You Eat This, Or You Get Nothing

If you had told my mother that I’d grow up to be a fairly open-minded food lover and chronicler she would have laughed in your face, and probably mocked you in Italian. Then she would have yelled at me to eat my broccoli.

I was an incredibly picky kid. Among the foods that would literally make me gag if you forced me to eat them were:

  • Tomatoes
  • Onions
  • Olives
  • Lentils
  • Any Leafy Green Other Than Iceberg, But Especially Escarole, Which is of the Devil
  • Peppers
  • Any Non-Fried-Shrimp Marine Life
  • Chickpeas
  • Brown Rice
  • The Aforementioned Broccoli
  • Non-Cheddar Cheeses

Right? It was ridiculous! How the hell do you cook without freaking ONION? Or tomato, for that matter; we are talking about a born and raised Italian. Truly she was the contemporary incarnation of Saint Monica, the patron saint of – among other things – patience and disappointing children.


(Please, leave an example of your own childhood food foible in the comments so I feel like less of a toolbox.)

(And: I’m quite happy with my current state of non-Catholicity, but I do sometimes miss the pageantry and rich history, like all the patron saints. They have one for everything! Patron saint of children late in learning to walk? Check! Patron saint for protection against mice? There are three of them, in case one is busy when the mouse overlords come to claim their territory. A patron saint for both bomb manufacturers AND mathematicians? Why not? In addition, I note with interest that the patron saint of clowns and carneys is also the patron saint of murderers, which cannot be a coincidence.)

Given my extreme food squeamishness, a lot of which had to do with texture, my undying love of calamari – squid – never did make a whole lot of sense.  Still, it is the case that I never met a squid I didn’t like, and by “like” I mean “want to eat immediately.”


Even weirder was that the tentacles were my absolute favorite part; they still are. The rings, you could maybe fool yourself into thinking you weren’t eating a squid. The tentacles, however, announce their decided squidness with a barbaric yawp. Who decided these things were edible? Probably the same person who thought it would be a good idea to eat the seabugs we know and love as “crawfish.” We must thank this individual for (1) their openmindedness; (2) complete disregard for the safety of their person and/or digestive tract; or (3) both.

The point: I could induce vomiting and hysterical weeping over a cannellini bean, but would eat tentacles as happily as the day is long.

A secondary point: You have no idea how much I wished I had a little toy submarine so I could have created a little 20.000 Leagues Under the Sea tableau for you.


Thus, it makes perfect sense that as I flipped through my just-acquired copy of Mourad Lahlou’s New Moroccan, my eyes would alight on the squid and napa cabbage with harissa, a North African chile paste. I’ve always wanted to try making homemade harissa and Brian and I are both squid lovers.

This recipe calls for “quick harissa” (the book also includes recipes for a dry harissa spice rub and another saucy version requiring much soaking and grinding of chiles), which takes a zippy two hours. Water, tomato puree, cumin, paprika, a shit-ton of cayenne, parsley, cilantro, garlic, sugar, vinegar, salt and pepper simmer slowly, slowly, slowly, until the sauce is fragrant, dark, thick and the cooked-down tomatoes have turned into an umami bomb. The whole mixture is blended with some olive oil and strained, making a luscious and VERY VERY SPICY sauce that you should taste with the tip of a finger and not by heartily licking the spatula you used to scrape it into the bowl, if I may offer some advice.


The squid rings and tentacles are cooked separately: the rings just get a quick bath in boiling water followed by a cold shock, and are tossed with a salad of napa cabbage, cilantro and mint dressed with a combo of more harissa, lime juice, fish sauce and sugar.

The tentacles get marinated in the harissa. They’re then supposed to be grilled, if you’re the kind of person who’s fine with lighting up the whole charcoal grill for thirty seconds of tentacle cookery, which you may have discerned from my tone that I am not. So I seared ’em quick-like in a super hot pan, and got a creepy kind of satisfaction from watching them curl up like the Wicked Witch’s legs after she got housed.


