Vaneisa: How it feels matters—diary of a “picky” eater

I have always misunderstood marshmallows. Never quite got their popularity.

In the old days, they popped up mostly around Christmas time, along with butter cookies and other treats. I’ve since discovered that they are actually made up of 90 per cent sugar, but that had nothing to do with my aloofness from them. They simply felt gross in my mouth.

A child enjoys a mashmallow treat.

I have a similar relationship with a host of other sweets—jub jub, gummy bears, those long, tiresome licorice twists—and reflecting on it, I concluded that it has to do with the texture.

Basically, they are all sucrose, held together by some form of gelatine. Perhaps it is the gelatine, the powdered essence of the brand Jell-O, commonly served to patients unable to process solid fare, or as wobbly capsules holding shots of alcohol, or even fruit.

I have never understood the affection for these particular specimens of human indulgence. Apart from the fact that I find them repulsively cloying, and pointless, I know that I am put off by the way they feel.

I’m not bringing this up to rant about edibles I find inedible—like mixed peel and sprinkles, which might look pretty to some, but tasted on their own are revolting to me.

No thanks…

I was thinking about the way we respond to texture. Defined as the quality of something that can be known by touch: its feel, its consistency, its appearance, the texture of an object; food or otherwise, has a powerful impact on the way we perceive it.

As a child, I was a picky eater, a horribly tiresome one. My mother used to grumble that one day when I had my own offspring I would know what a pain it was to have to feed someone like me. Prescient, she was.

By the time I was a parent, I had long outgrown my food-aversions and would eat practically anything. So, it was fascinating for me to rediscover that element of myself when my daughter began exhibiting traits I had forgotten.

It wasn’t that she (or I) spurned the food we were offered. We didn’t—as is so commonly portrayed now by children demanding this instead of that because they feel for this today—deliberately turn up our noses at the fare.


The cutlery would approach the mouth, and as it entered the tentative cave, the retching would erupt. Smell would often be a trigger as well. The smell of carrots and milk made me gag, and I got licks for that.

My daughter could not stomach onions. She still picks out raw onions and tomatoes when she dines out, but has come to tolerate them cooked.

I used to be so distressed by the dramas surrounding mealtimes. It completely shattered my confidence as a cook. Her antipathy could be directed to dishes she had enjoyed just days before. It was completely unsustainable.

At some point, as we tried to move towards solutions, she suggested that if I didn’t tell her what ingredients lurked inside, and if I was able to conceal them, that might make a difference. I can only report that while her range has broadened considerably, it never reached a point where I could cook confidently for her palate.

Not hungry…

But we’ve talked about it, and as we discovered with many other things in life, a significant factor was texture. It can be so arbitrary.

For instance, as someone who revels in “playing in the dirt” from small, who likes handling produce and meat, who likes getting my hands into things, I consider myself a tactile person. Yet, I cannot bear the doughy feel of flour in my hands.

I go to great lengths to avoid kneading anything. It was a long time before I figured out that it was the texture.

Coming from an environment where everyone could casually roll out dough effortlessly, nobody understood why I recoiled from it. Even my daughter delights in the feel of flour on her hands.

All about the dough…

A few friends have reported that kneading dough is therapeutic for them. They all make spectacular breads, and thankfully, they share. I can understand that; I get that feeling with soil.

I realise that everyone has their own particular sensitivity to things in that textural way—what feels soothing to one may be torture to another. Sharing experiences has taught me that we are never alone; everyone has their story.

Listening to stories of young women married into large households, where the daughter-in-law was essentially the new maid, I can only imagine the daily challenges.

I’ve heard recollections of girls, brides at 16, having to prepare around 40 sada rotis every morning for the extended family. One, in her late seventies now, said it was 40 for breakfast, 40 for dinner. She said she could not bear the feel of kneading dough, but she had no choice. I am grateful that I did.

Image: A satirical take on motherhood.

We have a way of dismissing these things, of treating people as if they are wilfully trying to make life difficult for others because they cannot stomach certain foods; cannot bear certain smells; cannot dig their hands into flour or whatever.

It is not being spoilt and over-indulged—there’s a discernible difference. There are genuine conditions that make it a real challenge, and it can help if we try to identify the source of the discomfort. Who knows what it might be?

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