As a parent I have tried to create explorers, to nurture experimentation and its results, good and bad, to burn the ubiquitous question mark in the mind, the fire which makes them seek for themselves the whos and whats and whens and hows. Try this. Try that. What is it like? Tell me. Exploration is fueled by curiosity and neither of these can be forced.
After a long day at work my mother would often cook meals from across the world, methodically following the steps in her beloved cookbooks, their pages marked with her careful notations made with sharpened leads. While later in her life she traveled, at that point cooking was her mode of transport, her dishes the boats which carried us all to far off lands.
A single mother, she did this not for a spouse or to entertain, but for her two small children who would have been perfectly content to sit in front of the TV with a tray and a previously frozen meal (that was the norm in those days). Her rule was that we had to try whatever she put before us… and we did. Paella and boeuf bourguignon, snails and sauces, dishes none of us could imagine could emerge from our small kitchen, let alone pronounce.
I’m convinced that to have an open attitude about food is symbolic of an attitude toward everything in life that is different, that makes us uncomfortable. My mother taught us never to be afraid of food, to enjoy and explore the different tastes and smells and textures, and in doing so to open ourselves to surprises. She did not force us to eat, but instead to taste, quite a different thing. There were no punishments, no threats of no dessert, no wars or tears.
Watching the way my visitor has tried every bit of food placed before her without pause makes me smile. But of course, I think, she is of that sort, brave and unafraid.
Working with foreigners abroad I saw a pattern. Those who were least able to find their way in a new country were invariably afraid of its food. Likewise, those who dove into the language and culture were excited to try new tastes.
Oh, all may have been wary at first, especially when presented with a food complete with eyes and limbs, but the former were paralyzed by fear. It blocked their minds and their throats (they were rarely able to gain proficiency in the language either). The latter, the brave ones, were gourmands, savoring all that was before them with an appetite which knew no bounds. There were some in between, but rarely.
Perhaps part of this is nature versus nurture, but when the world is presented to a child as a fearful thing, full of dangers and bad tastes, of things whose very difference from that which is known invokes distrust and wariness, their reaction will be to close up. Fear numbs the senses.
When instead the world is presented as full of wonder, when change is presented as exciting and difference something to embrace, the result is far different.
Don’t just eat your peas. Roll them around on your tongue and press them between your lips to feel them pop. Pull apart the pod and see how they are lined up cozily within. Don’t be afraid, don’t ever be afraid.