You know when people talk about their food secrets? Stuff like “Oh, I love to eat crisp and mayonnaise sandwiches.” Or “I think having stew for breakfast is delicious.” Well, mine’s worse than that. For a food writer, it’s really bloody embarrassing.
I don’t like to mix foods.
My dream plate: every item, sorted neatly into piles, eaten one by one. Pea by pea. Not for me, the loaded fork of the MasterChef judge, or the Bruce Bogtrotter glee of noshing on a plate from the Chinese buffet.
When I was younger, I couldn’t even stomach different sauces touching each other (the image of baked beans running into egg yolk still sends a shiver down my spine). And though I had a varied and interesting diet as a child, and ate out at restaurants often, it’s not as though I had to face my fears every day. The beauty of bringing a packed lunch to school meant that I could happily eat my items separately all week long.
Of course, it’s never as simple as that, is it? What we’re talking about here is low-key regimented eating. I was so inwardly worried about mixing the “wrong” flavours and textures together that I preferred to just avoid the problem. Solution: packed lunches, strong dislikes, and anxiety when it came to eating in social situations.
This meant that when it came to eating around strangers, I kind of clung to routine. At university, I ate exclusively salads and drank coffee when out with friends for the first year, even when others were munching on lasagne and chips in the student union caff. I envied friends who revelled in the fun of food, like my friend Hannah who gleefully opened her burger and happily laid down a base of fries on to the bun. I envied how easy it seemed for her to eat, while at the same time I shuddered, thinking of the soft crunch of the fries mixing with the burger meat.
When I started my current job, I was cagey about the way I ate. I was freelance for years, which meant I could happily eat my own strange meals as I wished (shout-out to Sainsbury’s build-your-own Caesar salad, with each item happily portioned out). But suddenly I was working in a big office – one that encouraged taking a lunch break. For the first year or so, there were maybe three or four places where I liked to eat with people – one being a salad bar where you could handily portion out exactly what you wanted. I would deflect my anxiety over my lunch by asking others, in minute detail, what they were eating, while in my head comparing their habits with my own.
It wasn’t until my friend and colleague Robin spoke about his own picky ways that I opened up. Robin’s dream meal is chicken and bread, full stop. And he owns it – he’s not embarrassed, and often gets shirty if there’s a smidge of sauce on his plate. Meanwhile, I would rather die than explain that I don’t want a hash brown inside my burger. Opening up about my weird habits was frightening on so many levels. Not least because when you write about food for a living, who’s going to take you seriously when you can’t even stomach the phrase “mouth-feel”?
At this point, whenever I tell this story to people, their automatic response is: “So do you eat each element separately?” Their eyes widen, imagining me dismantling a cheeseburger layer by layer, fearful of the lettuce contaminating the ketchup. Again, it’s not quite that simple: Like I said, I love food. Cookbooks line my bookshelves. Subtly different types of soy sauce lurk in my pantry. I plan birthdays around the restaurants I’d like to eat at. I’m a literal pizza expert. Give me bone marrow or Brussels sprouts, and I’ll chow down. Just not in the same mouthful.
I decided it was time to tackle my issues. While I’m still working on some of the other stuff with a brilliant therapist, I wondered if there was something biological about my defined tastes. So I decided to ask an expert.
I visited Professor Barry Smith in his office at the University of London. Warm and friendly, he has a Glasgow accent and kind, twinkly eyes. I liked him immediately, and nervously began to explain my predicament. Inside, I felt like such a baby – I was worried he was going to reveal me to be a fraud, and tell me to grow up.
Barry began by explaining that as children begin to eat, they naturally avoid mixing foods. He paused: “But your issue is kind of interesting because of the fact that children definitely want things separated. Do you have food dislikes?” I interjected quickly, “NO! That’s the weird thing, I’m an omnivore. What I hate is textures mingling.” “Ooh, interesting,” he leaned forward. “So you don’t like contrast of textures?”
