There is probably a much, much shorter version of this particular scorching hot (or, more realistically, 31 degrees Fahrenheit) take, which goes like this: “I prefer a milkshake.” But there is something in our fascination with other people’s enjoyment of food the “wrong” way that bears investigating.
There are entire articles devoted to odd celebrity food habits. Jake Owen drops peanuts in his Coke! Adrienne Bailon puts fruit punch in her tuna salad! Shailene Woodley eats… clay? My wife is obsessed with the fact that I like everything “wrong” — that I do indeed prefer my ice cream half melted; my tea and coffee to cool until barely even lukewarm before drinking; my cookies to be slightly stale; perhaps most offensive to many, that I am one of “the absolute masochists who enjoy drinking flat soda,” bonus points if it’s room temperature. As a kid, one of my favorite things to eat for breakfast was Heinz tinned spaghetti with mayonnaise (there wasn’t a whole lot of parental supervision going on in the 1980s).
It’s quite possible that some or even all of the above turned your stomach, and that’s fine and expected — these are not “normal” things to eat. But while there are, culturally speaking, broad swathes of flavor and texture combinations that we mostly all agree on, food is still an intensely subjective experience, and each of us probably has at least one culinary quirk that we keep secret — not because of some shame-riddled eating disorder, but simply because we’re embarrassed by it. It’s a big reason almost nobody likes to eat in front of other people when they’re the only one eating — we’re suddenly more conscious than ever of doing something that might be seen as “weird” because there’s no one else there to model our behavior on.
That might sound like a stretch, but consciously or not, our palates are shaped in large part by what’s perceived as “acceptable” by those around us. We might derive immense pleasure from, say, mixing pickles with peanut butter cups at home on the couch, but we’re probably aware enough of how strange this looks to not do it while meeting the in-laws for the first time. It’s not dissimilar to basic table manners in that, again, these cultural norms define what’s appropriate, and not sticking to them singles you out. Just as, say, slurping your noodles would be perfectly acceptable in Korea but frowned on in much of America, a steaming plate of chapulines with fried egg and chorizo might be welcomed with gusto in Oaxaca, but would likely elicit screams in much of England.
You could debate back and forth as to whether all this is a good or bad thing, of course. At its most absurdly formal, etiquette was simply a bullshit code written by aristocrats to trick the newly emerging middle classes into revealing themselves (a fish knife, those revoltingly gauche bourgeoisie!). But you could also argue that a limited amount of structure works to help people feel at ease: If we know that here in the West, for example, simply chewing with our mouths closed and keeping our elbows off the table will succinctly convey that we’re at least somewhat respectable, then that takes a lot of the pressure off making a good first impression — we just follow the rules that have already been laid out for us.
Similarly, you know that though you might secretly enjoy it, it’s not a good idea to dunk your breadsticks in your Chianti if you want a second date. There’s nothing wrong with it, per se, but it does make you look oblivious, and invites doubt, in the other party’s mind, of your ability to grasp the more important parts of the social contract.
So does any of this make my habit of waiting for the majority of my ice cream to melt before eating it less strange?
Well, yes, because it’s all about context. If I’m having lunch with someone I’m trying to impress, obviously I’m not going to leave my dessert untouched while they eat theirs, then, only while they’re asking for the check, lifting the bowl to my lips and slurping up the delicious, viscous goo pooling within, ideally all while making intense eye contact and moaning softly. But if I’m at home with a tub of Ben and Jerry’s? Stick that shit out in the sun for 10 minutes and fetch me a straw. Mmmm.