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Book review: Suffering Succotash.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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What is the deal with the picky eater?

Is she simply being willful, choosing the dinner table as a battlefield on which to fight for her right to self-determination? Or, is the behavior that those purveyors of succotash and fruit cup interpret as willfulness actually rooted in factors that are beyond the picky eater’s control? If the latter, is the picky eater doomed to a lifetime of pickiness, or can help be found for it?

These are the questions at the center of Suffering Succotash: A Picky Eater’s Quest to Understand Why We Hate the Foods We Hate. Its author, Stephanie V. W. Lucianovic, survived a childhood of picky eating, grappled with the persistence of pickiness into adulthood, went to culinary school, became a cheesemonger and food writer, and then mounted her quest for explanations of pickiness.

Her book tries to illuminate the origin story of picky eaters. Is it in their taste buds, and if so, due to the number of taste buds or to their sensitivity, to genetic factors driving their detection power or to environmental impacts on their operation? Is it rather their keen sense of smell that triggers pickiness? An overachieving gag-reflex? Their “emotional” stomachs? Or maybe how they were raised by the people feeding them when they were young? Are there good evolutionary reasons for the pickiness of picky eaters — and will this pickiness again be adaptive when the zombie apocalypse renders our food supply less safe in various ways?

As well, Lucianovic inquires into the likely fates of picky eaters. Are picky eaters destined to spawn more picky eaters? Can picky eaters find lasting love with humans who are significantly less discriminating about what they eat? Can picky eaters ever get over their pickiness? (Spoiler: The answers to the last two of these questions here are both “To a significant extent, yes!”)

One of the joys of this book is how Lucianovic’s narrative weaves along the path of science-y question she was prompted to ask by her troubled relationship with yucky foods as with the people trying to feed them to her. Lucianovic leads us on a non-scientist’s journey through science on a quest to better understand features of her everyday life that mattered to her — and, which likely matter to readers who are themselves picky eaters or have picky eaters in their lives. After all, you’ve got to eat.

Suffering Succotash explores a wide swath of the science behind the foods people like, the foods people hate, and the various features that might make some of us pickier eaters that others, without ever seeming like a science book. Indeed, Lucianovic is candid about the usefulness (and limits) of the scientific literature to the lay person trying to find answers to her questions:

When you’re in search of very specific information, pawing through scientific papers is like disemboweling one of those Russian nesting dolls. The first article makes a claim and gives just enough information to be intriguing and useless, unless you look up the source article behind that claim. The source article leads to another claim, and therefore another source article that needs to be looked up, and another and another until you finally reach the tiniest of all the dolls, which hopefully is where all the answers will be found since the tiniest of all dolls can’t be opened. (31)

The literature, thankfully, was just one source of information in Lucianovic’s journey. Alongside it, she partook of a veritable smorgasbord of test-strips, questionnaires, genotypying, and interviews with scientists who work on very aspects of how we taste food and why we react to foods the way we do. She even got to try her hand at some of the relevant laboratory techniques at the Monell Chemical Sense Center in Philadelphia.

What she found was that there are not simple scientific answers to the question of why some people are pickier eaters and others are not. Instead, there seems to be a complicated interplay of many different kinds of factors. She also discovered some of the limitations of the scientific tools at our disposal to identify potential causal factors behind pickiness or to reliably sort the picky from the not-so-picky eaters. However, in describing the shortcomings of taste-tests, the imprecision of questionnaires, the sheer number of factors that may (or may not) be at play in making peaches a food to be loathed, Lucianovic manages to convey an enthusiasm about the scientific search to understand picky eaters even a little better, not a frustration that science hasn’t nailed down The Answer yet.

There are many other strands woven into Suffering Succotash along with the scientific journey, including personal reminiscences of coping with picky eating as a kid — and then as an adult trying very hard not to be an inconvenient houseguest, interviews with other picky eaters about their own experiences with foods, a meditation on how parenting strategies might entrench or defuse pickiness, consideration of the extent to which eating preferences can be negotiable (or non-negotioable) in relationships, and practical strategies for overcoming one’s own pickiness — and for moving through a world of restaurants and friends’ dinner tables with the elements of pickiness that persist. These other strands, and the seamless (and often hilarious) manner in which Lucianovic connects them to the scientific questions and answers, make Suffering Succotash the perfect popular science book for a reader that doesn’t think he or she wants to read a popular science book.

Plus, there are recipes included. My offspring are surely not the world’s pickiest eaters, but they have strong views about a few notorious vegetables. However, when prepared according to the recipes included in Suffering Succotash, those vegetables were good enough that my kids wanted seconds, and thirds.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.



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