A few days ago, I was sitting innocently at my desk when a co-worker approached with an open bag of candy.
“Here, have one,” he said. “They have an interesting taste.”
It was still morning, and he correctly interpreted my pause as a sign of reluctance. I don’t eat candy in the morning, and probably haven’t since gorging on some long-ago Easter made me ill. In my book, candy is not a breakfast food. Nor is cold pizza, anything with chicken in it, nor anything chocolate.
“They’re good,” he persisted after a few moments.
No, they weren’t. They were “ginger candy,” sweet and chewy with a texture like a jelly bean. But the ginger flavor would’ve gone much better with sushi, about eight hours later in the day. At 9 in the morning, it repulsed.
“See?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said. “Interesting.”
Much like the Holocaust, the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa and a Britney Spears concert are “interesting.”
Against my better judgment I had given in and tasted something someone was offering me. Usually, I don’t do this. I spend a lot of thought constructing exactly the taste I want to reside inside my mouth at any given time, and don’t appreciate capricious-if-well-intended efforts to change this delicate balance of flora and fauna.
When I first wake up, my mouth tastes awful, which I expect after a night of grinding my teeth into nubs. I’ll quickly brew a cup of coffee and savor this flavor, then follow up with a tooth-brushing that gives me enough minty freshness to present to the world.
At different points during the day, I’ll introduce other flavors: first, a blueberry muffin with more coffee at work, then perhaps a piece of fruit to cut through any lingering “morning mouth,” then — no sooner than 10 a.m., which I consider the earliest that carbonated beverages should be consumed — the stinging carbonation of a Pepsi.
Once my maw is fully awake, I can be as adventurous an eater as anyone. I enjoy spicy food, exotic food, healthy food and even near-foods such as Slim Jims and gum. (Interesting fact I learned watching “Top Chef” last night: there are no recipes that use chewing gum as an ingredient).
I’m certainly no Mike Holland, though. Mike was the childhood friend who lived down the street that I once accidentally cracked in the forehead with a baseball bat. (I don’t remember if this was before or after he began impressing other neighborhood boys with his willingness to lick anything. In retrospect, I’d guess it was after the blunt-force brain trauma.)
Mike once put a rock in his mouth. He’d let a dog lick his tongue. He would eat grass — and not just any grass, either, but lawns that had just been sprayed for chinch bugs. I don’t know if he grew up to be Andrew Zimmern, the “Bizarre Foods” host on TV’s Travel Channel who draws the line at eating human flesh, or simply died a painful poisoning death shortly after moving away. But Mike’s appetite sure was cool to a group of hard-boiled eight-year-olds.
I think of Mike sometimes. If alive, I’ll bet he’s happily married. Aside from the occasional co-worker who offers strange and unwanted foodstuffs, the biggest battle to resist that I face is when eating out with my wife.
Beth and I, after almost 30 years of marriage, have very similar tastes. When we go to a restaurant, even one with the most extensive menu imaginable, we’ll almost always want to order the same thing.
“Let me guess,” I said recently as we prepared to order at a Chinese restaurant. “Number 572?”
“Yep,” she said, “but I’d get it with brown rice, not white.”
Because I’ve always viewed suspiciously the older couples who look alike, eat alike, dress alike, etc., I refuse to order the exact same dish as Beth. She thinks this is silly. Even stupider, she contends, is that I’ll then order my second-favorite item on the menu, and refuse her offers to taste or split her meal.
It’s not that I’m afraid to eat after her. And it’s not that I want to avoid the “sharing charge” that so many restaurants have these days. It’s just that, once I’ve made up my mind what to order, my palate expects this and nothing more.
Ever pick up a can of motor oil thinking it was a thick chocolate milk shake and take a deep swig? If your brain thinks it’s a shake, then your taste buds tend to agree and the darn thing ends up tasting like a shake. Same thing is true with General Tso’s Chicken, except you (usually) don’t go into convulsions.
This perverse dining philosophy of mine didn’t serve me well during business trips I was frequently making a few years back to the Indian subcontinent. Eating room service or in the hotel restaurant wasn’t the problem; it was the one night I was invited into the home of a Sri Lankan co-worker for an authentic Sinhalese meal.
The custom for this kind of dinner is that large bowls of food are offered “family style,” allowing everyone to share. As long as proper utensils are used to divvy up the courses, I’m fine with this. The problem, however, is that THESE PEOPLE EAT WITH THEIR HANDS!
“Let us show you how to hold your fingers so that your hand makes a scoop,” said my helpful host, Ambalangoda Anuradhapura (or something like that).
Not wanting to be an ugly, nor a hungry, American, I played along.
“You’ll find that your skin adds a certain saltiness that enhances the flavor of the food,” he continued.
As long as it’s my skin and not yours, I thought, I can probably get through this.
Once I had steeled myself against the barbarism of it all, the evening was actually quite enjoyable. It was almost fun trying a primitive, Third-World custom. I wasn’t eating after these friendly Asians, I was eating simultaneously with them.
I don’t particularly remember what we had that night, except that it had way too many syllables and a vague coconut flavor. I do know, however, that the company and the fellowship were quite wonderful.
And this was the after-taste I had in my mouth as we bounced and jostled in our auto-rickshaw back to the hotel. Where I later became violently ill.