The cabbage-and-ring salad is plated up first, followed by the tentacles and finished with a sprinkling of microgreens. According to the book, Lahlou’s preference is for Lamb’s Blood; my personal adaptation is to use whichever the hell microgreen Fresh Direct is selling for less than a million dollars. These particular bargain-basement microgreens happened to include reddish leaves, so if you stand ten feet away and squint, you can pretend it’s Lamb’s Blood.


I figured I would love this dinner, and I was not disappointed. The calamari rings, which only spent ten seconds in the boiling water, were perfectly tender with no rubberiness to be found. The salad was crisp and fresh and bracing from the spice and acid, and the still-hot tentacles were a savory contrast. I heartily approve of Mr. Lahlou’s style, in spite of the unorthodox inclusion of fish sauce, and see some preserved lemons and fresh cheese in my future.

Of course, childhood me would have refused to eat this because childhood me was a hardheaded dumbass. Thankfully, adult me is a dumbass with a more curious palate.

Except for escarole. NEVER SURRENDER!

32 thoughts on “You Eat This, Or You Get Nothing

  1. I was a picky eater and had many many food related battles with my mom, but the one that sticks out to this day was over wheat pilaf. I still won’t eat the stuff.

  2. I was extremely picky as a kid. There were maybe 10 items I could eat without gagging. As an adult, my ‘can-eat’ list has expanded to 30 items. Of course, if you drown it in tongue paralyzingly hot chili sauce, I’ll eat more stuff. How I’m.not dead from malnutrition yet, I’ll never know.

  3. Melted Cheeses. I grew up in a French/Italian/Welch family and all my relatives thought I was crazy. Pizza? No. Mac-n-Cheese? Nyet. Baked Brie!?! Never shall they pass my lips (until I actually tried it and ate 3/4 of the dish!) Nothing melted cheese, until…

    I went to this lovely French bistro and everything had tree nuts or peanuts in it (can you say deathly allergic, like rush me NOW TO THE ER! allergic), so I had to order the one thing I could eat. French onion soup. I rhapsodized over the soup until my saintly mother pointed out I was eating melted Gruyére cheese. I ordered a second bowl and haven’t looked back since. I now own 2 fondue pots and have dedicated a whole section of my fridge to just cheeses that I obsessively accumulate (and thus eat in meltingly wonderful ways).

  4. I wouldn’t eat onions either. Although I think I accepted onion powder as a substitute. Thankfully, I’m past that, and many other childhood aversions. My brother-in-law STILL won’t eat onions, and the man’s 37 years old.

  5. Picky eater as a kid? Peas (still), Seafood of any kind (still), potatoes (still don’t like russets that aren’t mashed with lots of butter or deep-fried), raw tomatoes (but I was cool with tomato sauce), most vegetables except for raw carrots (still only like ’em raw), cucumbers, celery, and iceberg lettuce, yogurt (sorta kinda still), cheese served warm (I was the kid who refused pizza and mac and cheese till I was 10 years old), stews, ground beef that was cooked till crusty, and olives (still).

    My brother, who will eat anything but raw tomatoes (and he’s learning not to hate those ) used to make fun of my pickiness till he had kids. His kids are way pickier than I ever was. I just laugh.

  6. I was not really a picky eater as a child, but I did have slightly unusual tastes for a kid. I wouldn’t eat fresh lima beans (dried were fine), asparagus, brussels sprouts or raw onions, but I would happily eat all other cruciferous veggies in huge quantities. I loved anything that lived in water. Plunk down a plate of clams on the half shell, I was in heaven! Calamari? Bring it on! Lobster would make me your friend for life (and still would)! I still harbor that dislike of lima beans (unless they’re in soup) and brussels sprouts, but I’ve gotten over my other food issues, although large chunks of raw onion are still not my favorite thing. Odd side note, while I was pregnant, one of my absolute favorite foods, mac & cheese, could turn me green. Couldn’t even read a recipe for it without puking. Thank God that went away once my daughter was born!

  7. Sadly, my problem is I would (and still will) eat pretty much anything. Needless to say I was a Fat Kid, and a Fat Adult who has learned to try to not be quite so fat.

