I’ve always been a less-than-adventurous eater; I ate PB&J sandwiches or peanut butter & crackers every day for lunch from Kindergarten through 5th grade. (Not kidding. Not even a little bit.) As an adult, I’ve definitely expanded my food horizons — mahi mahi tacos! bahn mi sandwiches! grilled octopus! — though my dad would still describe me as non-adventurous and picky. I don’t eat red meat, I can’t handle the texture or temperature of raw fish, I’m lactose intolerant, and I will gag if I even have to look at pieces of tomato. I’ve come a long way, though, from where I was when he first took my family to Europe.
The time: 1996, the summer before middle school.
My hair: Frizzy, big bangs, uncool.
My music preferences : Whatever my parents listened to (even less cool).
The trip: 2 weeks driving around Europe. We started in Venice, drove up through the Alps to Switzerland and Germany, then to Paris. From Paris we Chunneled to London, and flew home from there.
I haven’t been to Venice since this trip; my memories are a mix of wonder and disgust. I remember it smelling bad, being very dirty, and as it’s the city where we lost my brother for a short amount of time I found the streets to be confusing. But I also remember having never seen something like it before – the canals, the bridges, the narrow alleys, the little shops. This was my first time to Europe and everything was so foreign and fantastic.
What wasn’t so fantastic: the food. Europe in the 90s was not a place for picky eaters. Now, with our mass selections of protein bars and granola snacks, I could probably get by without eating regular food, but I’m not even sure if 12-year-old Ashley would have eaten those things. A plain croissant? Yes. A croissant with chocolate in the middle? Too weird. My food preferences were plainer than plain. If it wasn’t a chicken nugget, fish stick or (smooth) peanut butter & (Welch’s grape) jelly sandwich, it wasn’t going in my mouth.
This is what my parents had to deal with.
I know that my lack of taste buds has slowly been killing my father from the inside out ever since I started teething. I loathe the things he loves. Now, we can travel together and eat together (so long as I choose the restaurant) and all is good.
But I can hear his heavy sigh now, the one full of disappointment every time I turned my nose up at something in one of the bajillion adorable Italian restaurants in Venice.
So I don’t blame him for what he did.
In fact, I attribute my occasional willingness to try new things to the very evening that he tricked me. 12-year-old me was mad. 31-year-old me? Impressed. I know I’ll do the same thing to my own kids one day.
The memory is fuzzy, except for a few key details:
We ended up at some small restaurant. We were definitely sitting outside. It was evening, so it had to be dinner. I had to pee at the end of the meal but after seeing the toilet without a seat decided I could wait until we got back to the hotel (one of my first encounters with #BathroomsOfTheWorld). The menu was entirely in Italian, a language none of us spoke, and as this was 1996 we couldn’t just whip out our phones to figure out what was on the menu. We had to rely on the waiters’ passable English and my parents’ knowledge of Latin to get us by.
My mother ordered some kind of shrimp — and I do remember the look on her face when her plate of ginormous grilled prawns, completely intact, eyeballs and all, was placed in front of her. They looked like giant, stretched out grasshoppers; I do not know how she made it through dinner that night.
My dad ordered for me and my brother (6 at the time).
“Calamari,” he said to the waiter, pointing at us.
“What’s that?” I asked him in a rushed whisper, worried he was going to make me eat something gross.
Of course, when the plate of calamari finally arrived, I knew I had been deceived. These crunchy breaded rings were NOT fish sticks! I pointed to the plate, pleased with my observational skills. But my dad had an answer, as he always does.
“That’s just how they do fish sticks in Italy. Fish rings. Italian fish rings. They’re exactly the same as what you eat at home, just shaped differently.”
Oh. Okay then. 12-year-old me was not as suspicious as 31-year-old me would be. I shrugged and picked up one of the rings, dipping it in the weird, tangy red sauce (“That’s just Italian ketchup. Exactly the same as what you eat back home.”) and devoured the entire plate of fish rings before me.
I don’t remember if it was mid-way through my feast of Italian Fish Rings or on our way home when my dad revealed his con. I do remember, very vividly, the flush in my face and stinging behind my eyes. I didn’t want to cry in public but I had been taken for a fool! Deceived, by my very own father! I had been lied to and forced to eat something GROSS (Squid! Ew!), something I would never have in a million years ever opted to eat by my own volition…. and what’s worse?
I really, REALLY liked it.
Over the years, I’ve never forgotten that feeling — a mix of defeat and triumph, shame and pride, terror and excitement. (Every time my husband guilts me into trying sushi, the feeling rears itself and I hope that this time I’ll like it; I never do). I’d tried something new and it hadn’t killed me. What else might be out there that I don’t actually hate? I was mad at my dad for lying to me yet also secretly pleased because squid was delicious and, in some weird way, he had liberated me from myself and one of my food qualms. Calamari has been a go-to dish for me the last twenty years.
I only wish he’d lied to me about MORE foods, tricked me into eating other things that I told myself I didn’t or wouldn’t like. He could have saved me from a childhood without tacos (still kicking myself over that one) and fish that wasn’t tilapia.
But alas. I was so upset by the whole thing that I can’t remember him ever tricking me into eating something again. I guess that means from now on, I’ll have to trick myself.