Fighting Against the Food Bullies

7.29.2007

By Katia Hetter

I trace my insecurity about food to an ex-girlfriend who turned cheese shopping into a power struggle.

We hadn't been together more than three months when she asked me to buy cheese for a party she was hosting. I didn't grow up with parents who entertained with a nice epoisses or truffle pecorino, so I asked her what kinds she might like.

'No, really, you just choose something,' she said.

I bought what I recognized at a Manhattan market near her apartment. It turned out that cheddar and Alouette were not acceptable options. 'I can't believe what you bought,' she said, mocking me for days afterward.

I'd never seen anyone use dairy as a weapon before.

When I mulled over our conversation, I realized that we both had a problem. Hers may have been control through cheese, but I saw that I lacked food confidence'not to mention a healthy way to choose a partner. In my 20s and early 30s, I subconsciously sought out the food sadists, those women who wanted to criticize my choices of cheese, meat, and drink.

It occurred to me that if I resolved my culinary dilemma, I might fare better in love.

I dumped the television producer with the cheese rage and replaced her with a military veteran who wanted me to drink more, even though my low blood sugar meant I would fall asleep after one glass of wine. She was going to create a boot camp to train me. 'You need to learn to drink,' she said.

Next up: the lawyer who practically fainted if we didn't sit down with cloth napkins to eat sandwiches. 'My mother would be horrified to see me eating standing up,' she said. I was a journalist, and many of my meals were eaten walking out the door to a reporting assignment. We lasted two months.

Looking back on those food battles, it makes sense that I would pledge my heart and palate to a food writer. There was no escaping it. I had culinary issues to resolve.

My foodie girlfriend couldn't believe her luck finding me. I loved eating all the time, dissecting our dinners, and picking apart every aspect of service at high-end restaurants. We visited with farmers growing sustainable produce to learn how they competed against big corporate farms. We debated the taste of grass-fed beef. We pulled to the side of the road on a whim to pick wild strawberries in Alaska and taste samples at a cheese maker's in Kansas.

But all wasn't perfect in our food nirvana. The girlfriend eventually discovered my addiction to Diet Pepsi and ranch dressing. She tried to 'help' me order at some of the finer restaurants in New York and San Francisco. And she struggled with my preference for well-done meat, which she hates. 'Chefs will pick the worst cut of meat and deliberately cook it badly,' she said.

She calmed down eventually when I explained that girlfriends who picked on me about my food choices became ex-girlfriends.

Like all people committed to lasting relationships, we learned to compromise. She came to understand that my ordering decisions were not her business'unless she was writing a review, when she decided what everyone ordered. I realized I didn't have to order every weird animal part she likes, roasted in goose fat with micro greens. If it was on the menu, I could order steak frites without a fight.

On the other hand, I accepted that my girlfriend could sometimes be right. When she convinced me to order red meat cooked medium, I didn't collapse from the pink in the steak. I liked it.

I also earned to appreciate the food at the totalitarian food cooperative she persuaded me to join. We buy sustainable and organic vegetables that don't destroy the world and drink milk from grass-fed cows. The food really does taste better than what's sold at an ordinary supermarket.

It's more than d'tente. The foodie and I have reached a true peace accord about what we eat, where both sides enjoy learning from each other. I cook her a perfectly roasted chicken with adobo spices. She makes me my favorite family dish, a Cuban palomilla steak fried well-done with onions and garlic. And she buys me the cheese I want.

When we go out to eat, my girlfriend has become my ally against the food snobs. And at some of Manhattan's finer restaurants, I need all the support I can get.

The waitress at WD-50, that Manhattan paean to experimental fine dining, was the first felon. Everyone else at my table ordered the weirdest things they could find on the menu. The last to order, I asked for what the menu described as steak, spinach, and mashed potatoes. We were in an experimental restaurant, after all, so I didn't expect to get anything remotely as comforting and pedestrian'but I had hope.

The waitress sneered. 'I don't usually say this, but this dish isn't as adventurous as the other dishes you've ordered,' she said.

Foie gras in caramel sauce? Venison tartare with edamame ice cream and crunchy pear? Pickled beef tongue with fried mayonnaise and onion streusel? She was right. Steak was the only dish that didn't sound vile.

'That's exactly what I want,' I replied.

After the waitress left, my girlfriend was seething. 'I can't believe she criticized your order,' she said. 'If she wanted to do us a favor, she should have told us the dish wasn't any good, told us of its poor preparation, acted like she was protecting us from some food-borne illness.'

Who cares? I had food confidence! I was happy to know there was one normal dish I could eat. And it wasn't like I was dating the waitress.

The drama continued at Caf' Grey, a restaurant in the most elegant food court in New York, at Columbus Circle. My friend Holly and I agreed to share the salad and risotto for our appetizers.

'You do not want the salad'it's so boring!' our otherwise pleasant waiter hooted.

I could hear the anger building up next to me.

'Is there something wrong with the salad?' my girlfriend asked.

'No,' he said, 'it's just boring.'

I did want the salad, so I got it. And it was boring.

Twice, she complained'this has happened twice. Don't bad things usually come in threes?
And then I remembered our visit to Per Se. It was my girlfriend's birthday, and the staff knew her from her days in California writing about the French Laundry. A tour of the kitchen, quiet conversations with the staff, a window table with a view of Central Park. We could do no wrong.

After a wonderful meal consisting of 17 courses, the chocolate arrived. My girlfriend chose the oddest flavors available, infused with paprika or some other spice. I chose a high-end peanut butter cup.

The waitress laughed.

For the first time in a while, my food confidence wavered.

She had the grace to look embarrassed. 'I'm sorry, no, I meant that I like that you chose what you like rather than the wackiest things on the menu.'

The waitress was right. I don't like stinky cheese. I like cheddar. I don't want a rare T-bone; I want a thin hangar steak with fried onions. And I'll choose a great chef's take on a chocolate peanut butter cup over caramel-covered foie gras any day.

But I'll take advantage of my girlfriend's knowledge to taste her grilled octopus appetizer, find a nice Comte cheese, and compare dozens of bottled waters to find the perfect sparkling. It's true with dating as with food: There's nothing like trying everything to find out exactly what I want.

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