Are you a fussy eater? Grudgingly, I must confess that I am. This isn't a result of allergies or ailments, it's simply a matter of knowing what I like and liking what I know. What's more, I'm not alone.
A quick survey of my friends and family revealed a minefield of pet peeves when it comes to food. There are the obvious candidates: snails, offal, eyeballs, feet, ears and so on. For many people, any part of an animal that isn't muscle elicits a visceral squeamishness they just can't overcome. Likewise, ethically questionable foods (foie gras, shark fin and whale) and any animal that's been kept as a pet (dog, horse, rabbit and so on). Dried fruit got a good run in the voting, as did shellfish (especially oysters) and anything that tastes of the sea. Strongly flavoured foods such as game meats, beetroot and vegemite got several mentions. Then there was everything from watermelon to capsicum, from bland food to spicy food. One friend has a particular dislike of ginger and lemongrass because they make her feel ? as if she's "eating a flower patch".
"It's like my tongue does that squirming that a child does when it's being kissed by a smelly old aunty. Get off!"
The consistency of food is another source of complaint. A number of people say they'll steer clear of edibles that have a "pre-masticated", "viscous" or "vomitous" consistency (porridge and overcooked rice were popular examples). Someone else doesn't like cake because it's too dry, while another doesn't like runny eggs because they're too wet. Temperature was also cited as an issue: some like it hot, some like it cold, others don't care so long as it's not tepid. Then there's colour. Green vegetables appear to be an issue. I heard of one girl who would cry if confronted with red food in any form. However irrational it may seem, there's no doubting that food ?evokes strong feelings in people.

 I've always been particular about what I eat. As a kid, I was a paid-up member of the plain food brigade. I stuck to a strict diet of boiled eggs, vegemite sandwiches and chops. Anything that deviated from my regime of choice was, if not a recipe for disaster, certainly a source of disappointment and a welcome source of titbits for the family dog. So inflexible was I that my parents are scarred for life (my poor mum can barely look at a lamb chop, let alone eat one). It wasn't an entirely one-way street though. My folks persisted in challenging my preferences and there was always an expectation that I would eat everything that was served on my plate, whether I liked it or not. "Think of the starving children in Africa," was a regular refrain at the kitchen table.
I distinctly remember a particularly bitter dispute over brussels sprouts. Like many kids, they were my bete noire (or my bete verte, as it were). I would eat broccoli and beans, even asparagus at a pinch, but brussels sprouts were a bridge too far for my unsophisticated palate. So at my parents' insistence I sat at the table for hours, refusing to eat the offending items. In the end I relented, berating my parents for their cruelty all the while. And to this day, I still can't come at brussels sprouts.

This is not a unique experience. I reckon just about everyone would share a similar childhood memory or a similar experience to my parents. So it stands to reason that much of the literature and advice around feeding fussy eaters is focused on feeding fussy kids. But what about feeding fussy adults?? Kids will tell you straight out what they like and don't like, but one of the curious traits of adult fussy eaters is how shy they are.
How often do you hear even the most fastidious of people claim that they'll "eat anything" before later revealing there's a long list of things they don't like eating - or even worse, not saying anything, but delivering that insidious slight of the half-eaten meal after you've slaved over a hot stove all day. There's no doubting the well-intentioned nature of this reticence, informed as it is by a desire to be accommodating. But  for a cook, these stealth fussy eaters are a real menace. Challenging though it is to be presented with a list of dislikes, at least everyone knows where they stand. Forewarned, forearmed, as they say.

This is why the trend of doing away with a traditional menu in favour of more impromptu dining strikes me as flawed. Don't get me wrong, I love the thrill and novelty of dining out not knowing exactly what's going to come out of the kitchen. It's like playing restaurant roulette. But when I last dined in this fashion, we were invited only to specify any dietary requirements or dislikes. The difficulty with this is that apart from brussels sprouts, there are very few things that I won't eat. But there is a much longer list of things I'd rather not eat, or flavour combinations I'm not wild about, none of which I felt I could mention to our waiter. And therein lies the problem.

It could be the process should have better managed to take account of the things I actually like rather than just those I can't or won't eat. And I suppose the chef could have struck it lucky. But on this particular occasion he missed the mark. So I ended up paying top dollar for a meal that didn't do it for me. That experience was more than four years ago and I haven't been back to that restaurant since. Like the brussels sprouts saga, for this fussy eater, it's a case of once tasted, twice shy.