We have eight senses. I know, everyone thinks it’s five, but it’s really eight. I was going to put an explanation of them and of sensory processing disorder (SPD), but I just found this elegant explanation on The European Mama. So I’m now free to skip doing my own post on that and just tell you that sensory issues are a big part of my autism. I’m going to write about how each affects me. I’m starting with taste.
Taste is a funky thing. It sounds like it’s just about the flavor of something, how it hits the notes of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter on your tongue, but it’s really about so much more than taste buds. It’s about how a food looks and the feel of it in your mouth. And the smell. Don’t forget the smell. The smell of garlic and onions makes my mouth water. I once walked through the University District looking for a specific restaurant without knowing the name or location. All I knew was the air around me smelled like my favorite kind of onion rings; thin sliced, beer battered, and extra-crispy. I swear, I could smell how crunchy they would be. And they were.
Growing up, my mom often complained about what a picky eater I was. I don’t think my dad ever did. Possibly because I shared his intense love of extra sharp cheddar cheese. Or maybe it was just because he wasn’t the one who had to cook for me. Mom is, to this day, horrified by my hatred of her beloved avocado, tomato, bell pepper, olive, and mushroom. And boiled shrimp. Well into adulthood, I endured people telling me to just try something and I’d see that it was delicious. Guess what – I usually had tried the thing they were shoving in my face and that’s how I knew I didn’t like it. So, now I’m going to try to explain why.
Appearance: I’ll start with the look of a particular food because it’s the least important to me. Sparky and I went to a highly rated restaurant on our honeymoon. The review was absolutely correct: the food was beautiful. Really, they brought us the most gorgeous food I had ever seen. The portions were small, but that was fine with me because the food tasted horrible. That was when I learned never to go to a place that has won awards for presentation…and nothing else, the reviews never mention the flavor of the food. I can’t think of any food that I won’t eat because of the look of it. In fact, I kind of like to try weird looking food. As long as there’s nothing else objectionable about it. Like raw oysters. I won’t eat them, but it’s not because they look like a lump of snot. I actually think they look kind of pretty the way they’re served in the half-shell, all shiny and whitish clear with silvery undertones.
Texture: Nope, the reason I won’t eat raw oysters is because the thought of that slimy, goopy, glob sliding down my throat makes me gag. If something is going to slide silkily down my throat effortlessly, it should be ice cream. Texture is a huge thing to me. Onions, for instance. I love onions. They go in every savory thing I cook. Just the smell of them sizzling in a pan is enough to make me swoon. But I won’t eat them raw. Part of it is that I don’t care for the flavor of raw onion, but the lion’s share is the texture. It’s firm, but in a squishy kind of way, which doesn’t make sense now that it’s out of my head, but I don’t know how else to describe it. Think about a cheese enchilada, for instance. I love the medley of the melted cheese, tortilla, and sauce. They feel and taste like a dream in my mouth. But some people insist on putting raw onions in the enchilada. I bite into one of those and it’s like scratching a record. Like there’s a loud squeak in my mouth that interrupts the beautiful tune the whole of the enchilada was playing. Which is why I always ask for no onions in my enchiladas.
Smell: I always thought I hated shrimp. I remember the moment I realized it’s actually awesome. I was with friends for dinner at a chinese restaurant in LA. I had begun to experiment with a lot of new types of food, but this was my first time eating at a Chinese restaurant. We were eating family style and had three dishes: chicken because I knew I would eat that, shrimp, and mu shu pork. My friend noticed that I wasn’t eating the shrimp and tried to coax me into trying it. I had been eating the chicken, which was spicy in that way that sneaks up on you so that you’ve had three or four bites before you realize your mouth is on fire, and I figured my taste buds were deadened enough at that point to be able to humor her. I took one and popped it in my mouth. Oh. My. God. The deliciousness! It was sweet and spicy, crunchy and juicy. There was no batter, but somehow they’d managed to make it crispy on the outside. Biting into it, there was a pop and it was like a taste explosion in my mouth.
Such a wonderful experience inspired me to try the boiled shrimp on my next trip home. Nope, still hated it. It was around then that I realized it wasn’t so much the taste as the smell. Sautéed shrimp smells great. Boiled shrimp smells like…well, rotting fish doesn’t really even begin to cover it. In 1970s Austin, people would come up from the gulf and sell fresh caught shrimp by the side of the highway. When we lived there, we would buy some and my mother would do a shrimp boil. Every Saturday. My whole family loved it. Except me. I used to dread Saturday afternoons because that smell, the rotting fish smell amplified by the hot water, would invade every nook and cranny of the house. There was nowhere to hide from it. I would stay outside as long as I could, but eventually it would get dark and I’d have no choice but to go inside and have my senses assaulted, like it was suffocating me. And why would I put something that just assaulted me in my mouth? People eat boiled shrimp with cocktail sauce, but that’s just covering the grossness with horseradish, which deadens your sense of smell. Why would I go to the trouble to do that when I can just choose to eat something else that actually smells and tastes good?
