Have you seen The Horror?
There is a formal name for this phobia some people have about the foods on their plate … touching. It’s called Brumotactillophobia.
It is common to see children squirm and pout when a piece of meat overlaps onto their green beans. Kids seem to instinctively understand that beans go here and potatoes go there and never the twain shall meet.
Some adults lose that wisdom as they grow older and less attentive. I do not count myself among their number.
I may not eat at their table, but I am nevertheless with the food-aphephobic kids in spirit: the different foods on the plate should not touch! The foods in that Thanksgiving Turkey Cake should not be touching.
Every Thanksgiving, as my mother-in-law’s groaning table sends around turkey, stuffing, artichokes, eggplant parmesan, broccoli, spinach, stuffed mushrooms, sweet potatoes and all the rest of that particular post-pasta course, my grown nephew, my preschool-aged nieces and I must deal with the logistics of the plate, and the thoughtless teasing of family-members who cannot muster up a bit of inclusive sensitivity for the Food-No-Touchees in their midst.
Although the preschoolers are still imperfect in their discipline, we Food-No-Touchees are silent sufferers; we observe our rituals as discreetly as possible, so as not to make ourselves targets of familial ridicule and flying dinner rolls. We do not partake of gravy, which never stays where you put it and ends up touching other foods that were never meant to be gravified. A slice of cranberry on the meat does nicely, as turkey and cranberries are permitted to touch. Peas, however, roll into other foods, so they are banished, along with creamed carrots.
We are not food snobs; our quest is to maintain food-space-integrity, not to get to heaven through our guts. Food-No-Touchees find something both comforting and aesthetically pleasing in having constructed minimal foodgroup barriers on our plates. Yes, we’re a little neurotic, but it’s a victimless obsession.
Unfortunately, the sheer amount of dishes at the Thanksgiving entree—far, far too many, and all contributed by Italian-Americans who will be insulted if you don’t at least “taste” their offering—simply defeats a Food-No-Touchee. At some point, someone who thinks they are “helping” takes a spoonful of sweet potato and slops it onto one’s dish, cheerfully suggesting that “it all goes to the same place.” When that happens, the children scream and we adult No-Touchees, accustomed to this overt, socially-permitted FoodAphephobiaPhobicism (the last acceptable prejudice!) stare silently at our plates with stricken eyes.
My nephew and I exchange knowing glances. At this point, the only way to save Thanksgiving is to make sure that we discreetly eat the now-despoiled foods in their correct order; for him that means starting at the top of the plate and eating around in a clockwise fashion; for me it is all about heat density. Potatoes are consumed first. Then meat. Then vegetables. To have a bite of turkey, followed by a forkful of spinach, and then some eggplant, with another bite of turkey would be unthinkable for either of us.
Fortunately, the family has never caught on to what my younger son refers to as our “single-file eating,” or we’d never live it down.
It’s bad enough that they’ve figured out that we’re also crumb-phobics; my nephew and I cannot tolerate crumbs on the table, and are very quick to help clear the dishes and sweep the tablecloth. Now that we are discovered, the cruelest people will call our names and—when they’ve gotten our attention—smile as they crumble breadcrumbs beside (not on) their plates.
Sadists. We are learning to shudder in silence, “offer it up” and keep smiling.
Elizabeth Scalia is Editor-in-Chief of the English edition of Aleteia