Is This Normal: ‘I Can’t Stand Different Foods Touching Each Other on My Plate’
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
I love eating daal-chaawal with aam ka achaar — it’s my ultimate comfort food. But the prospect of them accidentally touching each other on my plate makes me acutely uncomfortable. My momos can’t touch their chutney either until I decide to dip them in it, and neither can my butter naans touch the accompanying butter chicken. And, under no circumstance, can my fries touch anything remotely liquid — be it ketchup, cheese dips, what have you! It’s not just that I don’t like it; I absolutely cannot stand it.
Is this normal? For many who identify as “food separatists,” it evidently is.
“I, much like my three-year-old son, like the different food items on the plate to be kept separate. Possibly even served in a sequence and not all together. I love tasting each item and then moving on to the next one,” Yotam Ottolenghi, the famous Israeli-born British chef, told The Guardian. “A typical Christmas dinner sends shivers down my spine. A bunch of meats and vegetables crammed together, rendered indistinct by a uniform coating of gravy. It’s wrong!”
Turns out, there’s a name for the driving factor behind food separatism, too: brumotactillophobia, or an irrational fear of different food items touching each other. Its severity can vary from person to person, but in general, it’s considered a mild manifestation of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
That makes sense: I am autistic, and with autism and OCD both being different forms of neurodivergence, they often tend to overlap, too. Research suggests that autistic individuals are twice as likely to be diagnosed with OCD, while individuals diagnosed with OCD are four times as likely to receive an autism diagnosis.
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Moreover, autism is also associated with sensory challenges — in terms of the flavors and textures of food, too. Keeping one’s food compartmentalized, then, can be a way to ensure that one is able to regulate the flavors one experiences in a bite, so as to prevent their senses from being overwhelmed. The rationale is the same for textures, too. I’d want to make sure I am the one dipping my momos in chutney because, otherwise, a happy meal can quickly turn into a sensory nightmare for me.
Compartmentalization of food is an important tool for picky eaters, too. When one’s food is neatly separated, the probability of them spotting an elaichi — or anything else they despise — is greater, thereby increasing their chances of weeding them out.
But there’s more to food separatism than what immediately meets the eye. Often, the need to compartmentalize food can stem from a burning need for control. “There are lots of little quirks that people have to help them feel a little bit more in control than they otherwise would, and keeping foods in their own cordoned-off areas is one of them. This is especially true for younger kids who don’t usually get to pick out what they’re eating — at least, they can be in charge of how the food will be on their plate,” Julia Fuller, who has a degree in community health and psychology, explains.
Moreover, as Fuller adds, keeping food items separated on one’s plate is, at the end of the day, is simply prettier. “A big pile of food — a lá my Thanksgiving plate — looks gross. Arranging foods neatly is a whole lot more visually appealing,” Fuller notes. And sometimes, that might be all the reason one needs.
And so, there seems to be an army of food separatists, motivated by a multitude of reasons — at least, I’m not alone in my fixation on the compartmentalization of food.