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The Food Bully

By Adam Roberts
January 23, 2007


“Can we get some balsamic vinegar?”

My skin begins to crawl. We’ve eaten here before, several times, and each time the waiter refuses to bring balsamic for my dad’s Caprese salad because the “mozzarella is so fresh, it would be wrong.” We are at Da Silvano in the summer, and the waiter gives him a look. “All right sir,” he says, exiting reluctantly to the kitchen. And off I go.

“Why don’t you try it without the balsamic?”

“He likes balsamic,” my mom says emphatically.

“But why not try it without? Just to see.“

“Leave him alone.”

The salad arrives, and my dad, to appease me, takes a bite of the mozzarella and tomato and basil without balsamic and chews thoughtfully. Then, with perfect comic timing he says, “needs balsamic” and grabs the bottle and drenches his salad.

My parents, like my friends, know how to get a rise out of me. They know I’m a passionate person and that I’m particularly passionate about food. They know that it takes very little to set me off, and sometimes they do it on purpose.

Like how my mom will plop pills of Equal into her wine at dinner.

“Mom!” I’ll moan, hoarsely.

“Oh quiet,” she’ll say. “Mind your own business.”

But that’s just my problem. I can’t mind my own business. I care too much. I care so much that I’ve become something of a food bully. A title that my friends support wholeheartedly.

“You are a food bully,” says Diana, my roommate. “In fact, you’re the biggest food bully I’ve ever met.”

Diana’s suffered the most from my bullying. She hears me rant if she refuses dessert or if she only eats half the dinner I cook her. She also withstands my scrutiny at restaurants, where I fault her for ordering safely or cheaply or repetitively.

“You always get that,” I’ll say.

Or, “That’s boring. Why not get something more exciting?”

Or, “You need an appetizer. That won’t be enough.”

The bullying hit a climax last week when I came home and found a familiar paper bag on the coffee table.

“Did you have Chinese again?” I asked her as she eyed me nervously from the couch.

“Yes,” she admitted.

“But Diana. You had this last night.”

“I know.”

“Well what would you have tomorrow if I didn’t cook dinner?”

“I guess I’d get more Chinese take-out.”

I roll up my sleeves. I begin hopping up and down. What is she thinking? Chinese take-out at every meal? Chinese take-out is good once in a while, but every meal? And it’s not even good Chinese take out, it’s from that frightening place across the street, the place with gray interiors and fuzzy fluorescent lights.

POW! “Diana, that’s just depressing.”

POW! “Why don’t you cook something for yourself?”

POW! “I can’t believe I live with someone who eats Chinese take-out at every meal.”

How did I get to be such a bully? Do we need to soar over my childhood and study scenes of torment and humiliation to understand what I’ve become? Need we treat my character the way Thomas Harris treats Hannibal Lecter in his latest book, revealing my origin story for all the world? Well, Clarice. Have the lambs stopped screaming?

I am on the playground looking sweet and innocent and humming Debbie Gibson songs when a real bully, Richard Bray, comes up to me.

“Hey, Roberts,” he says.

“Hi.”

“Man!” he says, waving his hand in front of his nose. “Your hand reeks.”

“It does?”

“Ya man,” he says. “It smells like peanut butter and jelly.”

I put my hand to my face and sniff and then whack! He smacks his hand against mine, and instantly the blood comes pouring out and I barely know what hit me. Then Richard runs away. I scurry off to the nurse with my head back, keeping the blood in, even though I’m not supposed to.

Is that how all this began? Do I go through life like the bullied kid whose nose is bleeding, telling others their hands smell like peanut butter and jelly to get my revenge? Is it really my own insecurity I’m putting on display when I criticize others? What am I trying to prove?

The world is full of food bullies. We’ve all met them. They’re the people who tell you that you’re too fat, that you’re too poor, that the food you eat isn’t good enough. Food bullies are particularly vicious—they make you neurotic, so that if you get teased in school for bringing a smelly lunch, you never want to bring a smelly lunch again.

I make Diana neurotic. She had a bagel for lunch yesterday and was going to get another bagel for dinner but knew I would have something to say about that, and she’s right.

“Well, a bagel isn’t enough for dinner,” I tell her, as we sit down for burgers with Craig and James. “Plus you should have something different for dinner than you do for lunch.”

She listens silently as Craig shakes his head and James says, “Dude, you’re like the Hitler of food.”

“I am not,” I say.

“You’re like the Pol Pot of eating.”

