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From the archives

The Trust Spiral

Restoring faith in the media

Our Feudal Immigration Policy

Why should an accident of birth determine who benefits from citizenship?

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Little Miss Picky

We all have our reasons

Heather Ramsay

For years, my family worried about how I survived on meat and buns alone — okay, and Safeway-brand cheese slices. Not the ones wrapped in fancy plastic sleeves, but those stacked in slabs (my mom wouldn’t buy Kraft). By the time I was twelve and allowed to turn on the stove, I’d begun making my own grilled sandwiches. Mom supplied the gross brown bread with seeds, when I’d rather have had pure white loaves. But never mind. I’d swab the spongy matter with room-temperature margarine (she was inexplicably against butter too), slap a cheese slice in between, and fry both sides in her Teflon pan. I didn’t like much in the way of food, but I’d gorge on these. Maybe that’s how I stayed alive? Trace non-stick chemicals and the extra niacin and riboflavin in those supermarket loaves.

I’m told that even as a baby, I’d shake my head and refuse mashed fruits and veggies from those little jars. My dad, as stubborn as his pursed-lipped toddler, once squished the orange he had segmented like a grapefruit into my obstinate face. Later, he would make me stay at the table until I was done. “It’s your choice how long,” he would say, so I’d spend an hour after everyone else got up, staring at my unwanted peas. The As It Happens theme song would swirl through the kitchen, and I’d push the hated items across my plate. The CBC’s Barbara Frum would interview a drunk farmer about his “goddamn cabbage,” and I’d sneak away from the table to flush soggy carrots down the toilet.

A young girl cannot live on grilled cheese alone — but don’t tell her that.

Alexander MacAskill

“How do you know if you won’t even try?” my grandma used to cajole. She had us over for Sunday roasts. I wouldn’t touch her vegetables. Mashed potatoes or yams? No. Nor that salad made with marshmallows, coconut, and canned mandarin oranges. I didn’t like her apple pie either. I wish I could remember how my mind worked back then. Did I have some kind of reason, or was I just thinking “No, no, no” on repeat?

Things I do remember: the bookmobile, painted with butterflies, pulling into the parking lot by the grocery store. The smell of diesel and that air-release sound the door made before I could climb up the stairs. Inside, I would grab the latest Ramona and old Adventures of Johnny Chuck. Greek mythology. Mine for Keeps by Jean Little. Choose Your Own Adventure paperbacks. A graphic novel adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s story about a man who walls up his friend alive. Yes, I’d try anything off those shelves.

At home, with the library stack by my bedside, I’d read a few pages of one book, then put it aside and start the next one, dipping into each as if I were at a smorgasbord. (It wasn’t worth taking me to a real buffet, because all I’d eat was the roast beef.)

Some say a child’s palate can be too sensitive. Each flavour — sharp or pungent, bitter or acidic — cuts the young tongue like the slice of a knife. I used to refuse ketchup, mustard, and pickles. My parents had no patience for my custom orders, so I’d be left at the McDonald’s counter while some teenager made me a fresh burger, plain. Back at the table, my sister would be scarfing down all the fries. She could have them. I didn’t even like pop.

Others say that reluctant eaters are trying to exert control. In those years of mandated bedtimes and shoe styles, was food the one war that I might win? Maybe, but my parents weren’t that strict. I could spend an entire Saturday in my nightgown. My sister and I could stay up to watch Soap, filled with gay love affairs, extramarital sex, and alien abductions. “Confused? You won’t be, after this week’s episode. . . .”

Maybe picky eaters are in survival mode? Surely it’s best to spit out unknown flavours before anything poisonous can take effect. At one point I started stashing suspicious morsels behind a bookshelf. Once the mouldy secret was discovered, my family leaned into another tactic: teasing. “I don’t yike it,” they would mock me in little-girlish tones. Even Grandma, who would happily whip up delicious pull-apart rolls (my absolute favourite), couldn’t help making fun of me. To be fair, she also started making chocolate cream pies to please me. For special occasions, she’d fashion Rice Krispies squares into elaborate shapes, with shoestring licorice for cat whiskers and gumdrops for a doll’s eyes and nose. And if the occasion was my birthday, she’d write a verse in my card:

Now a few things that are kind of dumb
What you eat just leaves me numb
Meat and buns and sweets galore
Such a diet must be a bore.

