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Essays

The “Picky” Perspective

“What’s the first thing you think of when you hear ‘Alicia’ and ‘food?’” I casually asked my friend, Caroline, in the car. “PICKY!” she exclaimed, laughing. I rolled my eyes and looked out the window, smiling as I considered this. We and five of our other friends were en route to a quick weekend getaway in Maine filled with some much-needed swimming, canoeing, paddle boarding, relaxing—and most importantly for my friend group, cooking. 

Despite the short duration of our vacation, we had packed the bed of a big black Toyota Tundra with enough groceries to last a week. Oat milk, gluten-free pasta, clarified butter, almond butter—you know, the essentials. When a nutrition major, a person with celiac, a vegetarian, two Paleo-enthusiasts, and a self-proclaimed “picky-eater” get together, the menu for group dinners has a restriction or two. Our meals are often gluten-free, dairy-free, and added-sugar free, but surprisingly, they are anything but bland. 

Each morning, we ate avocado toast with Everything But the Bagel seasoning, or coconut milk yogurt with strawberries, blueberries, and granola. For lunch, we made kale salads with seasoned shrimp, fresh off the grill. Dinners took the most preparation and were always my favorite part of the day. The first night, we had a Spain-themed dinner, complete with a vegetable paella and a variety of tapas—bruschetta, serrano ham, brie, and oven-roasted brussel sprouts. All of us have spent some time in Spain at some point, and paella and tapas hold a special place in our hearts. On night two, we made a rice pasta dish with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and Rao’s tomato sauce, which more than justifies its price with the absence of added sugars.

Although I ate almost all of this, my friends still call me picky. It is definitely true that as an opinionated, particular child, I declared early on that I would not eat cheese, sandwiches, soda, eggs, and other common foods. In fact, when I was younger, it was easier to list the things I wouldn’t eat than the things I would. To this day I still don’t like any of the foods on that list, but my palette and willingness to try new foods have drastically improved. While there are a lot of factors at play in this widening of my culinary horizons, the biggest one is the strong influence of my friends.

Due to allergies, intolerances, and just general preferences, the vast majority of my hometown friends eat an objectively healthy, clean diet of whole foods. However, most of them did not always eat this way. As kids who grew up on sugary cereals for breakfast, the switch to avocado toast as adults was a big one. On one of our cloudy Maine mornings, I sat down with my friend Caroline, the nutrition major, to unpack the reasons for her personal health-food transformation.

“Food is medicine,” she told me, in reference to the time her doctor told her she could be on the path to diabetes if she kept eating the way she had been. With the switch to a healthier lifestyle (which included changes in her activity level in addition to modifying her eating habits), she noticed a reduction in joint pain and a better sense of overall well-being. This did not entail diets, which she called “unsustainable,” criticizing the role of targeted marketing and the promise of quick weight loss with too much restriction and rigidity. “It’s about finding the alternatives,” she said, “Eating as much as you want, but of the right, whole foods.”

Photo courtesy of jessicagavin.com

Last summer, my friends and I decided to embark on a health-food expedition. Grocery shopping, meal-prepping, and cooking became exciting hobbies to fill the precious gaps in our otherwise overlapping schedules. Due to a mix of advice we’d heard and articles we’d read, we decided to try “food combining.” When preparing our group dinners during this time, we tried something completely new to me — steering away from pairing starches and proteins and instead placing vegetables at the center of the meal. Picky eaters tend to cling onto the things we do like, and we are often afraid to switch up our daily diets. I have always liked most meats, and my previous vision of a meal typically included meat, starch, and vegetables. I quickly learned I do not always need meat to feel full, and healthy pasta dishes with veggies are just as satisfying as pasta with chicken or meat sauce, for example. 

With a (more than a few) “gentle” pushes from my friends, I tried things I’d never dream of putting in my mouth before: zucchini noodles, kale chips, chickpea pasta, kombucha, the list goes on. Most notably, the discovery of gluten-free toast with almond butter and fruit, or with avocado and tomatoes, has opened my eyes to a whole new world of breakfast foods and snacks. Following the summer, the specific guidelines of the “food combining” cleanse didn’t necessarily stick, but my new-found zest for finding healthy alternatives revolutionized the way I think about food, and transformed my eating habits in a sustainable way. 

Everytime I cook now, I ask myself “what is the healthiest and tastiest way I can make this dish?” For example, when I stir-fry chicken, I tend to use liquid aminos rather than soy sauce for a lower sodium option. Each time I bake, I use recipes with almond flour and coconut sugar (I swear paleo brownies are better than the regular ones!). With the help and support of my friends, I expanded my ingredient repertoire. I discovered if I cooked my own food, I could pick the ingredients I wanted to pick, enjoying the taste more and feeling better both physically and emotionally as a result. I fell in love with the healthier alternatives, loving them both for the way they made my body feel and their clean, fresh tastes.  

