Looking back, the worst thing you could be in my family was a ‘fussy eater’. You wouldn’t want to be anti-Churchill, either, unless you wanted a death stare from my mother. But my folks endured World War II food rationing, and to leave something on your plate was ruder than flashing your knickers.
You did not ‘pick at your food’, you did not have ‘dietary dislikes’, and you were most certainly not allergic to anything. Remember those children in Africa? They were referenced around our dinner table. I baulked at tripe and onions one night (it’s a thing, a disgusting English thing, made of an animal’s stomach lining), and it turned up on my plate the next morning, congealed, for breakfast.
Eating everything on your plate was as mandatory as detention, and for me, a lanky child with a metabolism like a bushfire and the nickname ‘hollow legs’, not a problem. I grew up believing in my literal intestinal fortitude. In retrospect, I think my dad’s struggle in old age with diabetes and coeliac disease was due to an utter inability to process the notion that there were things he should not eat. Particularly if those things were gingernut biscuits. The closest he got to abstaining was hiding the packets around the house and rustling furtively when Mum was out of the room.
It’s a shock, then, to realise I have become fussy about what goes in my mouth. Whaaaat? It’s a classic case of glass house meets thrown stone, because I spent years rolling my eyes at anyone on a diet, let alone identifying as allergic, vegan, gluten-intolerant, sober, or in any way a goddamn pain in the arse at dinner parties. You picky vegan bastard, my subconscious whirred, as I freaked out about how to add taste to vegetarian food without resorting to cheese. What is wrong with you people?
But one paradigm shift later, and I’m judging anyone who cleans their plate without a second thought. If that’s you, you shit me. Sorry. Not sorry. In a rich country, with access to actual information, chowing down on any old thing is no longer a sign of robust health, good manners and an iron stomach. Every week another food scandal is in the news, and the mystery is genuinely not how caged-egg cruelty happened or how hepatitis berries from China happened.
Which bit of the price-versus-quality graph is confusing? It’s basic economics. If you’re buying the cheapest available, it’s likely going to be cut with cardboard, fertilised with untreated sewage, drenched in chemicals and poised on the tippy top of the ‘this animal had a miserable life’ pyramid.
So now the ‘fussy’ are my people, because the others are the ones who buy their Christmas turkey from discount supermarkets, and end up serving unidentifiable lumps of weird stringy meat drenched in gravy from an alfoil container, shrugging in surprise because they “thought it would be okay”.*
I don’t think many people are actually fussy in the classic sense of ‘stubborn’. Even back in the 1970s it was generally just a word thrown around to shame children into eating over-boiled brussels sprouts. Nobody sane wants to eat those. They’re disgusting. Calling someone fussy is just a way of saying, “stop making me feel bad for my terrible cooking”.
It’s the same now in restaurants. It’s common in the inner city for cafes and restaurants to buy ethical and locally sourced produce routinely. See, hipsters have their uses. But there are plenty of eateries that give me the brush-off when I ask, like the food wanker I have become, about the provenance of their meat. And what they’re actually saying is, “stop making me feel bad about not dealing with animal cruelty”.
I used to be flippant about allergies, and had no patience for friends who reckoned they were intolerant to milk/wheat/seafood/whatever. What I meant was, “I find it really aggravating that I have to accommodate a problem I don’t have.” Writ larger, I was in a ballpark with the management of restaurants who build a disabled toilet because they have to, use it for storage, and then roll their eyes when someone needs access to it.
Maybe the world needs more ‘fussy’ people. People who don’t just accept what they’re given and clean their metaphoric plate. Next time you’re pissed off at someone being demanding, maybe consider, just maybe, I shouldn’t buy my Christmas turkey from cut-price supermarkets.
*Actual Christmas experience last year with a family friend.