I have no idea why Netflix decided to give John Mulaney a budget to make a children’s special called John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch, but I’m very glad that they did. It’s a musical revue show whose jokes often encroach upon territory that’s a tad too sophisticated for actual kids — no child alive will appreciate why it’s funny to flash the word “zwischenzug” onscreen as Mulaney and an elementary-schooler play chess, for example — but whose inherent sweetness, wholesomeness, and focus on positive life lessons make it technically kid-friendly. Who knows? Maybe it’s even a necessary corrective to whatever crap kids watch these days. The whole thing is bizarre and kind of amazing, especially the part where a child helps David Byrne, playing himself, get over his fear of volcanoes.
It’s the precision of the songs in John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch that make the special so great. They nail very specific “kid feelings” that you either experienced yourself or which seem completely alien to you. When I was in high school, my grandfather got a girlfriend, prompting factional squabbling among my dad and his siblings much like what the kid in the song “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul” witnesses; if I’d been just a few years younger, I would have loved for there to have been a children’s comedy song to help me process what was going on.
While I could easily imagine myself as the kid in “Grandma’s Boyfriend Paul,” one song made me go, “Oh my god, that was me.” The song is called “Plain Plate of Noodles,” and it’s about a kid who will only eat pasta with butter. For much of my childhood, I was an insanely picky eater. I would eat peas, but only if they were frozen. I would eat a cheese sandwich, but only if the cheese had been cut with a cookie-cutter my parents had that was shaped like a duck (my aunt and uncle, who one babysat me while I was in this phase, still give me shit about this). For the vast majority of my picky eater period, though, I would only eat one food, and that food was spaghetti with butter and Parmesan cheese. According to my mom, this meant that my parents would have to call restaurants in advance to make sure they could accommodate my anti-diet, and even still, I once had a meltdown and cried in public because the chef had put parsley (terrifying, green, unacceptable) on my otherwise edible meal.
When we’re babies, we are all picky eaters. Per the National Institute of Health, infants have an “innate preference for sweet and salty tastes and tend to reject sour and bitter tastes,” which makes sense given that babies are designed to initially only consume their mother’s milk. The trick to making a baby not a picky eater, then, is to slowly introduce foods with other tastes and textures as the baby gets older so that they develop a varied palate. The problem is that some kids just… don’t. My parents did everything you were supposed to, yet as I went from being a toddler to a full-on child, my eating habits actually regressed. At first, I loved apples; then I would only eat apple slices, then apple slices that had the skin cut off of them too. This ended, you might imagine, at a point where I wouldn’t eat apples — literally the simplest food! — at all.
The main thing I remember about being a picky eater in elementary school was its social impact. Most of the other kids in my class would buy their lunch at school, happy to eat whatever, while I would always make a bee-line for the tables, where I’d whip out my lunch box and eat the ham and cheese sandwich that my mom had made for me, plus a zip-loc bag of Cheetos, which, aside from a Cheez-Its phase, were the only snack food I would eat until I was 10.
Kids don’t really fully grasp the concept of money, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t innately understand the socioeconomic implications of what they and their peers eat. The same kids at my elementary school who ate pre-packaged snacks and name-brand, pre-made meals like Lunchables were also the ones who got picked up by their parents in Volvos and Mercedes, while I got picked up in my mom’s Dodge Caravan. I was also a weird kid in general, so my eating habits didn’t exactly do me any favors in the friendship department. Given my own experiences of social isolation, I was completely unsurprised that picky eating in children has been linked to depression, anxiety, and ADHD. (All three of which I have been diagnosed with at various points in my life.)
When I watched “Plain Plate of Noodles,” all of this came rushing back to me, eliciting a deep sense of melancholy, which is a very embarrassing reaction to have at a children’s special/conceptual art project that a comedian probably got paid a million dollars to make and put on Netflix. But when the sullen-looking kid at the lunch table told John Mulaney, “Some people find mealtime quite difficult, MULANEY,” and then told him he worried being a picky eater was “going to make my life… so hard,” I felt that fictional kid’s fictional pain. This ridiculous, goofy children’s show managed to mirror my experiences in a way that truly validated them, while also acknowledging how incredibly goofy it all feels in retrospect. There now exists a YouTube video I can send people that helps articulate a part of my childhood, and that don’t count for nothin’.
As I got older, my picky eating went away just as inexplicably as it had materialized in the first place. My palate stayed fairly limited all the way into high school, but as I developed my social skills, I began to realize that there were so many situations in which I needed to eat a thing I didn’t want to eat in order to not be rude. Nobody wants to be the asshole at Thanksgiving who doesn’t want to eat the broccoli casserole their aunt spent hours making, after all, and after enough of these little episodes that forcibly expanded my palate, I came to learn that basically all foods are fine, and can even offer a sense of adventure and excitement, allowing me to get a greater sense of how others live.
Now, I will eat anything. Except parsley. Fuck that shit.