Culinary Pluralism; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Olive

I was once what adults called a picky eater. There were only certain colors I would eat. The beige family is the most reliable, and it also encompasses most bread-based breakfast foods (rainbow-colored food coloring foods are also safe). There were only certain textures I would eat: melted cheese and bread-based foods. Anything extreme, like a spice, a vinegar kick or overt fishiness was way out of the question. Unidentified animal part? Take a hike. The biggest offenders, crete certo, scilicet, were mushrooms and olives.

I am now what other adults call a picky eater. Though my palette has expanded slightly beyond plain cheese quesadillas and Bisquick pancakes, I am easily alarmed by the unpredictable or needlessly sophisticated. I realized a long time ago that, in order to facilitate continued participation in social events and the company of more adventurous gastronomes, it would be best for everyone if I came up with a list of foods I would never eat.

They are:
Mushrooms
Olives
Eggplant
Dried coconut.

I could have included roasted peppers, unidentifiable meats and non-muscular animal parts, anything pickled (except pickles), beets, those mini-corn things, and most seafood. But I decided to go easy on my hosts and single out the biggest offenders.

Mushrooms look like pieces of fingers. Olives are briny and invasive. Eggplant is slimy and a terrible color. Dried coconut is like shoelaces; why ruin a perfectly good chocolate cake?

You would be amazed at how evangelical people are about these foods.

I am not a food pluralist. I will not succumb to culinary pressures. I shall not lay aside my plain pasta for your boiled toad. I shall nibble on my Captain Crunch whilst you gnaw your zesty goat’s jaw. I care not how expertly it is simmered and no amount of wheedling will convert me to your bizarro foodstuffs. More smoked fishpaste for you!

Despite how concerned I seem to be about interreligious relations, interfooding seems to be a far more tempestuous and inflammatory realm. I’m generally not interesting in changing for anyone as long as my mode of being isn’t hurting anyone. But apparently I am a pain in the ass for certain hosts of mine.

I started realizing that everyone was going out of their way to cook moderate, Middle Way, lackluster vanilla victuals for me. Which was fine with me. But apparently people think that when bread is loaded with olives it is soooo amazing, and that dried coconut adds texture.

Apparently, people like something more complex than butter and salt on their noodles. Don’t get me started on how much people think vegetarians will waste away without regular mushrooms and eggplant. It’s always such a relief to meet other mushroom/olive/eggplant/dried coconut haters, and we always bond over how oppressed we are by pressures to “grow up,” “try something new,” “open our minds,” and “stop inconveniencing everybody else.”

That last one started to worried me.

In service of being less of a pain in the ass, I started contemplating a change.

The olive. The olive seemed like it had potential to be my culinary companion as I eke my palate into adulthood. After all, I use olive oil when I cook. I may not embrace the origin of my olive oil but I must admit that it all begins with an olive; perhaps I could even learn to love something about it. I was determined, like an earnest Protestant sniffing out their faith’s Catholic roots, to find something to love about the source. I investigated my aversion to the olive: from whence comes my abhorrence? Once I realized that my disgust was quite irrational, not even derived from a bad olive experience, I realized that I ought to try and meet the olive on its own terms. I ought to listen to what it has to say to me. I ought to see if we can find common ground. I ought to see if I can stop living in reaction to the past and relish the olive.  Can I love my neighbor, the olive, and gaze at its rubbery shine with appreciative eyes? It seemed like making peace with the fruited symbol of peace might be a solid symbolic contribution to world peace.

I went to a restaurant alone. I ordered the olive appetizer. The dish arrived: a horrifying array of muted greens, browns, purples, and a rotundly glistening black centerpiece staring up at me with its hollow eye. I peered into the eternity of the olive. It reverberated from its emptiness with an invitation. It called to me out of the void: I have never harmed you and yet you hate me. You have never known me and yet you judge me. Lean into the sunyata of my hollow center and merge with my briny sponge. Know me. Love me. Lift me into your waiting mouth.

I sunk my teeth into a kalamata and paid careful attention. I waited for my throat to swell or my head to explode. My incisors incised the fruit of peace and I ruminated upon the qualities of the olive: Saline. Earth. Rubber. Meat. It wants bread. It wants a salad leaf or a chickpea.

Another one down the hatch, this time crushed by the bicuspids and molars to draw out flavor nuances. Still earthy, still salty. It was firm, tart and slightly bitter. It tasted like the vegetable version of a grape.

