Revisited: Food needs context, and a little salt

There’s something about encountering foods out of context that makes them more appealing.  

You wouldn’t normally associate a quality ice cream experience with standing in the road next to a truck blaring “La Cucaracha,” yet there’s no better summertime treat than buying a Nuddy Buddy from the neighborhood Good Humor man.  

We decline the stringy turkey leg at Thanksgiving, preferring instead a tender slice of breast meat. But put us at a Renaissance festival surrounded with busty wenches and nerdy knaves, and there’s nothing better than the smoked limb of a gamey tom.  

I guess that’s some of the psychology at play in my office. A lady from the adjacent department has recently begun delivering farm-fresh eggs directly to the desks of my co-workers. Reportedly, she has a friend who has a chicken, and if you supply your own crate and a small fee by Thursday afternoon, she’ll bring you a dozen eggs on Friday morning.  

“They’re delicious,” a friend told me. “You can’t get eggs like that in a grocery store.”  

Well, you normally can’t get eggs of any kind from an office chair wheeled through a maze of cubicles. Maybe it’s the smell of toner fumes from the adjacent copier that gives them a special flavor. Or maybe it’s the improbability of having the makings of a weekend’s omelets dispensed like so many payroll stubs that makes them unique.  

I haven’t yet joined this informal egg club, as the stress of the daily grind is taxing my heart enough as it is without adding a high dose of cholesterol. However, the Egg Lady from Accounting crossed my mind when I was driving down a country road last weekend and came across a yard containing a rickety table full of bright red tomatoes.  

Though my wife and I don’t grow a summer garden ourselves, it did seem like it was about time for the local crop to be coming in, and nothing beats the taste of a juicy ripe tomato fresh from your neighbor’s yard. I pulled into the dusty driveway and climbed out of my car, encountering a stiff-walking bumpkin who noted how hot it was, the traditional mid-June greeting in this part of the South.  

“Yup,” I countered. “Pretty dry too. We sure could use some rain.”  

Having been cleared with the proper code words, I was shown his collection of vegetables. Not only were there tomatoes, there were a few potatoes, squash, peppers and zucchinis. All were crudely displayed under a large shade tree, with the barking dog and beat-up tractor across the way clearly implying he had grown them himself. I felt up a few of the tomatoes; they seemed a little firmer than I might’ve hoped, though nowhere near the rock-hardness of the fruit trucked in from Chile that was in the grocery stores. I pretended to be discerning as I examined five and selected four for purchase.  

It wasn’t until I brought them home and proudly displayed them to my wife that I realized I had been scammed by a yokel. He had not grown any of this stuff himself. He had probably bought them at a store a few days earlier, let them soften a bit in the outdoor heat, then set up this country tableau to lure in suckers like me. I’d had no intention of buying vegetables while running from chore to chore Saturday morning, and yet seeing them whiz by the car window from out of nowhere made them irresistible.  

We tried making a BLT out of the tomatoes and I imagined they were palatable. My wife knew better and soon placed the leftovers way out of context, in our backyard compost pile.  

It got me to thinking about how I came to like or dislike the various vegetables I’ve encountered over the years. Having grown up in the sixties, where a regular schedule of mom-cooked meals was the norm, I didn’t develop the aversion to produce that haunts the dreams of modern kids. I had made pleasant if irrational connections to most of the common greens that allows me to enjoy them even today.  

I liked spinach because I liked Popeye. I liked broccoli because they looked like trees. I liked corn because I liked typing, and gnawing line after line of kernels felt like operating a typewriter (I still say “ding” at the end of each row). I enjoyed cauliflower because it felt like I was eating someone’s brain, which was considered a positive experience for a ten-year-old who enjoyed horror movies.  

By the same reasoning, I loathed dishes like lima beans, Brussels sprouts and peas. Not only did they fail to have a cartoon advocate who gathered super-human strength by eating them, they had terrible names. Squash and zucchini were in the same category; no good-natured sailor with bloated forearms was going to save Olive Oyl from the clutches of Bluto by downing a can of butternut squash. And okra, that Southern specialty with serious viscosity issues, was disgusting long before a certain extremely successful daytime talk show hostess could’ve rescued it just because her name rhymed.  

I didn’t even like tomatoes at the time, unless they had been rendered into ketchup or spaghetti sauce. I’m still not among those who can bite into one like an apple, but I can tolerate a few mixed in with wedges of lettuce. Salads themselves were repulsive until modern dressing technology brought us the ranch and green goddess sauces that gave them some semblance of flavor.  

Now, as I finish up this piece, comes word through an email from my wife’s knitting group that one member wants to share the bounty of her garden with anybody who cares to bring along a sack to that evening’s meeting. Exactly what’s being offered isn’t clear, though that hardly matters. If you were expecting to stitch together a nice scarf with a collection of friends and instead are confronted by cabbages, corn and green beans, they’re going to have to be good.  

Seemed like a good idea at the time

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