Today, I don’t focus too much on the “rules.” If I feel like having ice cream, I don’t criticize myself for breaking the goal of eating mostly dairy-free. I am not fully “free” of any food group, but rather, I am conscious of my overall food choices and find healthier and tastier alternatives when available. While I’m sure many people would still call me “picky,” I don’t completely agree with that anymore. Sure, I’m never going to like cheese, but my palette has expanded dramatically, and in an absolutely positive direction—much of which can be attributed to the strong role models I have in my friends. As we sat around the camping table filled with colorful, well-balanced plates in Maine, I felt so much gratitude for my friends’ beneficial influence on my eating habits. I’m still picky, but at least now I’m picking the things that feel right to me!

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Essays

Pan in a Pandemic

It’s mid-March. I step off the plane into Logan Airport, and the initial breath of freezing air shocks my system, a precursor to the culture shock of readjustment that would soon follow. Just hours before, I had packed up my study-abroad life in sunny Spain, hurriedly giving the cultural “double kiss” to each member of my host family as they, too, prepared to flee the city in favor of a more remote, safe climate in the country. There was a growing sense of urgency during my final days in Madrid, a slow swell of panic culminating in closures and relocations. The warm spring air was thick with apprehension, a stark contrast to the typically calm, carefree atmosphere. 

Although I could hear and see the anxiety poking through in her rushed tone and quickened pace, my host mom remained level-headed and practical on my final day. She walked with me through the city to tie up some logistical loose ends, like going to the bank to cash her final payment for my stay and dropping by the doctor’s office to reschedule her daughter’s upcoming physical. After the to-do list was efficiently completed, she told me in slow Spanish that we had one last stop to make: la panadería. Finally arriving at the little bread store, at least four or five blocks from the location of our last errand, my tired feet and anxious mind were instantly calmed by the savory scent. We were greeted by a smiling woman who happily helped my host mother decide which loaves she wanted. After the selection process, she placed the pan in an elaborate slicer, separating it into perfect pieces. The fresh, ready-to-eat slices were then tossed into brown paper bags faster than I could say, “¡Gracias!

A few minutes later, we began the lengthy walk back to the family’s apartment, this time bogged down by the weight of six or seven pre-cut baguettes. Although I had a long journey across the Atlantic ahead of me, I remember letting out a genuine laugh in that moment. The world was turned upside-down by the coronavirus, and one of my host mom’s top priorities was to buy bread. This was made even better by the fact that we passed three or four alternate bread stores on the walk home. Although the several panaderías looked identical to me, my host mom was loyal to that particular one. The thick fog of disease had infiltrated her beloved city, but she maintained a sense of normalcy through the lens of her family’s favorite food. To her, bread was essential.

Many of my fondest memories from my time in Spain are of sharing meals with my host family. Although their spacious four-bedroom flat had a formal dining area, 99% of the time the five of us packed into a cozy, dimly lit table tucked away in the kitchen hall. Since dinnertime is much later in Spain than I was used to, most nights I arrived at the table around 9:30 PM, already showered and starving. I’m a bit of a picky eater, which I think my host family saw as a challenge for them to tackle, one meal at a time. They successfully got me to try almost everything, from anchovies on little bread crisps to jamon serrano (ham carved straight from the pig’s leg at the table, hooves and all). 

Since we were all out during the day at school or work, and I traveled most weekends, it was during those weeknight dinners that I was able to bond with the family. I would listen as they caught up with each other about the day’s events and chime in when my understanding of Spanish felt sufficient enough to do so. Even in the moments where the conversation flew way over my head, I found comfort in their warm expressions and laughter. Dinnertime in my host family’s house was equally about eating and socializing, a designated opportunity each day to stop, share a meal, and spend time together.

Since my semester in Spain was my first time in Europe, there were many days when I came home to that charming flat in the Chamberí neighborhood feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and even defeated. Submergence in another culture and language is a tough adjustment, and I think all of the BC students in my Madrid program sought solace in one way or another. For me, daily dinners with my host family were a welcome source of both calm and connection. They were a reminder that I was a part of something in Madrid. Not just BC Abroad, or an exchange program at Universidad Comillas, but a Spanish family unit. Just as my host mom found normalcy in buying bread, I found comfort in the daily dinner routine.

Looking back on those late-night family dinners—and especially that final trip to the panadería—in mid-June Massachusetts from my childhood bedroom, I cannot help but smile. Although my last food-related purchase of choice would have been an iced latte and a bagel from my town coffee shop rather than loaves of bread, the cultural barrier disintegrated for me that day. I identified with her instinct to preserve some normalcy, as well as her loyalty to her favorite local food shops. I found her prioritization of particular food as “essential” to be very relatable amidst the impending controversies over which types of businesses would be allowed to remain open during the countrywide quarantine. For my host mom, her favorite panadería was top priority during the pandemic. When I am able to safely visit Madrid again, that little bread shop will be a priority for me, too.