Many people, including my wife, love Thanksgiving more than any other holiday on the calendar. They love the ritual of sitting down with family. They love a day devoted to gratitude, not gifts. They love spending uninterrupted time in the kitchen, their phones and computers tucked away for a few priceless hours. They love stuffing their faces.
I love Thanksgiving for many of these reasons, too. But it hasn’t always been that way.
As a boy growing up in Omaha in the 1960s and 1970s, I dreaded the holiday. I mean, I dreaded it like parents dread a tax audit or dread taking their kids to “The Emoji Movie.” To explain why, I must lay out my painful relationship with food as a child, which, even after all these years, still triggers a tiny voice in my head that says: “You’re a weirdo.”
For reasons that neither I nor my parents could explain, I disliked most “adult” foods. The list of dishes that I wouldn’t touch was long, varied and somewhat horrifying-slash-comical to my immediate family members, who were the only ones to know my secret. (Or so I thought at the time.) What this meant was that, for years, when the family gathered around the table for their favorite meals — chicken and dumplings, spaghetti, a good Nebraska steak — I would sheepishly ask my mother if I could make a PB & J sandwich.
She often relented, mostly out of sympathy and concern for a son who wouldn’t otherwise eat.
If confessing my food sin nightly to my siblings and parents was emotionally charged — the price I’d pay was to regularly sit in their judgment as I snacked on that sandwich — imagine what it was like to eat among extended family or, worse, among strangers. I became an expert at turning down friends’ invitations for dinner or sleepovers where dinner might be included.
Thanksgiving, of course, couldn’t be avoided.
My Uncle Jack and Aunt Mary usually hosted the meal, and it was a boisterous affair, a house filled with the aroma of roasted turkey, the laughter of adults getting drunk and the squawking of relatives as they hit their inevitable boiling points. To someone with a normal appetite, the day was a rollicking good time. To a boy with an appetite for nothing on the Thanksgiving menu — save for a slice of pumpkin pie with extra Cool Whip — it was a kind of torture. I just steeled myself and waited for it to be over.
My dislike of most foods was not a garden-variety case of Picky Eater Syndrome. It felt like something else. It was visceral. When I tasted foods that disagreed with me, I would immediately start to heave, as if I had poked a finger down my throat. It was probably as much psychological as physiological. I’ve read various theories on it as an adult.
Maybe my food phobias were tied to being raised on formula. Maybe they were connected to being forced to eat adult food too early. Maybe I was just expressing anger through the safest channel I could find at the time: rejecting my parents’ meals. I don’t know.
What I do know is that my palate blossomed once I left for college. The change in my diet started slowly. I found that I now liked Chinese food, or at least the Chinese-American fare that passed for the real stuff in Nebraska. I discovered that seafood wasn’t so bad after all. I eventually developed a taste for barbecue, spicy dishes, chicken, steak and a whole spectrum of foods that I had deprived myself of as a child.
In a matter of years, my palate shifted from black and white to Technicolor, from Kansas to Oz.
These days, I enjoy a wide spectrum of flavors. In fact, the roles in my family have reversed: As the $20 Diner, I now eat foods — duck embryos, raw-meat dishes, offal tacos and more — that curl the toes of some in my clan. Some days I think I like many of these foods just because I don’t have strong allegiances to my childhood foods — well, except for runzas.