  8. I wasn’t super picky about foods but I had an Italian grandmother who would lie to me about foods, so I got to be extremely suspicious and unwilling to eat much of anything at her house when I was young! Tried to tell me liver was veal and would tell me there were no mushrooms in the sauce and I’d have a pile of 50 on the edge of my plate by the end of the meal, things like that! She couldn’t understand why my parents didn’t FORCE me to eat things I didn’t like….in the end, by letting me try what I wanted when I wanted, there are plenty of things I wouldn’t eat then that I absolutely love now.

  9. I wasn’t all that picky about foods, but extraordinarily picky about their appearance. I would scream if my cheese was in one piece instead of two, for instance. Must’ve been great fun for my parents.

    My Sicilian stepmom (and her mom too) cooks escarole in the old-school way, with a crapload of browned garlic and olive oil, and then escarole, chicken broth, and white beans. God, I love that. Shame to miss out on its awesomeness.

  10. I wouldn’t eat any of the things you named as a child, except olives, which I loved. I would eat spaghetti sauce, which contains onions and tomatoes, but doesn’t really count because it’s cooked down. I also wouldn’t eat rye bread, cream cheese, cheeseburgers, mayonnaise, guacamole, sour cream, etc. Mostly, I ate meat and carbs. I still am weird about some cheeses (blue or soft are no-gos), mayonnaise, and I don’t like cheeseburgers. I like meat. I like cheese. I don’t like them together. And I won’t eat mealy tomatoes (like in winter).

  11. I was an adventurous eater when I was younger. However, I couldn’t stand to have my food touch on the plate. It was hard for me to understand how people could eat a forkful of meat and two veg in one bite. Also, I never liked mayo or ketchup or mustard and I still get grossed out by the smell of any of those condiments on my hands. When we were at the deli, I’d ask for brisket on a Kaiser roll, NO MUSTARD! I love mustard now, but I always try to cut mayo with sour cream or strained yogurt in a recipe.

    Dang, this recipe looks delicious! I’m going to give it a look-over at the old bookstore. Thanks!

  12. TENTACLES! I am so down with tentacles. I don’t know why but I do like the rather obnoxious animal-ness of them.

    As a kid, I was not terribly picky. But mayo skeeved me out to no end. Now that I’ve eaten homemade mayo, I’m all down for it in the right situations.

  13. I was a very picky eater as a kid. I’ve gotten better though. I used to refuse to eat any bread that wasn’t white, mustard, turkey, chicken, pickles, onions, peppers, any seasonings (including pepper but I would eat salt), potatoes (except french fries), spaghetti, sausage (except for the kind in breakfast sandwiches/burritos) pepperoni, broccoli unless it was smothered in cheese, spinach, green beans, black-eyed peas, apples (still: ew), chocolate ice cream, pies (which I now prefer to any other kind of dessert), steak, homemade hamburgers, anything seafood-y unless it was frozen fishsticks in macaroni and cheese, chili, chili cheese hotdogs (will eat ten straight now), brown rice, white rice, pastrami, any cheese that wasn’t cheddar, anything flavored with lemon, lemons, limes, and most pastas. There was a lot of other stuff but I also remember refusing to eat any salad that wasn’t made of: iceberg lettuce, eggs, shredded cheese, ranch dressing. I don’t know why, I always felt like my throat was closing up.

    In my defense my mother was a bland cook, which she learned from her mother. Her best dish was chicken and dumplings. (Mine’s better.) I would eat anything provided it was drenched in cheese and grilled cheese was my favorite thing in the world. I’ve used a lot of recipes from this site to expand my horizons.

  14. Strange how we picky eaters as kids—or, in my case, even into my late 20s—have grown into foodies. These days, and within reason, I’ll go out of my way to try dishes at restaurants or to cook new recipes—heck, I even like headcheese. However, I have my limits. Steamed or creamed spinach is still just about the worst thing on earth. I honestly have a gag reflex when eating it.

  15. okay, i feel MUCH better now.

    @tinybikegirl, i know a thirty-something who exists only on plain potato rolls, plain pizza and chicken fingers, and he’s still alive.

    @davey, whoa! no melted cheese! koo-koo!

