Manhattan is teeming with gourmet cheeses, but none of them appeals to Pauline O’Connor, 28, an associate articles editor at Elle magazine.
“It just seems moldy to me. I just think it’s gross,” she said the other day at a hot, crowded Flower District party for accessories designer Kate Spade. She waved away an appetizer involving smoked gouda. “Yuck. Just- no . Not for me.”
Yet Ms. O’Connor-a pale but robust type with a girlish giggle-insists she isn’t watching her weight. “I like round foods,” she said, nibbling on a buttercream-frosted vanilla cupcake. ” Circular foods. I had a doughnut for breakfast today. I’ll have an English muffin. A lot of the stuff I eat is stuff that’s advertised on children’s television shows. Stuff that has, you know, primary-color packaging.”
She’s a picky eater.
And as the Dow nudges 10,000-and the city plumps up with so many new dollars, driven people, and fancy food establishments it’s really a little eccch -her ranks are swelling fast.
Standing nearby under a trough of limp tulips was Mish Tworkowski, 35, a jewelry designer who lives on Park Avenue and dines out-a lot.
But tentatively, very tentatively. “I don’t like fish,” he said. “I don’t like shellfish. Shellfish is slimy and gritty.” Mr. Tworkowski, who wore a cheerful gingham shirt under his pinstripe suit, sticks to old friends, like chicken. “Once at Jean-Georges, I ordered the squab, because I thought it would be chickeny,” he recalled, shuddering. “But then I didn’t eat it. Because I realized it was actually pigeony !”
Meanwhile, Ms. Spade-a petite woman of 36 whose eponymously labeled rectangular handbags have made her rich enough to eat in the city’s finest restaurants-was cutting a charming figure in a black organdy dress of her own design, a pink shawl from Barneys, and Manolo Blahnik mules.
“She’s a picky eater,” whispered one of her colleagues.
‘It’s Not a Diet Thing’
“I really don’t like tomatoes. I’m not big on mushrooms,” said Ms. Spade in a phone interview two days later. She’s lived in TriBeCa for years, but has never been to Chanterelle, the four-star French restaurant on Harrison Street. “You know what I can’t stand? I can’t stand ginger. When people are eating sushi”-not a favorite either-“and they’re like, ‘Oooh, ginger,’ I’m, like, no, no, no, no, no .”
Ms. Spade was about to hop a plane for Japan.
“They have yakitori, which I love-it’s like fried chicken,” she said as if to reassure herself. “I love fried chicken. I love mashed potatoes. I always order steaks. It’s not a diet thing at all.”
Most picky eaters adamantly stress that their habits have nothing to do with minding their waistlines. “I don’t diet ever. I don’t diet ever ,” said Rachael Combe, 26, Mirabella ‘s dainty beauty director. “I like cheese. I like bread. I like salt-and-vinegar potato chips. I like chocolate chips.”
Indeed, many of the pickiest eaters are most repelled by foodstuffs traditionally considered healthy.
Ms. Combe, a Prufrock for the new millennium, daren’t eat a peach. “They have a fuzz on the outside,” she said, “and the texture kind of bums me out.”
“This whole mixed-green phenomenon that’s going on-I do not like that at all ,” fumed Elaine Brosnan, 28, a publicist for Avon Books who lives in the West Village.
“This whole kiwi phenomenon,” continued Ms. Brosnan, who isn’t very fond of fruit, either. “I’ve never had a kiwi, and I know I’m never going to have a kiwi, you know?”
Michelle Egiziamo knows. “I don’t eat anything in the fruit category,” said the 28-year-old painter and graphic designer. “I’m terrified of oranges or any kind of, like, citrus fruits. The smell just sends me spiraling.” How would she feel about, say, a mango? “Oh, horrified. Horrified. Especially fruits that have lots of, like, juice coming out of them. It totally freaks me out.”
“I had fruit the other day and it actually made me sick to my stomach, like carsick,” said Britton Payne, 28, a director of the sketch comedy group the Associates, who lives in the East Village. “It’s not artificial enough. I need most of my food to be plastic.”
Mr. Payne likes Sweet Tarts and Coke. Mushrooms make his mouth contort. “I’ve never had a cavity!” he said proudly.
“I don’t like exotic lettuces,” said Erin Richter, 30, an Upper East Side resident and journalist. “I don’t like fishy fish.”
