Choosing favorites is one of my least favorite things to do. It’s not that I don’t have them, but, as an incredibly indecisive young adult who lives in a place where there are an abundance of options for every decision to be made, I am perpetually skeptical that the choices I make are adequate enough.
As this concept of favorites is instilled in us from a very early age, it is a challenge I have faced for as long as I can remember. Quite often in elementary school, we would be asked to fill out listicles of favorite things, to be displayed in the halls for Back To School night or for classroom decoration. While some would marvel at these works as if they were viewing the latest Van Gogh exhibition at The Met, I felt like I was part of a lineup, forced into the public eye to be scrutinized for the decisions I made.
I would stare at this question on the paper, my stomach churning, knowing that whatever I wrote down would become a definitive factor to how I was perceived by my teachers and fellow classmates.
Well, I like all colors, I would think to my six-year-old self, but I know the two most popular are red and blue. Everyone seems to love blue, including my brothers, so it can’t be my favorite, too. I’ll go with red. At nine: Why does nobody pay attention to green? Especially lime green. At ten: Lime green is kind of bright, I think I like red more again. Or maybe orange? At thirteen: Everyone’s love for blue seems to have died down, so I think I can embrace it. Maybe more of a turquoise, though. Eventually: Um, pink?
I think one of the biggest problems I have with choosing favorites is how much we allow these choices to shape our identity. Choosing a favorite color seemed to trickle down to every aspect of daily life: the color of my sneakers, the color of my bedroom walls, the color of the stickers my teachers would place on my homework. At such a young, impressionable age, favorites seemed to be ever-changing, and it was daunting to constantly feel I’d have to reinvent myself each time I established a new favorite.
I remember when I was eight or so I became aware that my parents always asked me questions about myself, but I would never really ask anything about them. It’s not that I didn’t care, but was beginning to have the realization that they were real people just like me who had thoughts and feelings to share, so maybe it was time I learned more about them. By default, I asked my mother what her favorite color was. She told me it was blue—“I guess.” It wasn’t a very passionate response, and felt a bit unsure. I was relieved: maybe my indifference to choosing favorites was genetic?
When it comes to choosing favorites for anything food related, I’m sure you can imagine that I don’t find this process any easier. To me, each time we eat is an experience, where food can satisfy and satiate in hyper-specific ways. Our choices in what we eat are dependent of the context in which we approach the situation at hand: as our needs and cravings vary, I find the idea of go-to, catch-all food favorites unreliable. Before I expound on these generalized, sweeping statements, I ask you this: how can you pick a favorite food if you don’t know what you need?
An example: The best muffin I ever ate, and potentially one of the best breakfasts I’ve had as of late, was from the Duane Reade on 34th Street outside of Penn Station. I was headed out of town to attend a funeral and needed to grab something quick for before leaving, so I picked up a muffin from their otherwise abandoned pastry case alongside a bottle of water and some mixed nuts. After boarding my bus and settling into my seat, I unpacked the muffin and peeled back wrapper, aiming to eat my quick breakfast before I had a potential seatmate for the long ride ahead. I really didn’t expect anything besides that the muffin would keep me full for a good while, but as I took my first bite, I was instantly seduced by its perfectly buttery, sugary richness. I would never say that my favorite muffin—yet alone breakfast—comes from Duane Reade. I recognize my experience as a potential fluke, but now understand that this crumbly sugar-bomb was just what I needed to nourish my somewhat empty, fragile soul at the time.
For someone who now has such a romantic view on food, my preoccupation with trying to determine favorites in my childhood kept my experiences quite analytical. I would always order any vanilla-based dessert when given the opportunity. From ice cream to cake to soda, vanilla was my go-to. Yes, I actually really do like vanilla—it is a classic, universal flavor that is easily adaptable. But my main motivation behind this system was that it allowed me to compare all desserts through evaluating the same base flavor, vanilla as the gatekeeper to my mental list of favorite spots and dishes. I applied this constant need to assess to all food growing up.
“How is it, sweetie?” my mom would ask at dinner every night.
“It’s ok,” I would always say.
I acknowledged every meal put in front of me in this combative nature without fail for the better part of eighteen years. I was unable to deliver a more enthusiastic response, this smug indifference carrying me all the way through college and eventually out of the house. It’s not that I was ungrateful for the food put in front of me—I recognized, at least internally, my luck that I had a family that insisted on home-cooked meals for dinner together almost every night. Externally, however, I felt I was genuinely assessing what I was tasting, as if I was Anton Ego reviewing Gusteau’s latest (or, for the more sophisticated crowd reading this, Gael Greene dining at Danny Meyer’s newest hotspot). I was simply just waiting for that mind-altering, transformative, Duane Reade muffin experience. Don’t get me wrong, the food was always good; my father is an excellent chef. I guess what I’m saying that this I owe my parents a long, overdue apology.
I’ve become able to enjoy food more (and a lot of things, really) as I’ve stopped keeping up with all the self-analyzing and mental rankings. I have found my most special dining experiences to be the perfect culmination of environment, company, and food: precious memories that are unreproducible and significant in their timing. While I still slip into my default critical mindset, I strive to appreciate the pleasures that food can bring when considered a part of a larger experience, whether it is my next home-cooked meal, Duane Reade muffin, or impromptu vanilla ice cream on a hot summer’s day.
Who needs favorites when you can learn to love it all?