    @rachel, olives remain on my shit list as well.

    @gloria, i was super-picky and was still a fat kid –> fat adult, so there’s really no way to win.

    @lori, ooh, my mom would do that to me. sneaking ground eggplant into meatballs was my most hated.

    @scott, yeah, that’s how my mom cooked it. or she’d put it in soup. either way, makes me gag to this day.

    @kristie, everyone should put their foot down against mealy tomatoes. they’re a disgrace.

    @sara, that’s quite a list. it makes me happy to no end that i’ve been able to help give your palate a boost!

  16. I would. NOT. eat mushrooms as a kid.

    To the point where I would pick out the teenytiny homeopathic bits of mushroom in jarred spaghetti sauces.

    To the point that my Mom once presented me with a raw, perfectly round, perfectly featureless section from a button mushroom cap in an attempt to convince me that it was really a piece of water chestnut.

    Mom would also tell me that when I got older, I’d be “out at a fancy restaurant with your boyfriend and he’ll order something with mushrooms, and then you’ll have to eat it! Mwah ha haaaa!”

    Of course, now I love them, and my husband will. NOT. eat them. Ah, karma.

  17. I was ridiculous. I had a laundry list of things I “didn’t like,” but I had essentially just formed the preconceived notion that I didn’t like them – in nearly every case, without eating them! I hated on all seafood except shrimp, which I since expanded to first smoked salmon, then regular salmon, then sushi… I’m still not too nuts about the rest of the world of fish, although I refuse to leave New England without getting a lobster roll at least ONCE. Just to see. Also decided off-hand that I didn’t like jam or pie, which makes me wonder if I was dropped as a baby, raw tomatoes, onions (although I wasn’t too religious about that – I’d pick them off my burger, say, but if they were cooked into a dish I wasn’t fussy), various other vegetables (I was right about zucchini and eggplant, they suck), lamb, pistachios, pickles, and I can’t even remember what else.

    The one thing I don’t like that I didn’t just up and decide I didn’t like is ricotta. That was sprung on me. It made me gag and it was completely unexpected.

    I’ve gotten way more adventurous, and then I hooked up with my husband, who was way more limited in his palate than I was, and I decided to start learning to like other foods. He’s getting better too.

  18. Liverwurst sandwiches on white bread with margarine. I did not look forward to opening my Batman (Adam West edition) lunch box.

  19. Oh, Lord. The laundry list of Things I Would Not eat included:
    –Liver. In any form.
    –Green peas (my father loathed them, so I did, too)
    –Any kind of cooked greens
    –Potato salad
    –Whipped cream
    –Sour cream
    Things I will still not eat:
    –Liver, unless it’s mousse or pate
    –Chitterlings. I mean, they’re seriously nasty
    –Any kind of cooked greens. Don’t know how I managed to grow up poor, in the South, in the country, and not eat greens. Can’t do it.

  20. I wouldn’t even taste cheesecake. First tasted it at about age 30, and have tried my best to make up for the all those years.

  21. I would not eat raw onions or tomatoes – but somehow LOVED salsa! I’ve since changed my mind on the tomatoes, but not the raw onions.
    The biggest fight we would have at the table when I was a kid was over green beans. In my defense, my grandmother cooked them in the microwave with beef bullion powder sprinkled over it – GROSS. I would eat one forkful and drink an entire glass of iced tea, then another forkful and another glass until I was done. Of course, all that iced tea then made bedtime a disaster! Fun times.
    I’ll pretty much eat anything now, except for the aforementioned raw onions, but it took me until I was well into my 30’s to really try a lot of foods that I thought I didn’t like.

  22. I was not a picky kid, but I have one. He is made of cheese sandwiches and I weep for his cardiovascular future. I keep a statue of Ganesh in my kitchen. Not Hindu, but I figure it can’t hurt.

  23. I was the opposite of all of you as a kid. I would eat ANYTHING that was put in front of me, even if they TOLD me what it was. I guess I learned to just eat whatever b/c my mom was of the opinion that if it was on your plate, you wouldn’t get down from the table until you ate it. My brother was a really picky eater and still is. I will eat anything….

