"I'll have the flavored pig tongue." The first time I ever uttered those words was last week at Northern China Eatery on Buford Highway. Our server stared back politely, her pen still hovering over a pad of paper waiting for my order. Message not received. I awkwardly pointed to the place on the menu. She traced her finger to where the dish was written in Chinese and smiled, but still wrote nothing down. Instead, she stuck out her tongue and pointed to it, as if to say, "Are you sure you know what you're getting yourself into?" "Yep," I laughed, and pointed to my own.
In an active attempt to reverse a lifetime of finicky eating, I was on a quest to broaden my exposure to offal and ethnic foods — areas of cuisine I have kept at arm's length for years. Why? The answer is as simple as it is complex. It's a texture thing.
Soon, the plate of thinly sliced tongue meat was placed before me. I tried not to notice that the pieces were arranged in the exact shape of a tongue, and quickly banished the image of that horse in The Cell that's sliced into sections by panes of glass and stretched out like a sick jigsaw puzzle. Unfortunately, my eyes had already fixated on the marbling of vein-like tendons protruding from the brownish-gray meat. I took a deep breath and held a sauce-coated slice of tongue up to my mouth. From this distance, I noticed a patch of prickly taste buds — taste buds that could have been human if it weren't for their mutant enormity. I imagined these taste buds rubbing against my own taste buds, and maybe even a stray taste bud getting caught in my teeth.
I gently laid the tongue back down on my plate and felt my proverbial foodie card being yanked from my half-Asian hands. This battle would have to wait for another day.
Unable to reconcile my texture issues with my desire to eat strange and exotic delicacies, I did what any self-respecting person with an embarrassing problem would do — I Googled it.
According to the 2007 study "Genetic and environmental influences on children's food neophobia" published in the The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, "[h]umans typically show some degree of avoidance to new foods, a trait that has been termed food neophobia." Ultimately, the study found that food neophobia is a highly heritable trait. The study didn't measure the effect of environmental factors on food preferences, but I didn't need numbers to tell me that my upbringing played an important role. My picky father was in charge of most of the cooking growing up. With no exposure to seafood and limited produce options, I rarely came across new textures as a child.
The more I clicked around, the more I scared myself into thinking I might have an eating disorder. PickyEatingAdults.com is an online support system that provides forums, testimonials, and educational resources for picky adult eaters who feel alone and ostracized for their habits. According to the website, in extreme cases, sufferers are only able to eat a limited diet, most often including french fries, hamburgers, plain pizza, peanut butter, and other "bland based" dishes. Texture is most often cited as the cause of food aversions. The site currently has more than 10,000 members.
"Foods are meant to be destroyed," says Gail Vance Civille, a pioneer in advanced sensory evaluation. In other words, when food takes an unnatural amount of time to break down in your mouth, it can become unappetizing, including gelatinous things like skin terrine; things that are tendon-y like a tough and chunky head cheese; very chewy things like chicken feet; or anything, really, that requires a conspicuous amount of chewing.
That's why Civille argues that a Snickers is an almost perfect food. Crunchy peanuts help clean up the mess that the chewy caramel leaves stuck in your teeth. The chocolate melts when it hits your tongue and everything disappears at the same time. The most celebrated taste combinations are a delicate balance of pleasure and pain: crunchy/chewy, hot/sour, salty/sweet.
These days, I consider myself more of a texture freak than an adult picky eater. I eat plenty of texturally suspect foods, but there are rules that have to be followed (hence the 'freak'). I eat pork belly, caramelized and hot so that the fat melts into the meat. I adore a finely chopped beef tartare speckled with crispy capers. I eat hearts and thymus (battered and deep-fried, please), and tongues, too (though preferably shredded and tucked safely into the tortilla of a lengua taco). I eat liver pâté almost as often as I find it on a menu, and the buttery flakes of seared salmon belly dissolving in my mouth is one of the most intense oral pleasures I've ever experienced.
Although a bit of a nuisance, being a texture freak has its perks. When you have such heightened sensory awareness, the capacity for pleasure grows. Take, for instance, soft shell crab. Or better yet, the little Sawagani river crabs I've seen at various establishments around town. The tiny, spider-like crustaceans are battered and fried to a crisp. Only a small amount of meat resides in each bite-sized body but it's enough to add a juicy chew to the experience. The clusters eat like handfuls of crabby, crunchy popcorn — they're addictive.
Long before the infamous "pig tongue day," I assumed that texture was my natural enemy. I'll never forget the drubbing I once received for ordering cucumber rolls at a sushi place. I blushed ferociously and muttered something about childhood nostalgia while my foodie friends devoured plates of monkfish liver and uni. But once I started paying attention not only to what I liked, but why, the act of eating has revealed more sensory pleasure than I ever thought possible. I discovered that for a texture freak like me, the way food feels, the way it interacts with my sense of touch, is far more profound and complex than simply its look, smell, or taste could ever be.