Tasting the World

Eating is a sort of love of the world. If you can’t taste the joie de vive in a fresh peach, then your heart is hard. I’ve always taken my free-roaming appetite as a reflection my open-ness to experience. I want to try it all: from oysters to skinning dipping, from tzitziki sauce to sky diving, nothing is off limits. On the occasion that I do run into a hang up—as I once did with eggplant—I don’t blame the food, but chalk it up to some limitation in myself. My approach is to keep sampling the problem food until I “get it.” After enough Baba Ganoosh, and after so many eggplant burgers, I finally understood the purple orb and now cherish it in its many forms.

I’ve prided myself on being the Ultimate Omnivore, afraid of almost nothing. It’s all just protein, arranged into different shapes, I’d blithely tell myself, when confronted into a roasted guinea pig in Peru, or a boiled chicken foot in Nepal.

(Disclosure: I do retain a moderate aversion to canned black olives and crystallized ginger. Also: I have a couple of ethical hesitations with foie gras and squid, or anything from the highly emotional cephalopod family aka squid)

If eating is a love of the world, then being finicky, I’ve always thought, is a sort of rejection of the world. I’ve had little compassion for fussy eaters. Oh come on, I mutter, when someone throws a wrench into a dinner party with some dietary idiosyncrasy, pushing away a plate of a gorgeous bruschetta because they are allergic to gluten or decling a stuffed bell pepper because they don’t do nightshades.  Even if you do happen to derive a certain salutary benefit from avoiding this food or that, surely such inflexibility can kill you–if the inconvenienced cooks don’t kill you first.

I’ll never forget the shock of waking up one morning in college and opening the kitchen cupboard to be greeted by a handwritten note taped up by my roommate, who’d recently turned Fundamentalist Vegan and also happened to own all the pots and pans in the house.

Attention: Please refrain from cooking animal products in these skillets (btw, this includes eggs).

Wasn’t at least a weeks notice was in order?

In Asia, I’m now being put to the test. I have no problem gobbling up the pad thais and the peanuty papaya salads, but also being confronted daily by such an overwhelming amount of new food that I don’t have time to “get it.”  Indecipherable goo balls wrapped in banana leaves for breakfast? Cartoon panda heads floating in my soup? Torn up chunks of white bread soaked in green syrup and ice cubes for dessert? Normally a pleasure, now mealtimes are unnerving–like being blindfolded and shoved into a car and driven somewhere unfamiliar.

Thailand, I figured would be a cinch. I’m crazy about their chilis, their lemon grass.  So, I wasn’t at all mentally prepared for any disappointment. But in the south central part of the Gulf Coast, the mealtimes that I always looked forward to were starting to feel like trials. If there are different Geo-Culinary regions (I think I just made that word up) then it seems that we’d found Thailand’s Nebraska—a region of vast agricultural land punctuated by bad restaurants. There were curries all right, but they were not the coconutty numbers I loved so.Nothing, in fact,  seemed to resonate with my taste buds.  Again and again, I lifted pot lids only to be assaulted by a lethal smelling steam rising from the inscrutable entrees. Rotten fish? Spoiled meat?

Andy coaxed me into eating soups, but the bland bean sprout broths inspired no delight, adding up to about a scant 60 calories and just feeling like a lot of hard work.

With each missed meal, I became a bigger pain-in-the-ass, even more impossible to please, and more adamant in my hunger strike. I was starting to act like my mother on our trip to Italy, with her plaintive cries for the cold chocolate milk that was her morning habit back home. Chocolato Freddo? I begged the confused baristas on her behalf. Exhausted and resentful of her rigidity, I sternly broke the news: Mom, Nestle Quik Chocolate milk is Just Not Done in Italy.

I could see that same uncompassionate wariness building in Andy, as he hopefully stopped the bus at every roadside shack only to watch me sputter out Nescafes and fold half-chewed dried shrimps into my napkin. My blood sugar fell homicidally low and I glowered at him from across the table while he alternated between silent judgment and righteously working some weird curly tentacle into his mouth. I knew what he was thinking. Worse, I knew he was right: there are people starving in this world.

I finally broke my fast with a cozy little pad thai served from a collapsing hut in a muddy parking lot. Not long after, I found a latte at a coffee shop along the highway and soon my sour mood lifted. But in its place was a sheepish embarrassment. Posing always as the Intrepid Traveler, I’d revealed myself to be a real pansy.

So maybe it turns out that I don’t love the world as much as I thought. Just like people who don’t do gluten or nightshades, it happens that I don’t do weird looking blobs of meat and Technicolor beverages. But if there is any redemption to be found, it’s that after dinner last night, Andy spent the night in the bathroom reconsidering his Tripe dinner, while I slept soundly, dreaming of the next boring round of pad thai.