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Being an Omnivore is Easy ...

Friday, October 05, 2012

... being more restrictive can be a challenge.

Today I am a master of the obvious.

1. Setting the Stage

While I love Ms. S. dearly, she's not always the easiest person to cook for. Vegetarian ... can do. Vegan except for occasional lapses (e.g. feeling the need for cheese(cake))? Not so hard. And she has no real dietary restrictions in terms of allergies or insensitivities. But combine vegetarian/vegan with some pickiness? A dislike of certain foods or combinations of flavors or smells?

2. It Could Be Worse

An ex from many years ago loved her cigarettes -- which she consumed neither around asthmatic me nor my apartment --, her hamburgers, and fruit. She resembled Hackers-era Angelina ... a look that almost indicated nutrient deficiencies. She hated vegetables, and, among staples, would not touch rice; it reminded her, she said, of maggots.

I can understand that; a bad childhood experience combining a food allergy, food poisoning, overeating, and sour cream kept me away from that item for more than a decade ... and just imagine how hard it was living in Hungary with an aversion to sour cream!

3. Some Reflections

It leads me to thinking about 'disgust.' Within that word 'gust' is the part meaning taste. Relics and echoes are found all over the place, such as in Spanish, "me gusta," etc., expressing what you like or dislike. And so at a certain etymological level disgust is just distaste ... yet we all know it's more than that.

It's visceral. It "turns your stomach," we say. It's different than the basic grotesque, than mere ugliness. It's not such flavors we do not care for, such as bitterness and sourness for some, extreme saltiness or sweetness for others. You cannot argue with disgust.

The German term for it is "Ekel," and something disgusting is "ekelhaft." The best monograph on the subject is Winfried Menninghaus' "Ekel. Theorie und Geschichte einer starken Empfindung," published in English as "Disgust: The Theory and History of a Strong Sensation." But, treating disgust as something displeasing to a given sense, in this case 'taste,' another realy good treatment is G.E. Lessing's in his "Laocoon: An Essay on the Limits of Painting and Poetry." (1766) In chapter 24 he notes that among "disagreeable feelings" disgust is different from many others, such as fear, sorrow, alarm, for they may become objects of pleasure, something we already know: tragedies, romantic comedies, horror movies, and thrillers among other rely on things that at first repulse us and then draw us back again, usually in some form of 'relief.' But not disgust, so Lessing, Kant, and others.

When we think of crimes or criminals with which or whom we cannot empathize, when things are beyond all bounds, we describe them not with hatred or anger, or even disappointment, but rather disgust.

4. Turning the Corner

Disgust may not be argued with, but that does not necessarily make it absolute or fixed. Disgust is a feeling, and thus subjective, but it also seems rooted in an object, something so rotten or deformed or grotesque or overpowering that it seems to infest our senses, get in to our nostrils or taste buds. You sense it when it is absent, when you think about it; and you rationalize it by treating *it*, not the feeling, as one of disgust. Often, though, we can trace the onset of disgust back to something else, an experience that marred or scarred us.

My mother overcooking -- boiling, really -- brussels sprouts. An association between rice, a plant seed, and insect larvae, a visual similarity. An ill effect brought on by one thing but transferred, guilt by association, to others.

Disgust may be overcome by new experiences, even if you cannot be 'taught' or 'reasoned to' this new position.

And, luckily, not all food dislikes are matters of disgust.

5. Equivocation and Confusion

There's also an irony involved: things often taste worse to those who taste better.

Pardon the equivocation and my use of taste in two senses. I am not a 'super taster.' I have good senses: good ears, pretty good eyes, skin sensitive to textures and temperatures, and a nose that works pretty well along with taste buds that pick up salty, sweet, bitter, and sour (and umami, I suppose).

I love a lot of the flavors and dishes that are considered good; the same goes for music. Fine wine and finer beers. Fresh fruits and vegetables and meats. Nuanced, well-roasted and ground coffee, delicate teas. But there are those with 'better' noses and taste buds, those whose senses who are more attuned to sensing, so to speak, those who sense 'more clearly,' those for whom the things I like cause distress. Sensations can be too strong and dishes can be too spicy, too sweet, too something ('supertasters' may get 'more' out of some flavors, and seem draw to salty and fatty foods, but may avoid bitter foods, like a lot of dark, leafy greens).

Women tend to be supertasters more often than men, so I read. I have no real reason to think Ms. S. is one, though I'm pretty sure I'm not, but it is a reminder that often it's not a flavor, itself, that is a problem for people who dislike it, but the intensity of its aspects, where quantity of a sensation becomes its quality.

Confusion is not when things are mistaken or wrong, but when they are fused together; if you taste too clearly you can identify and separate/analyze too well ... often what tastes good, what is beautiful ... is confused.

6. It's Not That Difficult, After All.

The smells of fish and cooked eggs 'disgust' Ms. S.; she is not fond of the smell of cooking mushrooms or onions, won't eat the former and likes the latter only in minute amounts, preferably diced too fine to be texturally tasted on their own. Cinnamon is for breakfast or dessert, but never for savory dishes, and so on. Quinoa and amaranth offer a "weird" texture; likewise wheat berries.

But roasted vegetables? A delight, especially cauliflower, broccoli, and asparagus. Potatoes in all their forms along with sweet potatoes. Almost any vegetable soup.

And this year, together, we've discovered the joy of tempeh. Marinated with maple syrup and vinegar for maple-bacon effect; stir-fried and served with rice and lentils; offered up in some Braggs ... it's all good. Nutty, tender, flavorful. Lentils. Sweet and savory waffles. Almost any dessert I make.

I wanted to write about the difficulties this omnivore faces when being more restrictive with what he eats, both out of concern for his health and deference to his partner's culinary choices. If I allow myself fish, dairy, or eggs, any one of the three, it's trivial to get all the protein I need. But just reducing my reliance on dairy and fish has led me to eat both more and more kinds of fresh and lightly-cooked vegetables, much more in the way of greens, for example, along with more nuts and berries. I've not replaced every serving of meat with a meat-substitute, but rather with other categories.

Though hardly a 'technical term,' there's the expression "constrained art," which, depending on context, refers to any number of ways in which the artist faces constraints, frequently under political/ideological oppression. There are things you just cannot say or represent in a literal or obvious manner. Or you have limited resources or equipment. And so you must problem solve; bemoan your situation or not, if you still wish to -- or need to -- produce, you work within those limitations and make those limitations part of the expression.

Being an omnivore is easy, being more restrictive can be a welcome culinary challenge.
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