We order our burgers, and Diana’s comes out with mayo on it. She hates mayo, so she starts scraping it off the bun. I begin to rant: “Oh, stop, it’s not like you’ll taste the mayo. Mayo just blends in with everything else. I used to hate mayo....“

“Stop it,” Diana snaps. “It’s enough already.”

Diana is sweet and nonaggressive, and the fact that I made her snap says a lot. The table grows eerily quiet.

“Dude,” James says, “you’re like the Mussolini of mayo.”

My adult life has been a process of weeding out bad advice given to me by my mother from the good advice. Go to law school? Bad advice. Slick your hair back like Michael Douglas in Wall Street? Bad advice.

But when it comes to being a food bully, the advice my mom gave me when I mocked her wine sweetener is the soundest possible. When I get the urge to shape the palates of my nearest and dearest, I will do what she says. I will mind my own business.

Thanks to Mom, the word now is mum.

20 Comments

I confess! I am somewhat of a food bully myself! But how can I help it when my husband puts mustard on his peanut butter sandwiches.....or when he makes and eats potato chip & mustard sandwiches? His mother "cooks" with herbs and spices that are 35 years old (I am not exagerating!). It's just so hard to keep my mouth shut!

hey man, my chinese take out joint (Egg Roll) is a fine dining establishment full of cheapies.

and isn't this what mister Ed Levine talks about? Inclusivity (is that a word?) Isn't serious eats a forum for those who love a 19xx vintage wine and those of us who drink a case from walmart and add artificial sweeteners that kill lab rats?

Some of us (probably just me), enjoy the two weeks in the year when six piece nuggets are a dollar from McDonalds and eat saltine crackers for breakfast. Serious eats isn't about a dictatorship, is it?

Those around you, who understand your passion, probably just want to eat whatever they want to eat. You sign off in a way as to suggest you feel it is a sad day because people don't want to be ordered around. Isn't it enough if your passion is so effervescent that it becomes contagious? Or must your passion be the Ebola of all contagious passions?

[munches on pretzels for the 9th day in a row]

LMAO@Adam. You just described me. I yell at people at the grocery store. I have been a kitchen bully since I was 7 my mother says. Imagine if you will a 7 year old ordering you out of your own kitchen, "Get out Mom, if you cannot do it right just go!" Standing on a chair cooking my little heart out. My mother never cooks a "for company" meal without running the menu by me. I been called food bully, kitchen boss, food snob.
There are some people I will never eat at their house again, like a food reviewer they are not worthy of the calories they cannot formulate into good food.
When I cook a meal for company they say, "Can I bring anything?" and I say No, because I do not want the integrity of the meal to be altered in any manner. Bottles of wine brought are quickly hidden as to not be added to the carefully chosen wine selections.
Wait, wait, what kind of salt is that? Got ya! LOL.

I could care less what others eat, what gets on my nerve is when people criticize me when I try different stuff....or when I insist on cooking something for dinner when my wife would be fine with eating cereal or mac and cheese (from a box). A friend of mine claims he can determine what I will order at a restaurant. Just pick the strangest thing on the menu. If peopld want to eat boring food meal after meal, go ahead, but don't subject me to your lack of taste.

You have made me feel good, Adam. I sometimes wonder if I over react in relation to food (and even more of the table setting,) but I am suttle compared to your story above. Thanks for sharing. I like new foods and origionality, but my family likes the basic classics. They know when I cook there will be something new, and probably not to their liking, but there is always a classic for them to enjoy. Food is for us to enjoy and experence, but the greatest flavor in the meal comes from the company at the table. Anyone would be welcome to add Equal to their wine at my table, just don't complain about the unusual dishes surved that you don't like. It's all about give and take.

non-foodies just don't understand foodies. so when i eat with friends , especially if i'm on a date, i'll explain to people that the definition of a "foodie" is someone who is obsessed with food, and that they should not take anything i say personally. this seems to work. sometimes.

Adam, you need to do what I do in these situations, which is to take prodigious amounts of tranquilizers. And then you will be fine.

Its very traumatic to be around people who don't give food respect.

I certainly recognize myself in the descriptions you gave of the various instances when people are hell-bent on ruining an excellent dish or ingredient with some extraneous addition that they just have to add to a perfect product (be it my father-in-law calling for hot sauce to douse the most exquisite dishes or a friend who need to have all meats "well-done" (I am talking shoe leather done!).
There are reasons why a traditional approach to food is best (why put cheese in seafood pasta?) and I cannot help myself preaching to the unconverted when they egregiously destroy what is best about a particular dish (de gustibus EST disputandum!). Another pet peeve is persons who never try something different - yes, I get preachy in that instance too and many of the most intense marital arguments that I endured where triggered by my missionary zeal to preach the gospel of trying new foods.

