Forget heights, spiders and enclosed spaces, can you imagine being scared of mashed potatoes? Well, this is what it's like.
I love food. I'd quite literally die if I didn't eat it. But there's one foodstuff that makes me want to vomit myself inside out: the ever-so-humble, ever-agreeable, omnipresent mashed potato.
As you might imagine, when I tell people that I find it hard to even be near this claggy, edible duvet of hell, they recoil in horror, as if I've told them that all chocolate is, in fact, a blend of human shit and liquid grout. They cannot and will not understand. And yet, ever since I was a toddler, I've been unable to even put a small forkful of mashed potato anywhere near my lips without dry retching, gagging and, in some cases, actually crying.
Friends have, in the past, tried to persuade me of the so-called merits of mashed potatoes but have since turned to mocking me with threats of filling my house up with the stuff while I sleep. For years, I've put my dislike for it down to the fact that it's the texture of thick vomit—the kind that gets stuck in your nose— but part of me also wants to try and work out what mashed potatoes have done to offend me so much. Because, for all my fear and loathing, it's not actually going to kill me—unless someone actually does pressure hose my house full of it.
I was never a fussy kid, and ate whatever was put in front of me in a nanosecond. My nickname as a child was Ganit, which I'd always assumed just meant someone who ate a lot but. Apparently, though, according to Urban Dictionary, it also means "an awesome curly haired girl who enjoys people watching and random immature activities," which also explains a lot. Anyway, basically, I wasn't picky. In fact, I loved nothing more than taking myself off to the bottom of our garden and digging around in the dirt, finding a slug or snail and smashing it in my hands before eating it. I refer people to this story when they tell me that my aversion to mashed potato could be down to texture. If I enjoyed and sought out slug, for heaven's sake, then mashed potato should be a walk in the park?
You'd think. But, according to an expert opinion that I sought out, those enterprising, garden-based "meals" might, apparently, contribute to explaining this later-in-life aversion to something so seemingly benign. "You see, texture aversions in children who are not allowed to play with their food as a child, or able to do messy play and get their hands dirty in the garden in mud or puddles," says dietician and nutritionist Annemarie Aburrow. "Whether children are more accepting to different textures can be linked to having a parent saying, 'No! Don't do that! It's messy!' And the knock-on effects happen because food is one of the things children can control."
But, while the messy hands thing could explain it, I think it might be more that, as a young child, I would often stand in the kitchen and cry when my mom mashed potatoes. Just let that sink in for a moment.
It wasn't just a few respectful tears to mourn the passing of a spud, either; this was full on, hands-over-ears and snotting down my T-shirt crying. According to my mom and sister it was because of the sound the masher made on the side of the pan, which obviously isn't linked to the food's texture or taste at all. In fact, my mum told me recently that she used to cook the potatoes all together and then take my portion out so she could mash the rest separately. Or, if mash was on the menu, she'd offer me an entirely separate meal. Christ. I'd like to take this opportunity to apologise, mom, for being such a dick.
The more I think about, the more I realise that it really isn't the texture of mash that I have a problem with. I eat mac n' cheese, custard, and risotto with wanton pleasure. It's just fucking mashed potatoes. According to The British Dietetic Association's Alana MacDonald, I really should have gotten over it by now, too, because this sort of food avoidance— which, in its most extreme cases, is called Selective Eating Disorder— is almost always psychosomatic and tends to be something most well-functioning people get over in adulthood. Not me!
"As a child, if you're forced to eat something you don't like at that time it can have bad connotations," she says. "Most people have one or two things they don't like because the texture is funny, and the avoidance tends to be from a place as opposed to any of the nutrients that are in the food." This next bit hurts: "Generally, as you grow up, you do grow out of that. But obviously some people just don't." Oh.
So with no nutritional reason to dislike mashed potato or even a particularly strong taste to overcome with it, my aversion is basically all in my head. So what can I do to overcome it?
Some researchers have found that by applying pressure to a central point in a child's palm while they're eating problem foods can help you prevent a gag reflex. However, I am not a child, and both Aburrow and MacDonald are dismissive of this technique really helping in adulthood. Their suggestions are simple: I need to sort my fucking head out. So: therapy?
"I don't know if you'd need to see a cognitive behavioral therapist," says MacDonald. "It depends on how much you want to eat mashed potatoes again." From my understanding of it, a CBT approach would teach me to look at why I think this way about mash. But if I actually want to eat it again, Aburrow suggests going a step further. "It seems like you've never wanted to try it as an adult," she suggests (she's right) "and it's now become this big thing, so it's more about how you start unpicking that." How do I do that then?
"Maybe the first step would be slicing the potato."
Right. Then what?
"Then you could actually mash it, banging the masher on the pan…"
IS SHE SERIOUS?
"So you're facing those fears in a slow, controlled way. Then maybe you can use your hands and actually touch it…"
Nope. La la la la la. Too far. I'm not ready.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April 2014.