The Three Food Personality Test
Why Mr. Rogers Doesn't Eat Scampi

I have, over the years, perfected a food-based personality test. Unlike the fancy exams devised by psychologists, this one requires no pencils, ink blots, or sofas, and it can be conducted in well under a minute. While my methods may seem unscientific, results have proven unfailingly accurate. Here's the deal: whenever I meet someone whose character must quickly be discerned, I ask them three questions. Do they like potatoes? garlic? cookies? Their answers reveal much more than they'd ever imagine.

Those who love potatoes are not pretentious. Gerald Ford doubtless consumes them daily, but Madonna does not fancy them, I'm sure of it. Neither do Claus Von Bulow or Zsa Zsa Gabor. Potato people are direct, grounded people, the kind of folks you can depend on. Beyond the obvious rootsy/earthy symbolism, there is the fact that potatoes do not offer the sort of flavor that dances in your mouth. Unlike, say, chocolate or foie gras, they don't "do" you; their tuberous charms are plain and can therefore be appreciated only by the unostentatious.

There is no glamour in a potato (scalloped potatoes--a doomed attempt to glamorize the poor things--are a misguided exception that proves the rule). Spuds exemplify honest unsophisticated deliciousness for those who prefer reality to stylish illusion.

If someone likes garlic, he or she isn't meek or whiny. This is the most intuitively obvious of the three, though it's not simply garlic's strength that tests one's mettle. Other strong foods may repel with impunity: hot pepper is literally an irritant, so one can't be blamed for finding its ingestion an unpleasant undertaking. Horseradish, vinegar, and mustard all possess narrowly specific, sharp flavors. Like mezcal or late Coltrane, they are worthy things that may imaginably be scorned by otherwise fine people. But garlic is neither antagonistic nor an extreme taste requiring arduous acquisition. For all its power, it's an accessible flavor whose edge is balanced by considerable friendly warmth. Unlike Limburger cheese or shrimp paste, garlic provides ample footholds for anyone big-hearted enough to embrace its funkiness.

To reject garlic is to reject the spice and mystery of life itself. Those who eschew garlic don't dance (at least not with rhythm), they don't laugh out loud, and they always take the same route home. They are the extras in the movie of life (note: bad breath trepidations don't count; we're talking aesthetics here).

Cookie lovers are, almost without exception, honest. Just imagine trying to lie while eating one; it's unthinkable. You see, there's no room to hide within the sweet simplicity of a cookie. A morsel of sushi can, in spite of its pristine appearance, cloak untold deviousness. Untruths may be freely spouted while cutting through a juicy lamb shank or nibbling a french fry (though, in the latter case, they'd never be STYLISH lies). Cookies are innocent and sincere--and those same qualities are found in those attracted to them.

But if you happen to be one of the rare few able to pledge undying fidelity to your cuckolded spouse while gobbling Lorna Doones, your body will recoil from the contradiction. You'll compulsively reach for a cigarette to negate the cookie. If you don't smoke, a pinhole might appear in your stomach lining or your blood pressure may rise. One way or another, you'll unconsciously externalize your spiritual besmirchment. Since this clearly is not adaptive behavior, natural selection has, over time, almost entirely expunged cookie-eating liars from the population.

The manner in which people answer is as telling as the answers themselves.

Queried about potatoes, pretentious types will hardly deign to reply. They'll shrug and dismiss your question with a wave of the hand. They don't despise potatoes, per se, but they see no reason to go on about the things, to waste even a single moment of their rarefied lives thinking about them. Spuds on their plates are dutifully picked at, but, as unsung supporting players rather than a meal's bright focus, they're brushed off as...well, small potatoes.

The meek will not rant and rave against garlic. They'll mildly wrinkle their noses in bland distaste or emit a quiet "ewww" sound. They can't effectively communicate what it is they dislike about the bulb, because they HAVE no strong opinions and are unaccustomed to examining, much less announcing, their own preferences.

The dishonest, predictably, will evade. No one ever out-and-out confesses to cookie hatred; as in those puzzles where an unsuspecting traveler encounters The Liar and The Honest Man at a fork in the road, a veracious negative is not possible. Truthful people give a clear-eyed "yes," and that's that. They have thus proven themselves trustworthy. But then there's the invariable reply of the dishonest: "What kind of cookies do you MEAN?" Disregard such obfuscation. Your question has been answered.

This all works quite handily in reverse, too. If you're inviting a known liar to dinner, offer chocolate mousse cake for dessert; your butterscotch walnut cookies will go to waste. Serve mofungo to a milquetoast brother-in-law at your--or, rather, his--peril. And if a pretentious friend offers to take you out clubbing after dinner, serve pasta, not mashed potatoes, with the medallions of veal (and don't forget to douse the salad with plenty of grape seed oil).

When you do hit those dance clubs, notice how at 4 a.m. the crowd splits into two contingents. The thoroughly pretentious go for a champagne nightcap or cocaine or something, while the night-trippers, by contrast, fill the booths of all-night diners, scarfing big steaming platefuls of hash browns. They are reconstituting back to real life.