I ate the olives one by one. The olives tasted like a young child’s tears. They tasted like all of the olives I have refused to eat. They were like the people of the world in all their varieties. Each olive had its own religion, and the hymns were nutty and grassy, apple-like and artichoke-like, rebellious and obedient, pungent and bland. Some I was sorry to say goodbye to. Some I won’t miss. Each one sang a special song, and I soaked in the saline symphony.

I was consumed by my devotedly mindful consumption. Suddenly, I reached for another olive and met a barren plate. I had finished the entire olive appetizer. I realized, with deeply satisfying shock, that I wanted more.

Because I seem to adore olives now.

I had so thoroughly investigated the olive, and so ardently embraced its manifestations and quirks, that I dadgum fell plum in love with it. These piquant, brackish treats were so hard for me to love, and so good for me to learn to love. I shall nevermore turn my back on them.

The olive, this small oval fruit with a hard pit and bitter flesh, is an evergreen native to warm regions of the Old World. The hardy little drupe tree clings to rocky mountainsides with dogged alacrity. Olive husbandry is on par with such agri-heroics as cheese-making and bee-keeping, mastered only by such primordial demigods as the ancient Aristaeus. The olive branch is offered by dove’s beak as a sign of God’s waning wrath after Noah’s flood; olive leaf crowns are placed atop the heads of Olympians as tribute to abundance, glory and harmony. Olive oil has rendered slippery the carcasses of many a holy sacrifice. The Quran describes the Light of Allah “like a brilliant star, lit from a blessed tree, an olive, neither of the east nor of the west, its oil all but giving off light even if no fire touches it. Light upon Light” (Quran, 24:35).

Such precious yield takes time to coax from the earth: from first planting, the olive tree must be lovingly tended for up to ten years before it bears fruit. Peace takes a long time to bloom; it needs lots of water and patience. Peace ain’t no bamboo or pond weed.

For me, the olive is now a symbol that I can actually get over some of my hangups. It’s a small and salty start. My loyal alliance with the olive is fruit of a worthwhile journey. But I must admit I cannot apply the same ardor to the mushroom. I can summon no love for the mushroom at this point in my life.  I shall not offend the mushroom and I shall not cause it unmerited suffering, but I shall not seek it out, and I cannot participate in the rituals of mushroom-lovers. I resent all attempts to induct me into this fungal sect. Portabello may be a beautiful name for a town or a symphony, but please. Not for my sandwich content. Please. Surely there’s a nearby olive tapenade that I can eat instead?

There comes a time in all interfood dialogue when incommensurable differences arise, and they cannot be dispersed or denied. I have found the olive to be inhabitable common ground, given my own food claims, but I must draw lines in order to maintain civil integrity. Do not ask me to convert to your mushroom. I will appreciate the spirit of your mushroom but not its form, and we must coexist in glorious diversity.

May you extend an olive branch to any number of enemies, and celebrate all such efforts regardless of the fruit, regardless of even the bitterest briny fruits.

*

“Olives in a bowl” from Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Gphoto. This photo is licensed for free public use under the Creative Commons Attribution-Shae Alike 3.0 Unported license. .

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5 thoughts on “Culinary Pluralism; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Olive

  1. This brought back some very warm memories of me skulking around, admitting to nobody that I’d started to like The Smiths. You could almost do a find/replace. “How can you be a vegetarian but not eat eggplant?” “How can you listen to The Cure but ignore the Marr & Morrissey double threat?”

  2. I absolutely loved this article! I do quite a bit of work on a college campus around food and culture, as well as food and identity. I hope you don’t mind, but I would love to reference your article as one that not only talks about culinary pluralism but one which also challenges us to look at aspects of our own identity that we may acknowledge and those from which we tend to run or ignore.

    1. Hey Mark,

      Hey, that’s a wonderful compliment! Please do share the article. I’m so glad you enjoyed it. In the interest of transparency, I am still a total mushroom bigot. 🙂

      Jenn

        1. you know, i was so excited about my olive conversion that i totally ate a stuffed mushroom on new year’s eve. everyone in the room was talking about how amaaaaaazing they were, so i figured it was the best place to start. i cleared my mind and entered the mushroom. and then i almost hurled. hmmm…gonna need a lot more integration with my buddha nature before I release THAT aversion! 🙂

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