I began to explain further, feeling a little embarrassed and on the spot. There are certain things I’ll eat together – like a piece of sausage, and mashed potato. “Both those things are quite soft,” Barry gently offered. “Maybe you’re very sensitive to texture?” I thought on it. I’m quite a tactile person – even in clothes there are textures I hate – chalk, or breeze blocks, or velvet.
He continued his questioning, eyes alight. “Do you know about supertasters? Supertasters tend to be at the high end of the scale. They’re very sensitive to salt, bitterness, and acidity.” His eyes wandered towards his desk, and I worried that I was boring him. But in fact, he reached towards a small box of paper strips and announced that he wanted to test me. He whipped out a slim strip of paper, about the length of a stick of chewing gum.
He told me to place it on my tongue. Immediately a horrid, sour taste spread all along my mouth. With my tongue stuck out, I gasped: “Now what?” He laughed, and instructed me to take the strip out and put it in the bin.
“You’re a VERY reactive supertaster. You’re very strong. Twenty-five per cent of the population will put this in their mouths and say, ‘It doesn’t taste of anything, it tastes of paper.’ You couldn’t even bear leaving it on the tongue.”
I was surprised by how relieved I felt by the diagnosis. I wanted to pick up the tasting strip again, just to double check – even though the acrid taste was still on my tongue. When I listened back to the recording later that day, there was less than three seconds between Barry telling me to put the strip on the tongue and me reacting with "URGH" and spitting it out.
Barry continued with the biology of supertasting, but my head was swimming. I tried to process all the information: I can taste things other people can’t? Is that why I’m so picky? “You’ve got many more papillae on the tongue than other people. And they’re densely packed. So they’re all next to one another. For other tasters, their tastebuds are very far apart. So for them, to get those texture cues, the texture will depend on how many of those receptors they’re touching, which could mean quite a lot of work. Whereas you, it’s firing all over the place, and you’re over-stimulated. You’re firing up straight away.”
I tried to make sense of everything, adding: “I always try everything together on the fork! But it just feels wrong in my mouth; it feels like there’s too many textures when I take a mixed bite.”
“That’s literally true. There’s too much happening for you,” Barry agreed. “As well as having your taste buds densely packed together, they’re also probably highly sensitive. Your threshold for activation is quite low. So just a tiny stroke or touch and you’re off. You need very gentle and subtle things. You would be good at picking up flavours and textures that others would miss.”
Barry gave me tips to combat my revulsion – to stack things on the fork, and to prepare my brain for the input that’s coming. “Maybe even take a little bit of each texture bit by bit first, to prepare, and think of it as a sequence. The brain is usually happy when it’s predicting something and its expectations are met.”
I left his office confused. I had been prepared to be told that I was picky and childish, and instead of feeling smug about my new superpower, I had more questions than before. As the weeks went on, I emailed my parents with my diagnosis, and they weren’t particularly interested. My friends didn’t care either – although they humoured me, they were more interested in the process than the end result. In fact, nobody really cared about my big reveal. I had internalised so much fear and trepidation, living in a forced routine that – up until now – had existed mainly in my head. But hiding under that fear was a natural communication from my body that I had been ignoring.
As somebody who is so vocal about self-care and acceptance, I was struck that I had been living in a shadowy land of hiding the way I eat. Since the diagnosis, I’ve allowed myself to relax more. I don’t fret when faced with a salad bar, and in an office that has free lunches, I don’t freak out when we get a pie and mash dish that is muddled with layers. I have taken real interest in the feelings and textures in my mouth too. It’s not that tomatoes taste sweeter per se, but instead I am aware of all they can offer: the subtle earthiness of the skin, the little ridges of the seed, and the sweet and sour juice that bursts out. It’s like I’m sitting by the sea and hearing the gentle crunch as waves crash on the shore – as opposed to looking out and fearing the swells. The problem was never on my tongue, it was in my head.