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Photo by Anna Pelzer on Unsplash

watched the cashier ring up my items. Beep, beep, beep. Her impassive scanning continued until a package of tofu arrived at the end of the conveyor belt. She picked it up with disgust.

“What is this?” she asked, touching it gingerly as though it might explode its soy-ness all over her.

“Tofu,” I said.

She raised her eyebrows at me and gave a little shudder, as though I’d just purchased a package of maggots for personal consumption. We completed the rest of the transaction in silence.

I was more amused than offended. After all, this was years ago, when meat substitutes weren’t as popular as they are now. Still, the cashier’s disgust over an unfamiliar food item perplexed me. If it’s sold in a grocery store, someone wants to eat it. And humans eat an amazing variety of foods.

Well, some of us.

Hi, I’m Rachel, and I’m a foodie. Despite my dietary restrictions, I am always up for trying some exotic food from across the world. I have no qualms about eating any sort of bug or shellfish, and there’s no cuisine I won’t touch.

I wasn’t always this way. Growing up, I had very sensitive taste buds. I despised anything sour, pungent, or zesty, and I didn’t even like black pepper on my food. I ate plain yogurt, empty tortillas, canned tuna, and unseasoned beef. Among my list of hated items were:

  • coleslaw
  • sauerkraut
  • olives
  • lemons
  • brussels sprouts

I was your Basic White Girl, afraid of spice and anything that wasn’t easily identifiable.

Discovering a Whole New World of Food

This started to change when my father took me to a world foods fair. There, a “Foods of Africa” booth caught my eye. The booth attendant gestured to a tray of small paper cups with slices of sausage.

“Would you like to try?”

Despite my Polish background, I hated sausage. Too spicy and weirdly textured. However, I wanted to be able to say that I’d eaten something new — something the kids at school had never tried. I reluctantly took a slice of sausage made from emu. (Yes, really.) And to my surprise, it was good. I realized that the world had much more to offer — and maybe spice wasn’t so bad.

When I traveled to Belize for study abroad, I was expecting a flavor explosion of Caribbean goodness. To my surprise, the local families fed us rather unexciting meals comprising boiled chicken, homemade tortillas, rice and beans, and coffee. Although many of them grew and sold chilis, they didn’t incorporate this spice into their dishes. When we asked about this, mischievous grins spread across their faces. “You gringos love spice,” one farmer said. “We export it to your country. But it’s a little different here.”

Seems like in Belize, white people have a reputation for loving spice rather than hating it. Still, we weren’t prepared for what was about to happen.

He offered us each a slice of a chili, then got the bread and milk ready as our mouths caught fire.

When we visited the port cities, we found restaurants that matched our expectations. Catering to tourists, these eateries offered the Caribbean flavors we were craving. We indulged in spicy chicken, rum-drenched fruits, and zesty rice. I ordered a round of Gulf shrimp and was amazed to see that they were eight inches long, beer-battered with their heads still on. I acted out a brief scene from Romeo and Juliet with them before my classmates told me to stop.

We were pleasantly surprised to discover that pineapple (which the Q’eqchi Mayan descendants called “ch’op”), so bitter in the United States, was amazingly sweet and supple in Belize. And bananas — one of the nations’ chief exports — had a delightful flavor that put American grocery stores’ bananas to shame.

Coming back to the United States was hard. I missed the lush green jungles and vibrant flavors. Even the bland chicken served by our host families was better than the artificially plumped-up stuff that I bought at the store. I wished that I could travel more and discover more amazing foods.

Embracing Vegetables

A few years after the trip to Belize, I decided to become a vegetarian. After seeing — and tasting — the difference between farm-raised chickens and those raised in brutal factories, I wanted to minimize my contribution to those industries. I decided to keep (sustainably sourced) seafood as part of my diet to keep my protein up and take advantage of those magic omega-3s.

This dietary shift was when I truly became a foodie. With chicken, pork, and beef out of my diet, I was forced to rethink my meal planning. Who says that we have to eat a meat and two vegetable sides for dinner? Who decided that a balanced breakfast includes sausage and eggs? I started thinking about vegetables as a main dish, and it opened up a world of possibilities for me. I’d grown up with boiled corn, canned green beans, and mashed potatoes on the side. Now, I was discovering the joys of baked squash, fried polenta, roasted Brussels sprouts, and so much more.

My taste buds had evolved as well. The Great Spice Incident in Belize had triggered a morbid curiosity in the terrifying range of chili peppers. I learned what the Scoville scale was and started challenging myself to move up it. Meanwhile, I started buying spices such as cardamom, curry, and ginger to use in my cooking.

Throughout this journey, I started seeking out interesting foods rather than simply eating out of necessity. The concept of fast food began to baffle me. I no longer could understand how my friends could just swing through a drive-through to sate their hunger. For me, food had to be an experience.

I’ve realized that this makes me sound picky and snobbish, but the truth is, I’m open to a wide variety of glorious foods. I just want to be sure that they are sustainably sourced and prepared. When I tell people I’m a vegetarian (technically a pescatarian), I’m often met with an eyeroll and an immediate sense of distrust, as though they think I’m about to convert them. It’s not important to me that people not eat meat, but I want them to rethink their food. When we simply eat whatever’s around to fill our bellies, we neglect the creative and social aspects of the culinary experience. We deprive ourselves of both optimal nutrition and the chance to find foods we truly enjoy.

In the United States, we have an unhealthy relationship with food. About 25 percent of Americans eat fast food every day. About 60 percent of Americans meet or exceed protein requirements, but about 85 percent don’t eat enough vegetables. Iron and vitamin D are the top deficiencies in the United States. People assume that you need to eat red meat to get sufficient iron, but actually, foods such as oysters, lentils, and spinach are the top sources. Seafood is high in vitamin D, as are mushrooms. The American emphasis on red meat, pork, and poultry is holding us back from our nutrition potential.

For me, abandoning (most) meat and trying new cuisines not only helped me get healthier, but also boosted my quality of life. Cooking and eating are important to me in a way that I never imagined they would be. A lot of my digestive problems faded away as I improved my diet, and I credit my evolution into a foodie with the health that I have now.

All it took was being willing to step outside my comfort zone and try a slice of something new.

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Writer by day, circus artist by night. I write about art, media, culture, health, science, and where they all meet. Join my list:

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