Navigating Kinship in the Kitchen

My family is full of picky eaters. How can I cook for them and maintain my culinary dignity?

A cast-iron pan with bland white rice on the left and a curry dish on the right.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

The Pickle, a food and cooking advice column, was written by The Art of Gay Cooking author Daniel J. Isengart. You can follow all of his work at his website.

I have a lot of picky eaters in my extended family. No allergies, just really picky eaters. I don’t want to prepare only plain food for family gatherings. Am I a terrible host for ignoring their preferences?

What you are dealing with is in fact less a culinary than a territorial issue. It’s an ancient struggle for control and extra attention, and one often fought among family factions. Still, I can’t help wondering: Since when has it become acceptable for adults to call themselves “picky eaters,” a term that should be reserved for toddlers whose taste buds have not yet fully developed? Gone are the days when guests would discreetly eat around what they have no liking for. Nowadays, no one seems to think twice about imposing their preferences on their accommodating host. I sometimes think that it’s a lost battle for us home cooks; but since the war is raging on, maybe it’s time for a pushback. And a family gathering is, arguably, the perfect proving ground.

My recommendation is that you stick to your guns—nay, pots—but do it with the kind of grace your demanding extended family seems to lack. Introduce your cooking as a culinary statement that represents who you are, the kind of delicious food you want them to experience and enjoy. That said, there is no need to actively offend their demands. If, say, the consensus is strongly against fish and spicy food, this may not be the time to offer a spicy fish curry. And make a point, as a gesture of compromise, of including a couple of dishes even the most stubborn among them can revert to if they absolutely refuse to give the others a try. (That food’s plainness will likely seem a Pyrrhic victory on the plate next to your more creative offerings.) Insisting on a mix of your own vision and a couple of concessions is a risk worth taking—as long as it’s done with good intentions, love, and generosity, and presented in an attractive, festive display that shows you have made an effort. Ultimately, this slightly sly act of culinary rebellion might earn you not only more respect, but also, perhaps, a few unexpected accolades from those who appreciate your initiative to change the usual family menu around and make it more interesting.

As I see it, most people with extended lists of dislikes suffer not only from control issues but of ignorance. Lighting the way through food for them is not the worst remedy. In addition, your gentle disregard of unreasonable demands may serve as an indirect reminder that refusing something graciously offered by a host is in fact an offense to the divine laws of hospitality. The great, late Anthony Bourdain made one of his many careers based on this principle, traveling the world and exploring, sometimes with considerable courage but always with gratitude and grace, what the local culinary culture had to offer. Bourdain is sadly gone, but his message of being open to new culinary and cultural experiences should be upheld as one of his most important legacies.

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I know that we’re in a global village now, and that with Amazon, grocery deliveries, etc., it’s pretty easy to (eventually) get anything you want. But why do recipe creators insist on calling for difficult-to-find perishable ingredients like red jalapeños, which I cannot find for the life of me, despite the fact that I live in California (the same goes for fresnos and other red chilies)? I’m having flashbacks to life as a high school student in Arkansas who loved to cook and regularly went to five different grocery stores to find ingredients that a recipe called for. Send help!

This is an issue of orthodoxy vs. self-determination. I believe that a recipe should be viewed like a piece of sheet music: You may very well know how to hit all the right notes, but the composition will only come to life once you begin to interpret it—according to your means, of course. This may take some courage and experience, but what are you waiting for, especially given that you apparently have been an avid cook since your high school days? Take some creative license!

Jeremiah Tower, often called the godfather of modern American cuisine (and, full disclosure, a friend of mine), was among the first in America to pioneer the use of fresh local ingredients over imported ones. This was back in the early ’70s, when he ran the kitchen of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, then a fledging young hippie restaurant whose founder Alice Waters was harboring dreams of authentically replicating the culinary epiphany she had had in Provence, France. Tower, who grew up privileged, eating regularly at the best dining places around the world, instinctively understood the power of sense memory. But he knew better than to try to recreate an experience that was locked into another time and space. Instead, he reinvented it—by thinking musically and cooking locally, and enthusiastically so. Sadly, despite the example he and others have set, the idea that recipes and their ingredient lists must be followed religiously continues to have currency among home cooks, and the overwhelming majority of recipe creators who seem to be writing for permanent beginners.

Let’s look at your example of fresh red chilies. The difference between red and green chilies is that red ones are sun-ripened and therefore more fragrant, sweeter, and possibly spicier than their slightly bitter green (technically unripe) brethren. If you set your mind on a recipe that calls for red jalapeños but cannot procure them, be flexible: Use the more widely available green ones for heat and add an ingredient that gives you the fruity aroma they lack—say, a peach. Or use a combination of red bell peppers, powdered hot ancho chilies, and a touch of honey. It’s not that difficult; set the recipe on fire and make the dish sing!

But perhaps your problem is another one altogether. Perhaps reading recipes from the “global village” has led you to obsess about things you still cannot have and to blame others for whetting your appetite for them. How about developing a sense of independence instead and either playing with what’s available to you here and now (surely an improvement compared to your high school days) or hunting down what you are lusting for—preferably not by ordering it online but by hitting the street like you did when you were young, which is actually part of the fun. The real joy of cooking is, it turns out, less than a click away—it’s in your own hands.

My wife has tried making tabbouleh several times but cannot get it come close to what I get (she does not like it) at a local Turkish place. The spices seem off and lack the bite. She has tried several different recipes we found online without success.
Any suggestions?

To try to replicate a specific dish that you have become infatuated with is, short of asking the original source for its recipe, a pretty fruitless endeavor even for an experienced cook. But you have further complicated your own conundrum by transferring the responsibility not just to somebody else—your accommodating wife—but to someone who does not share your enthusiasm for it. Time to rethink that approach. Let’s start from scratch or, pardon the pun, a tabbouleh rasa!

Tabbouleh is one of those dishes that everybody will make a different version of, with widely varying results. The most common, basic principle is to soak cracked bulgur wheat in some water and dress it with lemon juice, salt, olive oil, chopped parsley, and diced tomatoes—that is, if you make the Lebanese or Israeli version. But in France, Algeria, and Tunisia, taboulé is actually made with couscous and fresh mint.

First things first: Next time you dine at or order takeout from your neighborly Turkish place, ask them politely if they would share their recipe with you. (“My wife and I have been trying to figure out why your tabbouleh is so much better than any other we’ve ever had. What’s your secret?”) They might humor you, and perhaps there is in fact a specific spice that you, your wife, or your online research has not uncovered: sumac, Aleppo pepper, and ground coriander would be my first three guesses as somewhat unusual but fitting ones. Also, not to make assumptions about the Turkish chef, but many takeout places routinely resort to using citric acid–fortified, bottled lemon juice for dishes that call for copious amounts of lemon juice (as tabbouleh does). The result is a jolt of assertive acidity that real lemon juice can never achieve. Getting used to such artificially boosted flavors dulls our perception of the subtleties of the real thing. Compare the two once, and you will see what I mean.

But to me, all of this is beside the point: How about forgetting the Turkish tabbouleh and online recipes altogether, rolling up your own sleeves, and creating your personal version, adding spices and ingredients according to your own whim and preference? That way, you’d have two new experiences: the making and the tasting of a dish that is truly yours, and not a bad copycat. And let your wife be the judge of your tabbouleh exploits. Ideally, you’ll create a version you both like. That would be what I call a success.