If you think adding Equal to wine is bad, my ENTIRE FAMILY mixes their wine with Sprite, making me feel like an alcoholic. I'm a bit of a food snob too but I usually just keep it to myself or complain about people behind their backs (hehe) So you're probably better than I am :P

Oh my GOD I'm a food bully too and I didn't know it til now! I do allllll those things. Oh Lord, how embarrassing. But hey, I take my culinary experiences seriously, and I guess I just want everyone else to, as well. (by the way, my MIL adds Equal to her wine too!) I thought she was the only one. She is THE world's best MIL, so I would never say anything, but it does crack me up. By the way, ThatGirl, peanut butter and mustard is a divine sandwich. :)

*adores people with good taste who are food bullies* If people know more about food/music/films/animation (ad infinitum) than I do, why should I argue?

I've got a drink bully for you. Never once has my Dad ordered "Irish Coffee" at a restaurant and not sent it back to the kitchen almost immediately. He simply refuses to lower himself to explaining the problem with the inauthentic drink. Those poor confused waiters...

A Food Bully Haiku

Food Bullies Abound
Telling you what not to eat
And then there is SPAM

@Seriouspoorcook: LOVE it! Yes. There is always SPAM.

From the New York Times article on Jim Harrison: "Mr. Harrison, a self-described “food bully,” has very particular ideas about cooking. He thinks rosemary should be banned. He has no use for huge restaurant-style ranges: “Why should I spend $7,000 for a stove when I could spend $7,000 on food?” And he doesn’t believe that game, birds especially, should be tarted up with elaborate sauces. “As the French say, game birds taste best at the point of the gun,” he said."

The Pinochet of Pejerreyes!

This could go on and on..

Hi I'm Killer and I'm a Food Bully - I thought I was alone until I read Kitchen Confidential and found out what an A**hole Bordain was too. I also berated my Mother at an early age for cooking the "Same Food" on a blatheringly boring monthly rotation schedule (3rd Wednesday of the month it must be Chicken Bla-De-Blah Caserole with mashed potatoes and green beens and a green salad). At least until she clipped some horrid recipe from Family Circle and a new dish like "Creamed Corn Critters" or "Spam Dandies" (I'm not making these up) would magically appear in the roster. Nonetheless, we ate well day in and day out.
I've had to learn that most people like what they were raised on, even if it was Peanut Butter and Poop. So I'm learning, late in life that the importance of cooking for friends is the word "FOR". Spam Dandy Anyone?

oh my, I have never heard of Equal in wine. That is....scary. I put Equal in my tea and oatmeal...but never in coffee and certainly NEVER in wine. Or Sprite...although that's probably a variation on homemade wine coolers.

I guess I've been a bit of a "food snob" over the years but the fact that I don't push or boss others into my choices may save me from being a "food bully". A few months ago I discovered what it felt like to be on the receiving end of food bullying and it was NOT fun. I was actually offended....I went on a business trip with friends and we stayed at family of one of the gals. one night we wanted to cook the host couple's a nice dinner as a thank you (the guy didn't like to eat out and was tired). So we three guests headed to Wild Oats (similar to Whole Foods) to buy our ingredients...we tossed around some ideas and no one seemed to like mine. Mine were kind of simple/casual gourmet...the two of them only liked their ideas - lemon chicken, salad, and sourdough bread. Finally I offered to make a couple of appetizers and buy the wine (I do know my wines) - but then they wanted to know what kind of appetizers? So I even had to have that approved by them. It was a very strange experience and I realized how it must feel to be on the other end of food bullying. It ended up NOT being a great meal either...just basic and the chicken was overcooked...but the wine tasted mighty fine!

In restaurants my husband always selects items that are more basic than the ones I choose. And I don't mind - its what he enjoys. And he doesn't bother me about what I want to order. We rarely share dishes because of this.

Adam, this is brilliantly written!

Can't we spin being a Food Bully in a positive way? Like, let's just say that Food Bullies like us are only thinking of the happiness of our friends and family members. We just want THEM to experience the wonder of eating great food, like we do! (I have a friend who I bully a fair amount and I've actually gotten her to try a few new foods that she likes). Yahoo!

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