How I Became a Foodie

17 Jan


Never in my life would I have imagined that I would become a “foodie”.  Not until I heard my mother tell friends at a wedding that she and I “became foodies” in Geneva.

I was an extremely picky eater as a child.  The first food story my mother tells about me has to do with ketchup.  One day when I was a toddler, she brought home a different brand of ketchup than usual by mistake.  And although I hadn’t seen the bottle, I could tell the difference immediately when I tasted it.  This was NOT my ketchup, and I was NOT going to eat it. Unfortunately for my mom, she couldn’t remember which was my preferred brand.  (Incidentally, I had the same problem when I took my first trip overseas at age 15.  It may still say “Heinz” on the ketchup package, but the formula in Spain is different from the formula in the States.)

Being open to such limited food options made me extremely food aggressive — what I could eat, I was NOT willing to share.  My mother often told people that if I were a dog at the SPCA, they’d have to put me down instead of adopting me out because I was so mean with my food.  Case in point — during a study abroad trip to Paris, our professor was sitting next to me at the hotel restaurant and tried to steal a bite off my plate.  He was rewarded with a sharp slap on the hand (thankfully, this did not affect my grade for the course).

Gradually, I discovered that most of the foods I disliked, I disliked because of their texture, not their taste.  As soon as I determined which textures I didn’t like, the range of foods that I could eat broadened dramatically.  But I didn’t become a foodie until cancer took away my sense of taste.

My first clue that something was wrong came about a week after I started chemo. I was at the McDonald’s in Geneva’s Plainpalais district and I had ordered a cheeseburger, but all that I got was a rough sandwich that tasted strictly of pepper.

Popcorn became crunchy cardboard.  Salami was a slimy disc with no taste at all.  And then it dawned on me — I couldn’t taste salt.

You’d be surprised how much we depend on salt to flavor our foods.  I could no longer taste my favorite lasagna, pizza, or flammenküche.  No potato chips.  No more fun apéros with my classmates in the evenings.  All of my favorite foods stolen from me.

Thankfully, my chemotherapy consisted of cycles with four weeks on medication and two weeks off, which meant that I regained my sense of taste for two weeks out of every six.  I became greedy for flavor and decided to try as many new (to me) styles of food as possible.  Thai, Greek, Chinese made without soy sauce, Turkish, Eritrean… who ever would have thought that Eritrea would have a national cuisine worth exporting to Geneva?  And yet it quickly became my favorite, with its spicy berbère meat stews and soothing yoghurts served with spongy crêpes called injera, lentils and spinach.

When we couldn’t go out to eat, I would look up new recipes online and my mother would cook them on our minuscule 3-burner stove with its cantankerous oven that never could hold a stable temperature…  We searched up and down in Coop, Migros, Media Markt and Fust for an oven thermometer for the damn thing, but no one had them in stock.  “Non, mademoiselle, that would imply that the original product does not work correctly and would not inspire confidence in our customers…” So we had to import our own thermometer from the States.

It has been a long and winding journey, but cancer’s theft of my ability to taste finally gave me a proper respect for that sense — and that is how I became a foodie.


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