Speaking of taste, that’s still a big part of the equation. I don’t like the taste of bell peppers. I’m okay with the texture. In fact, they’re the only pepper I don’t like. And I think they’re really pretty, all those colors, and sometimes look at them in the store and think it’s a shame I hate them so much. Their smell doesn’t much bother me either. They just taste so nasty. And they’re aggressive fuckers, too. You can pick olives off a pizza, but you can’t do that with bell peppers because if there’s so much as one slice anywhere on the pizza, the ENTIRE pizza will taste like bell peppers. Or maybe that’s just me.
There was a time in my late twenties that I decided I was going to like bell peppers. That I just needed to get used to them. I couldn’t bring myself to eat the green ones, so I started with the red and yellow. I tried cooking with them, tried ordering dishes made with them in restaurants, tried so very hard to convince myself that I liked them. I never succeeded. What I did succeed at was getting a terrible headache every time I ate them. I don’t know if I had developed an allergy to them or if the headaches were the result of concentrating so hard on trying to like them. If it’s not an allergy, I must have a sense memory of the intense concentration because I still get headaches when I eat something with red bell pepper in it, even if I’m picking the pepper out and not eating it directly. I tend to go with allergy because it’s easier to explain, even though waitstaff give me funny looks because who the hell is allergic to red bell peppers. Just the red ones.
Going afoul of any one of these characteristics is enough for me to prefer not to eat a food. Hitting more than one puts a food on the list of things I try really hard to avoid. More than two and I won’t even eat another food that’s been near the offender. Avocados, for instance. I hate the texture and the look of them. They’re puke green for crying out loud. What ever possessed someone to eat that in the first place? But I thought I didn’t mind the taste. Until I was at a gathering at a friend’s house and noticed she had put chunks of avocado in the salad. I decided to just try not to take any avocado and eat around any that made it onto my plate. Other than thinking I didn’t really like the taste of the dressing, this went fine until I noticed a big smear of avocado on a piece of lettuce I was about to eat. I decided to eat it anyway and, yep, that was the taste in the dressing that I didn’t like. Three strikes for you, Avocado, you’re out.
And, so, I’ve been labeled picky since I could express my opinions about what I would and would not eat. That label carries deep shame and embarrassment for me. I cringe inside when a friend asks me to dinner and wants to know if there’s anything I don’t eat. It’s a thoughtful question from someone who is just trying to make sure everyone enjoys the food, but admitting that there are things I won’t eat makes me feel as embarrassed and exposed as if I’d turned up at school in just my underwear. Until my forties, I would invariably answer, “Oh, make whatever. We’re easy!” That’s a shitty thing to do to someone who’s trying to be nice to you, but my shame got the better of me every time. I’d turn up, take a bit of everything so as not to offend the cook, and move it around my plate to make it look as if I’d eaten it. I’m sure there are people out there still wondering how I can be so fat when it appears I never eat anything.
In my early forties, I decided to try opening up about some of my dislikes. I told a friend in a game/dinner group about being mildly allergic to red bell peppers. After that, every time it was her turn to host, she would tell me that there were no red peppers in any of the dishes she was serving. I was so conflicted I wanted the floor to open up and swallow me whole. On the one hand, I was touched that she would go to the trouble for me. On the other, I was mortified that she felt she needed to accommodate me and my shamefully embarrassing pickiness. She’s a wonderful, caring person, so of course she accommodated me. Thank you, S, for being such a lovely person. I miss seeing you.
Our first Valentines day together, Sparky made dinner for me. Smoked salmon and smoked provolone for an appetizer, red pepper fettucini with chunky tomato sauce, and couscous with chunky salsa mixed into it. A veritable cornucopia of foods I detest. I tried everything, I really did, but there was a lot of pointless shuffling on my plate that night. I told him about it a few months later and I’m so glad I did. If I hadn’t, we wouldn’t have lasted much longer and I kind of like having him around.
It’s okay to have a need and to express that need to other people. Honest communication is best. Even if it feels embarrassing at the time. And opening up to sharing my dislikes has brought me new foods to love. Like California rolls. And tempura shrimp rolls. One of my Japanese friends makes fun of me for eating “white people sushi,” but I don’t care. As long as they leave the avocado out.