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THE HUMAN CONDITION : FOOD FETISHES : How Can You <i> Possibly</i> Eat That?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A nation that consumes 400 million Hostess cupcakes each year is capable of eating anything. Globs of Cheese Whiz on bologna. Onion sandwiches. Peanut butter and pickles. No less than a President, Richard M. Nixon, slathered ketchup on his cottage cheese.

“When I eat a bagel with lox, I put jelly on it,” said Hildy Sokoloff, a Santa Monica office worker. “This makes everyone nauseous, but it’s really good.”

Prandial oddities are not necessarily whimsy. The tiniest morsel can overwhelm our senses: We smell, see, touch and taste it. We may hear it cooking or quietly thrill at the sound of the wrapper tearing away. A bizarre snack can resurrect memories of childhood, when we first ate it. That tidbit may be a pillar we cling to amid the swirl of human existence.

“Eating strange food is not deviant. Everybody does it,” said Barbara Cadow, a Westwood psychologist who specializes in eating disorders. “Once people find something they like, no matter how strange, you can’t drag them away.”

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But one man’s nosh is another man’s nausea. Whip up a bacon and banana sandwich and count the seconds until critics come groaning out of the woodwork. Laboratory rats endure electric shocks to get at food they desire; humans absorb ridicule.

Consider the Pacific Palisades man who craves french fries wrapped in salami but can’t bring himself to eat them in front of his fiancee. He waits till she’s out of the house. Like him, many of us hide our favorite snacks in the back of the cupboard or refrigerator. We partake only when alone.

“I eat cold creamed corn from the can,” said Ona Andre, who works at Stanford University. “My ex-husband used to say, ‘That’s repulsive.’ I would have to get up and eat it in the middle of the night.”

By light of day, only pregnant women and children get away with indulging in anomalies. Kids, especially, become Dr. Frankensteins when let loose in the kitchen, inventing all kinds of monstrous conglomerations.

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Here’s the catch: if they find something they like, they may be hooked for life.

Anything we enjoy as kids may carry over into adult life, experts say. Taste is not the only consideration. Some people remain loyal because they “probably had that food at a happy time in their life, maybe at a family gathering,” said Judith Ashley of UCLA’s division of clinical nutrition. “When they want to recapture that feeling, they can eat the food.”

Pregnant women may adopt their gestational cravings “because they got a lot of attention during that time,” Ashley said.

Other times we find ourselves adapting to personal quirks. Sokoloff spreads jelly over fish because she can’t stomach cream cheese. Her odd version of an old favorite provokes hostile comments from neighboring restaurant tables.

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“People tell me, ‘Don’t eat that in front of me. What’s wrong with you?’ ” Sokoloff said. “But you can’t eat lox on just a dry bagel.”

Nor can you go to a baseball game without eating a hot dog, which is to say that certain foods are linked to activities. Mustard on toast, for instance, is essential to reading the morning paper--at least for an Encino woman who wishes to remain anonymous.

“It becomes habitual or even ritualistic,” said Michael Owen Jones, a UCLA professor who studies food customs and symbolism. “The experience would be incomplete without the food.”

But try telling that to the people who have to watch us chew our ungodly concoctions. They expect us to conform to dining norms because mealtime is a social institution. They will judge our character and status simply by what we put in our mouths.

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Spam, for instance, is considered a lower-class meal, Jones said. An odd snack, especially one carried over from childhood, might be labeled in another way. “Others would think of it as childlike behavior, and therefore we would be wary of revealing this,” Jones said.

Or perhaps people are quick to criticize because, when it comes to food, we think with our taste buds. Cadow speculated that, in the case of Andre’s creamed corn, “the ex-husband may have been imagining the taste and texture and the coldness on his tongue. It’s gross.”

Grossness is relative. The endearing Peter Pan snatched his dinner from the beaks of sea birds. Some Japanese are fond of swallowing live shrimp, Cadow said; they enjoy the sensation of tiny creatures wriggling down their throats.

Jones offered another example: “There’s nothing wrong with eating grasshoppers. There have been many enthnographers and nutritionists who have recommended consuming grasshoppers for their nutritional value.

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“But Americans have never looked fondly upon the idea,” he said. “That’s not food for us. The idea of it seems inappropriate.”

Critics will always lack perspective. So Nicole Dillenberg, a Los Feliz teacher, will always be harassed when she pours orange juice over breakfast cereal or prepares what she calls “poor-man’s caviar”: chopped olives and mayonnaise.

“We have such conventions about meals, things we’re trained growing up,” said Dillenberg, whose roommates wince when she comes down for dinner. “If you’re caught not obeying those rules, maybe it’s threatening to other peoples’ upbringing, their sense of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior.”

Some folks blame heredity for their obsessions. John Mace, who works in a Los Angeles law firm, can trace his predilection for onion sandwiches through three generations. His maternal grandmother ate them. Now a nephew has discovered this delicacy. Is there a snack-food gene?

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Other folks invoke physiology, quoting a popular theory that humans are drawn to specific foods because their bodies lack a nutrient contained therein--an assumption adopted by more than a few premenstrual women who claim to crave chocolate because they need the magnesium.

“There isn’t much validity to those ideas,” said Kara Caldwell-Freeman, a professor of foods and nutrition at Cal Poly Pomona. “What we choose to eat is more psychological and emotional.”

An odd snack won’t ruin your health. Nor will an occasional Ritz cracker with jam and cheddar cheese jostle your mental stability. But if you’re going to be a kitchen iconoclast, expect to take some heat.

“It’s hard sometimes because people always make cracks about what you eat,” said Michael R. Perry, a Los Angeles writer who recently rebelled.

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Perry’s wife was working the late shift for a week, so he ate mashed potatoes every night. “No gravy, no butter, just spuds,” he said.

“I kept thinking, ‘No, you shouldn’t have them again tonight,’ ” he recalled. “I was so, so happy.”

But he didn’t tell his wife.

The author feels compelled to confess that he accounted for roughly 100 of the Hostess cupcakes consumed in the last year.

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