Food Wimpishness

My rate of dying is still above normal, but its delta-V, I am hoping sincerely, and thanks entirely to the medicinal properties of gins and tonics, is now negative.

Late this summer, when I was out of New York, a young man who knew I lived there told me he would be going for the weekend and asked what should he do. I discovered first where he would be staying (Staten Island), and with that information in hand, I rattled off a list of necessary activities.

After he returned, I asked what he had done. The usual tourist things: Staten Island Ferry, Wall Street to fondle the bull’s attributes, the Met, Union Square, Times Square, and so forth. “Ah, very good. But where did you do to eat?”

Can you guess?

Yes, Outback Steakhouse.

“You idiot!” I used my famous diplomatic skills. “Why in the hell would you go to New York City, the restaurant capitol of the world, and then go to Outback Steakhouse?”

The young man had the good sense to blush and blame it on his friend, with whom he had roomed while in the city, and on location. That restaurant, after all, is conveniently located in Times Square.

“If you wanted steak, you were mere blocks away from Keens, the oldest steak house in the city. World famous mutton chops. You were too far to make it to Peter Luger’s, but you were just steps from Smith and Wollensky. And restaurant row (46th street) is right there! Why travel all that distance and then go to a restaurant you have back home?”

Answer came there none.

But I understood. Times Square is home to The Olive Garden, Chevy’s, Forrest Gump’s (or some such name), I think Red Lobster, McDonald’s, and every other major chain. These establishments are, at least every time I have walked by, always packed. This in a city where every block has at least one homegrown dining establishment.

Familiarity surely drives many into these places. And I’m guessing worry over imagined sophisticated-restaurant-protocol plays its part. “Is some waiter going to try to lay a napkin on my lap? Do I have to tip the host? Am I allowed to wear these lovely jeans?” You might think cost is a factor, but this is not so. On 9th avenue, just off Times Square, are dozens of restaurants with modestly prices menus.

Fear of “weird food” is what must keep many stomachs filled with “endless breadsticks” instead of with…something new. A compact way to say this is food wimpishness.

The opposite of food wimpishness, incidentally, is not food adventurousness, nor is it food bravery, or any other such thing. You are not being brave or adventurous when you eat something which an entire culture considers ordinary fare. You are instead being a grown up. If an entire country regularly shoves pork blood cake down its esophagi, then the first time you try it you are being ordinary, not courageous.

My maternal grandfather used to shock the dinner table by insisting his cake be served on the same plate which formerly hosted his dinner. But what truly scandalized was that he would pour the gravy over the cake. To this day, my family insist he did this as a way of demonstrating his manliness. Nonsense. He did it because he liked the sweet and salty combination. And, yes, because he liked to annoy people. I have always looked up to my grandpa.

Grandpa’s non-customary, yet hardy food habits probably were formed when he rode the rails as a kid back in the Depression (he also rowed whiskey over from Canada into Detroit during Prohibition). He would become angry if anybody left food on the plate. “Take what you want, but eat what you take.” Yet he liked to see people enjoy their meals; his and grandma’s highest praise was that somebody was, “A good eater.”

And now, my number one son tells people that whenever we go out to eat, “Dad always orders the most obnoxious thing on the menu.” I do not. I order what I have not had before or what I can not have at home. I reason, if it were not good, it wouldn’t be on the menu. Besides, I love a lot of it.

It’s true that tastes differ, and that appreciation for some foods (like stinky tofu or cheese) must be acquired gradually. But these and unfamiliarity are not good excuses for refusing to try a dish for the first time.


  1. DAV

    If you’re into taste sensations, next time for desert instead of ordering pie a la mode, ask them to substitute anchovies with mayo for the pie. Why be mundane?

  2. Steve E

    Number one annoyingly unbelievable excuse given for not eating a certain food…it’s a texture thing.

    My wife, who will eat tomato sauce, ketchup, and tomato juice will not eat a raw tomato because of “a texture thing.”

  3. Bernie

    When I go to restaurants I order that which my wife hates – it is the only way I get to eat exotic(!) foods like lamb, venison, salmon, curry, lobster, etc. My wife is a really great cook, but she has that texture and smell thing going that limits what she will both eat and cook.

    On the other hand I am a bit of a wimp when it comes to various offal and raw shellfish.