Although it seems increasingly common, pickiness taps a wellspring of derision in Manhattan’s food-centric culture.
“I get mocked,” said Ms. Richter. She recalled an ill-fated company lunch at Balthazar: “I really wanted to order the beef stroganoff, because I love beef and I love noodles, but I have a problem with mushrooms. I didn’t feel that I could eat at Balthazar and pick out the mushrooms.”
“People think I’m retarded,” said Mr. Payne simply.
Ms. Combe conceded that the only thing she and her boyfriend have in common is baby carrots. “It’s too lonely being my kind of picky eater,” she moaned.
When her dissertation isn’t going well, Kristin Costello, 30, a Columbia graduate student in English who lives on the Upper East Side, likes to browse idly through cooking magazines, trying to come up with things that would tempt her finicky investment-banker fiancé.
“A few months ago I made this spaghetti squash thing with tomato,” she said. “He took one sniff of it and was like, ‘Oh, this isn’t pasta.'” The two will marry in June; they’ve been socializing with a squeamish couple. (“He”-another investment banker-“won’t eat any cold food”; she, a consultant, seems to subsist on pasta with tomato sauce, no garlic.)
“I wanted to have them over for dinner on Saturday night, and I could not come up with a single menu that would make everybody happy,” said Ms. Costello.
Leslie Brenner, a food writer who lives in Brooklyn, claims that a covert finickiness runs rampant in the food journalism industry. “One of the most respected food writers in this country doesn’t eat anything but bread!” she said.
Is she herself picky? “No,” said Ms. Brenner, author of American Appetite (Avon Books). “Well … I can’t handle fried egg.” Why not? “That big yellow yolk staring up at me!” Anything else? “I shouldn’t admit this publicly, but I hate radicchio.”
“I get overwhelmed,” said Dany Levy, 26, a native New Yorker and freelance writer who recalled wandering, dazed, into the Gourmet Garage that just opened around the corner from her West Village apartment. “It’s the same thing as going into Bed, Bath and Beyond. I get dizzy almost. I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s a little bit, like, well, what if I pick the wrong thing? “
Ms. Levy attended the Spence School, Riverdale Country School and Yale, where she had a bad experience with a gyro. Since returning to late-90’s Manhattan decadence, her finickiness has only increased. “You know the dishes that satisfy you,” she explained. “You know the dishes that are going to get the job done and make you happy.”
She often brings her sister Nikki, 29, on jaunts to E.J.’s Luncheonette, a picky eater’s paradise on the Upper West Side that features peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, milkshakes and the like.
“I love kid foods,” said the elder Ms. Levy, who’s a trader on Wall Street.
So what could it mean?
“The cityscape can be disrupting to people, the plethora of choices,” said Upper East Side psychologist Randi Wirth. A tinge of motherly protectiveness crept into her voice. “I was 35 before I’d ever seen a mango!” she said.
“I go through phases with things,” said Ms. Combe. “It’s all about what I want. It’s not like a Calista Flockhart thing.” (Ms. Flockhart, who responded to charges that she was anorexic with ostentatious pig-outs, is widely suspected to be a secret dieter, another breed of animal entirely.)
But some eating-disorder clinicians say that the line between picky eaters and secret dieters may be rather too thin for comfort.
Nancy Bravman, a Gramercy Park area therapist who’s specialized in eating disorders for 15 years, called from a cell phone in Philadelphia, where she was attending a flower show. “In New York, everything is more and bigger and sometimes better,” she said. “I think that all kinds of eating variation and quirks are ways that people try to feel more in control of their body, safer in their body, and more in control of something about their personal world or their world around them.”
It’s all in the balance, said Ms. Bravman. “I know someone who’s had chocolate cake for breakfast for the past 30 years and she’s very healthy.”
“I think an eating disorder can hide behind pickiness,” said Ilene Fischman, a West Village psychotherapist, as she chewed on her lunch of fake-chicken salad. “To say ‘I’m a picky eater’ is more socially acceptable than to say ‘I’m fatphobic.'”
Ms. O’Connor, the round-food lover, bristled at the suggestion that her pickiness might be a problem. “I eat whatever I want, basically,” she said. “I’ve eaten the chicken at Aquagrill, I’ve eaten the chicken at Veritas. I’ve had chicken at the best restaurants in the country!”