understand the impulse to force feed a child. Sitting at the dinner table for an hour (fifty minutes longer than it takes me to clear my own plate), is akin to being stranded on a desert island. Carving into your own skin with a stick begins to sound like decent entertainment. So naturally it’s not exactly rare to consider how you might go about forcing a child to eat a little quicker. However, I have yet to reach such a snapping point. My father, on the other hand, reached his snapping point regularly.
The most memorable of these instances came when he decided to make me eat an artichoke. I declined, as I was wont to do. I declined when he said I had to eat it. I declined when he pulled a leaf from an artichoke and reached across the table to shove it into my lips. Maybe “no means no” wasn’t a thing yet, because my mouth was about to get raped by an artichoke.
My dad walked around the table and tried again to push the artichoke leaf into my mouth, and again I kept my mouth shut tight. Then I got up from the table and tried to leave the dining room. My dad caught me by the arm and I dramatically flailed to the ground, shouting that I wasn’t going to eat the artichoke.
I suppose I was lucky my dad was not as large a man as he is now, because his next move was to straddle me, put the artichoke leaf on a fork and force it through my lips and my teeth. I don’t remember what the artichoke tasted like, but I can still have some sense memory of the feeling of it against my teeth, the texture of it. I laid there thrashing my head back and forth like a shark hooked by a fisherman, thinking I’d never seen someone eat a whole leaf before, as the custom seemed to be to grate the base of the leaf against one’s teeth.
As I continued to struggle, my dad finally gave up, the sport apparently having gone out of the thing. I likely retreated to my room where, for a change, I probably wished I had a picture of my dad secreted behind my dartboard rather than one of my stepmother. Needless to say, I still haven’t had a consensual meal of artichokes.
I have a good memory, but not good enough to remember if my childhood issues with food were simply pickiness or compulsiveness. And I don’t believe these experiences are why I can only eat my meals one item at a time, or why it makes me uncomfortable if the various items on a plate make contact with one another. Every event in our lives combine to make us who we are and maybe pickiness, compulsiveness, and nurture (if you can call it that) are just segments of a whole picture. Either way, I’ll keep eating my carrots before my dinner rather than after, because I’m a grown up now. I swear.