Back in my college days–my first set of college days–when I was just earnestly beginning my struggle to fit in, to feel as though I belonged in the world and mattered to anyone in particular, I started reading books about relationships and emotional health. It seemed to go hand-in-hand with my studies of 19th Century Russian poets and novelists at the time; Pushkin and Tolstoy were clearly my first therapists. I remember reading several books by Leo Buscaglia and from them I managed to glean a few points that offered cold comfort to my often dejected and shriveled heart. Among the bits of self-esteem fodder that I brought with me through my early adulthood was that a decision by someone to not date me wasn’t necessarily an indication that there was something wrong with me; rather, it could simply indicate that he harbored preferences for a profile that I didn’t possess.
The way I understood it best was to draw an analogy to my own disinterest in sauerkraut. I did not care for sauerkraut. My earliest memory of sauerkraut was from the age of five or so, visiting my aunt on my father’s side, being served sauerkraut with its awful rank smell akin to sweaty socks. I did not care for it. I did not want to swallow any more than that first, forced, musty bite. I left it on my plate, hoping my father would be too involved in the latest bellow-fest with his mother to notice that I had not complied with the always-clean-your-plate directive. But no. He was much too shrewd to miss an opportunity to wield power, and he ordered me to finish my sauerkraut. I timidly requested a waiver from the directive on the grounds of certain death by toxic ingestion–or whatever the five-year-old version of that plea might have been. Pleading and timidity only enraged my father, and he LOUDLY sentenced me to remain at the table until I finished the sauerkraut. My mother and grandparents were already accustomed to backing away from his tirades, so no rescue was coming from that quarter; I sat in the dining room, alone, for over an hour while everyone retreated to the family room for whatever sufficed as must-see-TV in those days. At long last my aunt crept in and removed my plate, whispering that she would tell my father I had done the deed. To this day, I’m not certain how much of my antipathy toward sauerkraut was a genuine response of my palate and how much was induced by fatherly terror.
At any rate, I maintained my distance from sauerkraut for many, many years. It was really the only food I could honestly report to my disliking. So it came naturally that I would use it to better understand the mindset and valuation model of personal rejection. I may not care for sauerkraut, but it didn’t mean that there was anything wrong with sauerkraut; it was simply my preference to avoid it. The sauerkraut was held harmless and allowed to continue expressing itself to the rest of the world in the hope that others would embrace it in ways I had not.
It came as a bit of as shock to me several months ago when a fella introduced me to sauerkraut again. At first I demurred, but then I acquiesced and tried it–mostly to appear relaxed and unburdened by childhood trauma, which is never counted in one’s favor within the dating rituals. To my great shock and horror, the sauerkraut was NOT repugnant to me; quite the contrary, it was aromatic and delicious in the most curious ways, and I felt neural pathways being circumvented in my lizard brain. From a culinary perspective, the experience was quite an uplifting breakthrough.
From a social-relational perspective, however, the experience sent me spiraling in turmoil. All this time, through several heartbreaks and a monstrous vocational setback, I had survived by the retelling of the sauerkraut rule: just because you don’t like sauerkraut, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the sauerkraut. Just because I was rejected by a lover or fired by an employer, it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with me–I was simply not what was preferred. Suddenly, in the span of a chewing, I realized it was really the sauerkraut MYTH. Sauerkraut likes to think of itself as a neutral entity, a judgment-free zone, the gastro-relational equivalent of Sweden; but the truth is, it’s not just in the minds of those who consume it. Some sauerkraut is empirically superior to other sauerkraut.
This realization has played itself out now on the landscape of my two most significant romances in the last decade. Both fellows have subsequently attached themselves to women who are NOT me, who are not even close to resembling me in any way, shape, or form. Had either one of them chosen a woman with similar characteristics in any realm–physical, intellectual, vocational–I could be persuaded that it was as simple as the sauerkraut rule as I previously understood it. But no. The branding is too far removed for it to be anything other than a taste on their parts for a completely different sauerkraut.
What a sad day for sauerkraut, my proxy for not taking personally the failures of relationships I wanted to endure. Sauerkraut sadness is the worst.