  4. Jonathan

    Having grown up watching (and smelling) my Swedish mother prepare lutfisk every Christ-er-Jul I could not bring myself to actually eat it. But on a visit to Sweden when I was 23 I finally tried it – my uncle having prepared it in the attic of the garage, separate from the house.
    So, I tried it and it was … not horrible.

    But I firmly draw the line at ever trying surstromming.

  5. pacific_waters

    I can’t get past going to ANY chain when you’re in NYC.

  6. Ray

    When I lived in Germany I would see things on the menu and not have a clue what it was. I tried a lot of things out of curiosity. I remember being served the green eel and the restaurant staff amusement at my dismay. Didn’t have a clue how you were supposed to eat green eel and still don’t.

  7. PJ

    Just this weekend I recall taking a few friends to a Korean BBQ restaurant. One of the ladies during the entire trip there would simply not shut up about how excited she was to be “trying something new.” When we make our orders, however, she insists only on eating the bacon. Everything else was described as “too weird (octopus)” or “too spicy (kimchee, as determined by the fact that it was red in color. . .)” or “I just don’t think I’d like it” without ever having eaten anything.

    After the meal was over on the way back she then would not shut up about how happy she was to have tried something new.

    SHE ATE BACON!! Yea, she ate it with chopsticks, but she could have done that at home too! What’s new!?
    This is the same principle at work in any development they build in rapidly developing tourist towns. Let’s just build an outlet mall! So people will actually spend the time and money to travel to new destinations and then steadfastly resist doing anything they wouldn’t have done at home?

    My father isn’t big on exploration either, but he’s honest about it!

  8. PJ

    Long story short. For some people travelling is more about score-keeping and telling your friends you did something cool in an effort to seem like an interesting person without actually having to be an interesting person.

    So yea, tourism is travelling for boring people.

  9. Luis

    I remember travelling in Thailand with my wife and looking at tourists walking straight in to McDonald’s and Starbucks. People are going to places with fantastic food and then *choose* to buy a Big Mac? Go figure.

  10. Jerry

    I have to confess, on my first trip to Japan by the end of the second week I found a MacDonalds. Big Mac definitely lost something in the translation. In week three, Pizza Hut. Same result.
    On another trip I discovered a rule of travel: never go to Canada for Mexican food. Toronto is not really Canada.

  11. j ferguson

    Arrived in Paris 3 weeks ago. Stayed in a movie themed hotel in Marais. In preceding week, we had driven all over northern France and were very tired. Walked out of hotel to find something to eat. Subway’s. Gasp! The shame of it.

    Did make up for it in subsequent days.

  12. Rich

    Once, on holiday with my family in France, we stopped in a road-side clearing in a wood. There was a scruffy van advertising food. Scruffy not dirty. I had steak and fries and a beer. The steak and fries were cooked to perfection and the beer was ice-cold and delicious.

    When we got to our campsite in Brittany there was a little brick shop on the beach selling food. We had beef stew – they called it boeuf Bourgignon naturally. Totally delicious.

    It’s not always exotic ingredients that make food foreign. Sometimes it’s just the quality of the cooking. (I’m from England so of course your mileage may vary).

  13. David Fishbein

    Regarding choices where to eat anywhere in the world. There are several factors that push people to familiar, fast food chains instead of trying something new and it boils down to risk, money and time. People choose fast foods because there is a perception that the final tally will be cheaper, the service significantly faster and the choices simpler. There is risk in going into a sit-down restaurant where prices are probably higher, menu deciphering more difficult and service more costly. Another major factor is kids and their simpler tastes. Families are not going to sit in a “fancier” restaurant and order steak tartar or coq au van when they know the kids will consume a burger and fries for sure. So it’s no wonder, the familiar places are packed all the time…

  14. Dana H.

    I have committed myself to “trying something new” every day of 2010. The “something” might be anything from going down a road I have never explored before to taking the kinds to a new playground they have never been to.

    But many of the “somethings” are new foods, new restaurants, or new food combinations. These range from snack foods (Old Wisconsin Turkey Sausage bites – good!) to lowbrow (trying a McDonald’s frappe’ for the first time) to new fine dining experiences. A couple of times, I have remembered late in the day that I haven’t done anything new, so I dashed off to Rite-Aid to buy some random junk food item I’d never had before.

    So, if you’re someone who does like to try new things, but tends to eat the same old stuff simply out of habit, you might want to commit to a new food experience every N days.

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