    ….except olives and lima beans. I WILL.NOT. EAT. LIMA BEANS. I hated them as a child and tried them as an adult and nope. not happening.

    Olives make me gag. I wish I liked them, there are so many kinds! But I can’t even get them down.

  24. @camille, i’m with you on the whole pre-judging thing. tons of the foods i wouldn’t eat as a child were things i hadn’t actually tasted.

    @randy, i’m so sorry for those years you had to subsist on dad’s cooking alone.

    @kayb, in all fairness, liver is FOUL and NO ONE should eat it.

    @original allison, ten bucks says you don’t have the only kid in america made of cheese sandwiches. or chicken nuggets, or pudding cups, or whatever. and ten more bucks says he’ll be fine. (altho ganesh can’t hurt.)

    @miserichik, yeah, i wasn’t allowed to get up from the table without finishing either, which mostly just led to me weeping under the table. and i’m with you on the olives.

  25. I think every kid is picky. I still haven’t grown out of some of my dislikes, including:
    chunks of tomato, raw or cooked. sauce has to be completely pureed with NO chunks and i only like salsa that has that very finely diced/pureed texture to it.
    cooked carrots,
    bell peppers (in any incarnation),
    salad dressing, especially creamy ones, but the vinegar based ones are gross too.
    portobello and crimini and button mushrooms,
    tuna from a can (this one is so serious that i make my boyfriend prepare his tuna salad for lunch before i wake up in the morning and he has to scrub the entire kitchen with 409 and take out the tuna can filled garbage or else i will smell it and vomit.)
    eggs without cheese or bacon involved
    rye bread
    sandwiches of any sort
    pizza unless i make it at home
    any cold foods that are not sweet.

    and thats just the stuff that i STILL dont like as an adult, let alone everything i wouldn’t touch as a kid and like now.

  26. My heart hurts a little bit at how delicious this looks. Argh.

    I wasn’t a particularly picky child, although I did have a Brussels sprouts hangup that I’ve since gotten over. I do remember one particular childhood friend’s birthday party where I refused to eat ice-cream cake because it was shaped like a watermelon and “looked weird.” I’m still confused by that one. What the hell, twelve-year-old me, get it together.

  27. I was raised by my grandmother, her cooking techniques revolved around the great depression era where food was basic, variety was sparse and everything was over cooked and /or salted to death. I learned to walk in her kitchen but 16 years later I met a boy who loved to cook and a whole new world opened up to me.. To this day I will not eat plain boiled potatoes, turnip or tripe.. god the smell of that stuff o_0

  28. Growing up as an immigrant Asian kid, there were very few foods that I feared or was allowed to refuse to eat. That said, even my mother eventually gave in to my hatred of beans of any sort. To date, still my only victory with that woman.

    (I now eat black bean soup/black beans and rice, but that took years and an overwhelming love of all other foods Cuban.)

  29. @roo, as you are to canned tuna, i am to chicken livers. brian loves ’em, but he’s not allowed to cook ’em at home because they make the apartment smell like hot death.

    @rowan, who DOES eat plain boiled tripe? blech.

  30. Well, I guess I just missed out on being a picky eater. I was the oldest of seven children. The platters and serving bowls of salad, meats, vegetables, and bread were passed around the table starting with my father. I thought he was a picky eater, but I had to change my mind when I saw him eat like a starvling at his mother’s table. My mother was a bland and terrible cook. If I didn’t want any from the bowl or platter, I passed it on to the next victim. With seven children, not many platters or bowls got passed around twice. If I didn’t eat what was there, someone would. And nobody noticed or cared if I was still hungry at the end of the meal. And there was no eating out of the frig or snacking between meals. Sounds kind of sad, I’ll admit; but I have my own kitchen now. I love to cook, and I eat whatever I want whenever I want, now that my kids are grown. If I want fried chicken for breakfast, and waffles and sausage for dinner; then that’s what I have. And I eat chocolate all day long. Last week, I woke up from a scary dream. I went straight to the kitchen and ate a monster piece of chocolate cake with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream over all. I love my life!

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