The poems usually started and ended nicely, but I guess she really did mind that I’d turned up my nose at her ambrosia salad.

It wasn’t anyone’s business, though. I was fine eating only meat and buns. My diet didn’t stop me from riding a banana-seat bike along the winding pathways in the aspens near my home. I passed swimming lessons and played tetherball. I went to Brownies and earned badges for rug hooking and singing in the talent show. This led to Girl Guides, which I quit because my friend did. When we took up cigarettes instead, Mom simply let us smoke in my basement bedroom. But when I became a vegetarian, she, like everyone else, just about lost her mind.

The shift started with a boy. I was in high school, and he was too old for me. Yet there he sat at the same kitchen table where I generally refused all types of produce. He picked up a tomato and took a bite. Seeds slipped down his chin as he offered it to me. I must have looked askance. “Come on,” he chided. “It tastes like sunshine.” I absolutely hated the acidic, mushy things, but I took a bite to please him. And something lit up deep inside. The damn fruit did taste like the sun, mixed with dirt and sweetness.

A year later, at a faraway university, my two vegetarian roommates, who smoked Marlboros and wore artsy black, whipped up raw cauliflower and broccoli salad dressed with mayonnaise and pinches of cumin and salt. They didn’t have to say anything to make me sample their food. I just wanted to be like them.

My poor parents: they tried to get me to eat like a normal human for so long. Then I left home, and what happened? When I returned that summer saying that I no longer consumed meat, no one could splice the idea into their heads. “What do you survive on?” my mom and dad both asked. I mentioned tofu and reminded them that I’d also given up milk (except, if I’m being truthful, in the form of ice cream).

Eventually I moved to north-central British Columbia and started thinking about how far tofu had to travel to get to my grocery cart. I dated a guy who raised chickens in his backyard. This meant killing before eating — which once would have seemed totally gross but now seemed righteous. It was then that I switched from being picky about types of food to caring about where food came from. If I could grow it, pull it from the earth, or meet the person who hooked it out of the river, then it was fair game.

Years later, Tom (the chicken guy) and I visited my grandma in her small Alberta town. By then, I had a garden full of turnips, parsnips, and beets. Grandma had served these vegetables when I was a kid, but I wouldn’t even sniff them back then. At a local steakhouse, unsure about what type of picky I would be this time around, she stared at the menu and worried about what I would order. I chose a buffalo steak, medium rare. She crinkled her nose. “Why would you want that?”

“Why not,” I said. “It’s what Indigenous people on the prairies ate for thousands of years.” When the dark red meat was set in front of me, I offered her a bite. She pursed her lips and shook her head. “You don’t yike it,” I said, trying to be funny. She didn’t laugh.

My grandma, who’s been gone twenty years now, had always been picky about me being picky. And here she was being fussy too. About buffalo?! Was this the prejudice of a prairie-raised white woman of a certain age? Although I said nothing, I wondered if she really didn’t want to eat what the First Nations ate.

We all have our reasons for what we do and do not eat, and over the years I’ve gotten less picky about what I’m picky about. I grow my own food and buy local when I can, and I try not to judge the vegans who seek out tofurky or cashew cheese. I’ve even forgiven my mother for putting wheat germ and sunflower seeds in her chocolate chip cookies.

Recently I visited my grandma’s childhood home of Wainwright, Alberta, and finally realized why she’d been so fussy that day at the steakhouse. When she was young, a large number of bison were kept outside of town. After eradicating the wild population in the late 1800s, the Canadian government had created Wood Buffalo National Park: an attempt to make amends. But as the numbers grew, officials started sending surplus animals to the abattoir. A great many of them were diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1923 — but, as the story goes, some of the diseased meat was sold. Had Grandma’s mother bought a few of the tainted roasts? I can just picture my grandma sitting at the table with her suspect dinner, long after it had gone cold.

Heather Ramsay has published two books with the Haida Gwaii Museum, including Gina ’Waadluxan Tluu: The Everything Canoe.

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