13 May 2018

Too Awful To Eat

A recent restaurant review: “A true work of art is never done. And neither was the chicken.” Clarissa R.

 

I’ve long been fascinated by picky eaters, by which i’ve always meant people who refuse to eat things i like, which is virtually everything.  There are a handful of foods i don’t really like, e.g. chicken hearts and gizzards, but i would certainly eat any of them if it were served to me.

And yet, the world is teeming with culinary fussiness.

Let’s start with religious rules, which i consider ridiculous because i was brought up in the Methodist Church where the only forbidden food was alcohol.  In response to my question in Sunday School, i learned that the beverage Christ served the disciples was “just grape juice”.  Besides, almost all the adult Methodists i knew drank at least beer.  Back in those days, American Catholics demonstrated that they were holier than their European counterparts by abstaining from meat on Friday, which i found really strange even then.  The Hindus won’t eat beef, the Muslims and the Jews won’t eat pork and shrimp and rabbit and all kinds of other tasty and nourishing things although the Jews take that to the height of absurdity with their law against eating milk and meat in close proximity.

But you don’t have to be religious to be ridiculous about your food.

In the aftermath of WWII when much of Europe was starving or close to it, the US sent shiploads of food under the Marshal plan, and some of this was corn.  Alas, the French thought corn fit only for animals and had to be actually starving rather than merely malnourished to eat it. This silliness continued at least until the early sixties when i was in the Army in Germany. One weekend i cooked my mother’s cornbread recipe in the BOQ kitchen, and the smell permeated the building by the time i’d taken it out of the oven.  At that moment, a French colonel came in the front door, smelled the delicious odor and came into the kitchen with a smile on his face.  This was the first time i’d ever seen him smile because we little lieutenants were beneath his notice, and the smile vanished instantly the moment i identified the source of the smell.  He dashed out before he had to actually see people eating that stuff.

During that time we also shipped tons of American rice to Asian countries, and their reaction to it was that the stuff looked much like rice but had absolutely the wrong taste.  So as with the French and corn, they had to be really hungry before they would eat it.

When i was an undergraduate i had an Indonesian roommate for a summer term, and we kept up the friendship until, back in Indonesia he was killed by rioters in the great purge of communists (and the Chinese who were supposedly all communists)  At some point i asked him for his take on American food, and he shocked me by saying that he found it so bland as to be virtually tasteless, and the only thing he really liked was ice cream, which he first tasted in this country.  Alas, man does not live by ice cream alone.

Lest you think i’m letting the Americans off the hook, oh no, i’m saving the worst for last.  Even as a child i’d figured out that my peers didn’t eat nearly as many things as i did.  Well, see, i’m the child of people who grew up in families that were poor before the Depression started, so they, like most Americans in those days, had no scruple about eating all parts of the animal…and serving it to their children.  My parents were smart enough to insist that we kids taste everything that came to the table, but if we didn’t like it, we didn’t have to eat it.  So my sister and i grew up without the food neuroses so common in postwar generations.

For example, as a special treat, sometimes Daddy would come home on Friday afternoon with a wrapped package from the butcher, and Saturday morning my sister and i would eagerly await the unveiling of the treat.  Often it was pig’s brains, which he would mix in equal proportion with eggs and then scramble in butter.  My sister and i ate this dish avidly because it was so delicious, but then one day in the middle of grade school i finally put two and two together and realized what the brains part of brains’neggs was and thought, Oh, how disgusting. But then my taste buds erected and conducted a brief war with my mind, which they won.  I still eat brains when i can find them and discovered a little Pakistani dive called Shalimar on Polk Street that serves a delicious brain masala.  Alas, i’ve never succeed in getting my tablemate to even taste it.  In fact, i don’t recall ever meeting an American who would eat this treat.  The same goes for almost all other innards, the only exception being that some Americans will eat beef and pork liver and many Americans will eat fried chicken livers.

When i spent the summer here in ’73 and ’74, i went to this Japanese place called Ichigo on Columbus to eat their tempura.  I ate there frequently and at some point noticed that many of my fellow diners were eating plates of something all sliced up into bite-size pieces.  I asked the waitress and was told it was sashimi.  I asked what that was in English, and then sat there in shock for a moment.  Oh.  See, in 1974, everybody in Texas thought of raw fish as something you ate immediately before you resorted to cannibalism when you were marooned on a raft in the Pacific.

Oh hell, i thought, it can’t be that bad if all those perfectly normal looking Anglo Saxons were gobbling it up.  So i ordered the tempura and sashimi dinner so at least i’d get some tempura and there’d be less of the sashimi to get through.  I ate the tempura first because, as we all know, the hot foods must be consumed at once.  Then the waitress showed me how to mix a lump of this green stuff into a bit of soy sauce in a tiny saucer.  Yow! Sure does clear out the sinuses…and is kinda intriguing.  Covertly watching my fellow diners, i saw that they were dipping a corner of the sashimi into the wasabi before sticking it into their mouths, so that’s what i did, and sat stunned as i chewed.  How could tunafish taste so much better raw than cooked?  When my mother visited me here a couple of years later i took her to Ichigo, knowing that she’d love tempura, and i offered her a piece of my sashimi.  To my delight although not surprise, she accepted a piece, ate it, and proclaimed it good although i don’t recall her ordering it on subsequent visits. Even now, there are still people, even in San Francisco although in much greater numbers in Texas, who won’t eat sashimi.

One last example, but for this one we need to go to the wilds of Sarawak.  I’m currently reading a pre-publication copy of a book by my friend Ian about the nomadic tribesmen who live in the jungle there, and i’m just wallowing in all the insights into a radically different culture. Ian writes at length about their dietary habits, and we learn that they subsist primarily on the starch of the sago palm.  This is augmented by the fruit they gather, the occasional small fish they catch, and the wild animals they shoot with poisoned darts, their favorite being the wild pigs.  Like my pioneer forebears in Texas, they ate every bit of the animals, the difference being that they preferred the innards.  On the other hand, the very idea of eating the meat raw or even rare is so disgusting that they use a euphemism for the act.

Meanwhile, in keeping with the food theme, here’s a jar of snow peas i pickled the other day, and i promise you that everybody will eat these.

pickled snow peas

 

 

 

 

 

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