On faking it: Dinner etiquette with a picky eater

If you’ve read this column for any period of time you’ll know that onions and mushrooms are my sworn enemies. People who aren’t picky eaters tend to think I’m just being stubborn, and that they are the one who will convince me to drop my sword and end the fight. No, I don’t like onions, even in onion rings. I like fried things as much as the next girl, but the onions are still slimy, sluggy things I don’t ever want to ingest. Yes, I’ll still be able to tell even if you chop them up really tiny. I’m not just being an asshole; it’s the texture, not the taste, that bothers me. My reaction is completely beyond my control—if I accidentally bite into an onion, I either have to spit it out like a two-year-old or force myself to try and chew around it, which usually makes my eyes water because it’s so unpleasant. My body rejects them on my behalf.

Being picky in this way means that people like to make fun of you. For some reason, being picky about a few things makes people assume I’m picky about all things. In high school, my friend’s mother used her daughter to scout ahead with the dinner she planned to make before I came over. “My mom wants to know if you like wheat bread,” she would ask. “My mom wants to know if you like strawberries.” Of fucking course I like bread. Who doesn’t like bread? They seemed to think I would run away screaming and in tears if I ran across some mushrooms. High school is painful enough without looking like an uptight, boring asshat, so I have devised lots of neurotic ways to hide my picky eating that avoid both the sworn food enemies and the mockery.

At restaurants, I ask ask ask. I’m paying for that shit. It’s a huge bummer to pay for some food and then have to pick around most of it. (I am not good at sending things back.) Beware especially Mexican restaurants. They like to sneak onions in without mentioning them on the menu. If I suspect something might have onions or mushrooms, even in the sauce, I always ask. “I’m not sure if the burrito has onions, but if it does, can I have it without?” If you are there with friends, you shouldn’t have to explain yourself. If you’re with people you don’t know well or with coworkers, someone will inevitably be like “WHY DON’T YOU LIKE ONIONS ARE YOU STUPID,” at which point, instead of my usual treatise on the texture versus taste issues I have, I just lie and say I’m mildly allergic. This always makes people understand without having to discuss it further, and then deflects the conversation because people love to talk about their own food allergies.

At dinner parties, if I know the people well, I usually just tell them upfront that I have an aversion to these foods. Problem solved. If they put up a fuss, there’s always your “allergy” to explain. If I don’t know the people well, I ask to bring something. Even if it’s just some bread and cheese, I know I’ll have something to eat if they decide to make an onion tart or something. I never want to hurt someone’s feelings, especially because I think cooking is one of the highest forms of love, so instead I revert to trickery. It’s really easy to just take a small helping of the offending dish, cut it apart and smash it around a little bit to look like you’ve eaten something, then fill up on the dinner rolls. A childhood full of avoiding the green vegetables has made me an expert at sculpting a dish that looks eaten but hasn’t been.

The problem is that these methods are nowhere near 100% effective. Sometimes I’ll still get something at a restaurant with big hunks of onion. If I’m out with a professor I want to impress, I’m already a nervous wreck and trying avoid looking like an idiot. I could send the food back, but I think that makes me look like a snob (“Yes, hello, these onions offend my delicate tongue.”). I might as well just drink my pop with a pinkie in the air. I won’t send food back unless it’s not fully cooked. I hate having to spit out a bite of food because it makes me feel like an obstinate child (and maybe I am), but if I bite down on a crunchy piece of onion or a fatty piece of chicken, I don’t have much choice. Rather than just spitting it into a napkin (it turns out that most people know what you’re doing), I usually fake a sneeze into a napkin. Everyone’s dignity is spared, except for whomever has to launder the napkins.

Once, I was having dinner at a boyfriend’s house for the first time. His mother had made beautiful, miniature pot pies. When I cut one open, I went into a mild panic. It was filled with peas and onions and other things I couldn’t eat. I started eating the chicken and the crust, very slowly, hoping that if I could just eat it slow enough, maybe some of it would disappear. I was devastated because I was starving and the parts I could eat were delicious. I was clearly broken. I’d just started trying to move the vegetables around on my plate when his mother asked, “Do you not like it?” I’d already made a major faux-pas by starting to eat before they said grace, so I was dying to save face and did not want to offend her. The meal had clearly taken hours to prepare.

“Of course I like it! I’m just a slow eater ha ha ha!” I said. More than half the pot pie was still sitting on my plate, so I think we all knew it was a blatant lie, but I went ahead and shoved huge forkfuls into my mouth and smiled. I couldn’t swallow, so I hoarded the food away in my cheek like a chipmunk until his mother left the room to go get the dessert plate. I took the opportunity to fake-sneeze the food into my paper napkin, and hid the napkin in my pocket. For the rest of the meal, I nonchalantly dropped bites of pot pie into my lap, then stuffed the napkins into my bulging pockets. I waited until I got home to throw the napkins away.

If you ever see someone stealthily tucking away a mangled piece of chicken in their napkin, don’t be offended. We picky eaters do not want you to think your cooking is abysmal. It is not your fault. We are doing this because we don’t want to hurt your feelings. Please invite us again. Maybe next time we can just order pizza. But only pepperoni.

Jill Kolongowski is a freelance writer and editor living in San Francisco. When she’s not cooking, running, or reading, she blogs at jillkolongowski.com. Follow her on Twitter at @jillkolongowski.

6 Responses to “On faking it: Dinner etiquette with a picky eater”
  1. Saundra says:

    I try to make it a point to ask what (if any) aversions to certain foods people have before inviting them for dinner. If only all people thought to do so, then the hurt feelings could be avoided without the need for stealth.

  2. Katie says:

    My husband is horrifically allergic to onions (he violently throws up within an hour.) Many people claim he is lying about his allergy. I have been trapped into more than one meal in which I have had to watch, in horror, as he politely forced down something with onion in it, only to buy Pedialite and saltines on the way home. Great post. I’m going to forward it to him.

    • Jill Kolongowski says:

      Hi Katie! Thanks for reading. Your husband has it way worse than I do, since mine’s just a sort of violent dislike + gag reflex. Tell him I UNDERSTAND.

  3. Shayna says:

    It’s easier, sometimes, to lie than have to listen to people laugh about your “irrational distaste for onions.” I, like you, absolutely loathe onions. I love so many foods, but onions I just cannot stomach. Once, a friend’s mother asked if I’d like some eggs with greens and of course I said yes, only to find out it was littered with onions and peppers. She then proceeded to take a seat across from me at the table and watch me eat. I swallowed every bite whole! I didn’t chew once because I knew if I did, I was likely to violently gag through the whole meal.
    So, I understand where you’re coming from. I enjoyed this piece specifically because there is another person out there who finds the slimy-but-crunchy texture of onions loathsome.

  4. Scott Fisher says:

    One of the only common foods in the world that I don’t enjoy is bell pepper. Green, red, yellow or rainbow, the taste makes me ill. I get the same kind of flack. I might not share your particular aversion, but I can certainly understand the feeling!

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