This post was first published on June 5, 2011 as a guest blog on The Great Family Escape.

How we managed to get an eleven-year-old all-American girl to knowingly eat donkey meat was a story in itself.  We did not trick her, exactly.*  I think it was just that we’d been walking all day,  she was famished, we’d talked so much before the trip about how delicious the food in Italy would be and after four days she had not been disappointed, and there really were no other items on the menu that looked even vaguely familiar.  A spaghetti with meat sauce sounded ok, even if the meat came from an animal she’d never eaten before.

An 11-year-old willingly eats a big plate of spaghetti with donkey meat sauce

We’ve written about picky eaters on All Over the Map before, and we’ve been lucky in our household that our kids are pretty open to trying new things.  We’ve always had a rule in our house that the kids had to try three bites of whatever is on their plates at mealtime.  If after three bites they don’t like it, they don’t have to eat the rest, but they won’t be leaving the table until they’ve given it a real try.  Yes, we had some long nights at the dinner table waiting for someone to try their (now cold and truly yucky) seafood stew or okra, but overall, it was a strategy that worked.  They didn’t love everything we put in front of them, but they found new things they liked on occasion, and they realized they didn’t have to be afraid to try, because even if they hated it, the three bites would be over soon enough.  Which is all a long way of explaining why Calla was ok with trying the donkey.

Because we just can’t let a sleeping dog (or a dead donkey) lie, after dinner my husband and I pushed the girls to think about why it seemed weird to us that Italians would eat donkey or baby octopus (yum!) as if it’s no big deal.  Might there be things that we eat that they would think strange?  Perhaps they would be shocked at the vast collection of cereal boxes in our cabinet, since we hadn’t seen shredded wheat or Cheerios in the Italian breakfast spread in our B&Bs.  Maybe they would be horrified at the frozen pizza or the fishsticks we sometimes eat in sports-practice-shuffle desperation.  Could they handle the spice of our ubiquitous chips and salsa?

Amazingly (because often our attempts at family discussions are met with eye rolling and groans – they are tweens, after all) the girls took this idea and ran with it.  They began to notice everything that was different – the light switches and power outlets, the slightly different fashions, the stores closing after lunch, the fact that they really don’t like for you to touch the shoes in the shoe stores – oops!  But mostly they noticed differences at mealtimes.  The large tray of cured meats at breakfast, lunch and dinner in Piemonte, the serious lack of fast food at the stops along the highway, the separate courses of pasta and vegetables and meat, and of course, the gelato.  It’s not so much that the food was different.  It’s that life was different.  And the kids could see that.

So when I asked them about their most educational experience, they both responded with answers ostensibly about food, but really about culture.  “I guess it was when I ate donkey meat and I realized it wasn’t so bad,” said one.  “Yeah, you know, how they eat different stuff but for them it’s normal,” added the other.

Easy answers, tossed over their shoulders, but precisely what I hoped for when we started traveling with them: recognizing that there are other cultures in the world with different ideas of what is “normal” and that no “normal” is better than another.

*I did years ago trick my brother, a notoriously picky eater, into eating tongue in Italy.  He really never forgave me for that.