Persuasion by pot and pan


Love Eat Cooking Frog Valentine's Day Kitchen
The way to a man’s heart, etc., etc.

God doesn’t love a picky eater, and neither do I.

You may think a picky eater just doesn’t like a lot of food. His palate is delicate, he will argue. But that isn’t what underlies this pernicious trait. Picky eaters want control: They want to control you, if you’re the one with the dubious privilege of cooking for them, and they want to control their environment. They don’t like surprises, and they have no interest in the unfamiliar, the new, the untested.

It seems mingy to me, this bald-faced rejection of the great wondrous bounty of edibles on this planet. It seems mean-spirited and solipsistic to reject foods that others may rightly call delicacies, if not cultural treasures. When I accepted a roasted sheep’s eyeball from the Moroccan tribesman at a feast laid on in my group’s honor, I knew it was unlikely that I’d ever need to eat another. But how ungrateful, how insulting, it would have been, to say “Ewwww!” and turn down something that the proud tribesman clearly considered delectable.

Recently I read an interesting piece about the French philosopher-mathematician Blaise Pascal. In it, Arthur Markman, a psych professor at The University of Texas in Austin, explained Pascal’s 17th-century ideas about persuasion. If you want to change someone’s mind, Markman says, try Pascal’s approach:

“If I immediately start to tell you all the ways in which you’re wrong, there’s no incentive for you to co-operate. But if I start by saying, ‘Ah yeah, you made a couple of really good points here, I think these are important issues,’ now you’re giving the other party a reason to want to co-operate as part of the exchange. And that gives you a chance to give voice your own concerns about their position in a way that allows co-operation.”

Certainly, this is good advice even 400-plus years later, and something I simply must try the next time I’m trapped by some blowhard Trump supporter parroting the Fox News/Breitbart party line and I fear that my head will explode.

Ahem. Back to the matter at hand.

Now, it happens that I have a diabolical streak, especially when it comes to picky eaters. If it is my torment to cook for one or several, I invariably place one dish on the table that doesn’t quite meet their inconsiderate demands. I use that dish as a teaching moment, and it has worked surprisingly well.

I’ve told this story before, and some readers here may remember it. In conversation before a casual dinner chez moi, a friend told me that he ate only potatoes. He didn’t care, he said proudly, for any other root vegetable.

This irked me. And not a little bit.

So, on the night, I set a great bowl of silky parsnips puréed with heavy cream and butter on the table, to go along with the lemon-scented roast chicken and the salad and the dry-fried garlicky green beans I’d prepared for the other guests and myself.

Picky-eater guest swiped his finger puckishly through the parsnips and popped his finger into his mouth. “Yummmmm,” he said with pleasure. “These are the best mashed potatoes I’ve ever tasted.”

I smiled a wicked smile. “No,” I said. “They’re not. They’re –”

“Yes, they are!” he cut me off, sudden irritation flushing his cheeks. Again, I smiled a wee smile of satisfaction. My satisfaction grew immodestly as I watched him polish off the best part of the bowl. “Rob,” he groaned, rubbing his newly rotund belly. “You have to teach me how to make those potatoes.”

“Well, first you peel the parsnips and put them in acidulated water so they won’t brown …”

“I HATE PARSNIPS!” he roared.

“No, you don’t.” I gestured at the emptied bowl, and everyone laughed, including the picky eater.

What I was saying to him, in not so many words, was this: Yes, yes, I hear that you can’t abide parsnips the way you’ve had them prepared before. But have you considered that you may like them prepared in other ways?

A detestable man of my acquaintance years ago tricked his guests: He served them canned cat food and told them it was pâté. He thought he was clever; I thought he was guilty of betrayal of their trust and worse, a refusal to give to honest food its proper dignity.

I tricked my guest by offering him something superb, and by challenging his intransigent picky-eaterness. If he found parsnips so tempting, what else might he change his mind about? If the nephew who swore he “hated” blackberry cobbler could be persuaded to taste first a molecule, then a crumb, then a half-teaspoonful, then a serving, what else might he find himself wrong about?

Life is rich and full of wonders. Many of those wonders appear on tables around the world. I am confident that a generous God put them there not only for our nourishment, but for our pleasure, too. How ungrateful it is, how insulting to that generosity, to reject those gifts.