You are what you (won't) eat
Local author delves into the roots of picky eating
Nobody wants to be a picky eater. Though their frustrated parents might think otherwise, picky eaters would love to be able to tuck into a plate of food with enthusiasm instead of facing it with knotted stomachs, tearful protests and gagging.
Stephanie Lucianovic knows what it's like. For years, mealtimes were a torment for the Menlo Park resident, who choked down vegetables under duress, detested fish and didn't dare eat a peach. Now a food writer and culinary school graduate, she delves into the evolving science of taste in her new book, "Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest To Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate."
She will be featured at an author event at Books Inc. at Town & Country Village in Palo Alto on Sept. 27, and she's vowed to convert audience members into okra lovers with one of her own recipes.
That's right, okra.
Not too long ago, okra was on the list of things the adult Lucianovic still couldn't bear to eat. As she recounts in her book, finding okra on the menu when she had dinner at a friend's house set off a silent wave of panic. While feigning interest in the recipe, "my brain chanted, Slimy okra, bad okra, evil okra, GAG!" she wrote.
"Every picky eater — former or current — has been in this situation. Every adult picky eater knows that dinner parties are their personal hell."
Fortunately for Lucianovic, her friend's okra was a tasty revelation, and using the same recipe, she cooked it every night for a month. She knows she's taking a risk bringing a dish to an author event, she says.
"My friend warned me never to bring food," Lucianovic says. "I told Books Inc. that's what I want to do, and they're fine with it. I make farro salad with okra in it, and I want to get people to try it."
Lucianovic's book — part memoir, part popular science — explores current research as well as the many unknowns behind how people experience food differently, but it also comes with recipes for things like roasted cauliflower and sauteed greens. For Lucianovic, expanding her palate had a lot to do with finding the right way to cook the things that she's always hated.
"I won't eat broccoli steamed or stir-fried; I only eat it roasted," she says. "Legumes can be weird. I eat lentils because they're small and I can make a cold salad and drown them in a lemony vinaigrette."
While some foods, vegetables in particular, require work in order to be palatable to her, she does have one firm rule: Smothering something in cheese sauce doesn't count.
"I don't want to drown it; I want to like the flavor," she explains. "I add lots of ingredients I like, then slowly pull back, because my brain has accepted that I like butternut squash."
Going to the source
Discovering that there are genetic differences that make some people experience flavors differently led Lucianovic to contact researchers at Cornell University and Monell Chemical Sense Center in Philadelphia, as well as Palo Alto dietitian Karen Ross. When she first heard about supertasters, Lucianovic says, she had high hopes that genetics were to blame for her dinner table torments.
So-called supertasters make up about 25 percent of the population, and are highly sensitive to a bitter chemical compound found in some foods. A less-sensitive segment of the population can't even detect some types of bitter flavors
After subjecting herself to a variety of tests, genetic testing definitively ruled out her being a supertaster. In the process, Lucianovic did gain insight into the combination of factors, whether childhood trauma, genes or psychology, that create picky eaters. She writes about the physiological effects of stress on the digestion that cause "delayed gastric emptying" — the sensation of food sitting like a lump in your stomach, causing discomfort and nausea. She interviewed dentists and a sword swallower about overcoming an overactive gag reflex.
"I wish I could have told more about the gag reflex," she says. "There's just not much on how it works and how it's controlled."
For Lucianovic, keeping herself from gagging helped her get through a dessert of poached peaches and avoid embarrassing herself in front of her future in-laws.
For other picky eaters, textures or smells can make or break a meal. Most toddlers spend some time as fussy eaters, a well-known developmental phase that freaks out parents, but that most outgrow.
While picky children are often thought of as being rebellious or spoiled or going through a difficult phase, finicky adults face the stigma of being thought immature, unsophisticated or high-maintenance. Lucianovic describes herself as a polite, eager-to-please middle child who didn't want to offend. She simply couldn't make herself eat food she found abhorrent.
"It's not like people really understand," Lucianovic says. "You can't help (food) preferences, any more than you can help what music you like. No one gets into a knock-down, drag-out fight over liking Miley Cyrus."
Becoming a 'picky foodie'
But she wanted to go out to restaurants without worrying that she couldn't stomach some of the things on her dish, and eat at friends' houses without offending them by refusing part of a meal.
So Lucianovic set out to overcome her picky ways, inadvertently using a technique neuroscientists call "pattern reset." Stealing a bite or two of food off the plate of her decidedly non-picky husband helped open her up to new foods, she writes. The positive associations overwrote the negative ones.
Her interest in food blossomed to the point that she enrolled in culinary school, started a food blog, became a food writer and editor. The picky eater had somehow morphed into a foodie, "annoying diners around me by taking dark and blurry photos of every single meal I ate out."
She even had a stint in the prep kitchen for a season of Jacques Pepin's public television series, "Fast Food My Way."
"I worked in the back kitchen and was terrified the whole time — not of him, he was sweet and nice," Lucianovic says. "We'd ask how he wanted (ingredients) prepared, and he'd show us how he wanted things done. Every morning was like a mini cooking class with Jacques Pepin."
But while she grew to love peaches and broccoli, and happily eats fish, there are still some things she can't stand to eat, and has no interest in learning to love — like bananas and raisins, or the titular frozen succotash she endured as a child.
She now considers herself a "picky foodie," and has written a blog entry for the Washington Post enumerating the many reasons that bananas are evil. She's also discovered that KQED Forum host Michael Krasney is a fellow picky eater.
"You can bond with someone over raisin-hate," she says.
Lucianovic says she was lucky to find an editor who embraced the topic, as a lot of them didn't understand why anyone would want to read a book about picky eaters. "One editor wanted it to be about why we love the foods we love. I said 'picky' has to be in the title."
While she did a lot of research into the topic, she says parents with serious concerns about their children's nutrition need to consult a pediatrician or dietitian and not rely on her book.
"I can't tell you how many people have come to me and said, 'I didn't think anyone would write about how I felt,' " she says.
"The most important thing for me is that I want people to feel that they're not alone. When (picky eating) gets carried into adulthood is when it gets really lonely. It affects social interactions, makes them stressful. ... They're not doing it to be annoying or childish or difficult."
Stephanie Lucianovic is set to speak about her book, "Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater's Quest To Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate," at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 27, at Books Inc. in the Town & Country Village, 855 El Camino Real in Palo Alto.