Friday, September 29, 2006

On the Culinary Defensive

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of going out for a lovely dinner. This is a rare treat for me and I was so excited that I went online days ahead of time and read the menu, trying to decide what I was going to have. There were so many choices that I couldn't make up my mind. Pastas of all kinds, soups and salads, delicious-sounding chicken dishes, Mahi Mahi...what was it going to be?

When we arrived at the restaurant, a well-meaning person who has known me a long time said, "I'm sorry, Suzanne, that they don't have burgers on the menu. I hope you can find something to eat."

I was stunned. How could anyone think I would order a burger, even if it were on the menu, when there were so many wonderful choices? I began to think this over, and did not like what I came up with.

It dawned on me that, for years, I have been defending myself against my father-in-law's (not in any way malicious) belief that I only eat at McDonald's. For the record, it is only when I have to, or when I have a strange pregnancy craving. Further, I realized that our good friends and former neighbors deemed me to be impossible to cook for and love to make fun of my eating habits. For the record, they are excellent cooks--and hunters--who make some mighty adventurous foods and, no, I actually won't eat some of the things they make. But I love plenty of others!

Suddenly, it became clear. I must defend myself and quickly before this becomes the stuff of folklore and legend, from which I will never recover! Somehow, I have developed a reputation for being a culinary simpleton. The equivalent of a Twinkie in a world of creme brulee. I have officially suffered enough abuse on this count and attempt here to set the record straight.

I will be the first to admit that my gastronomic origins were less than impressive. I was a kid who liked about 5 things, to my mother's chagrin. My mother loves to cook and has long belonged to local gourmet clubs, where a group of people gather periodically to try out cooking and enjoying exotic cuisines. For years this did not impress me.

When I was about 9 years old, I distinctly remember falling out of my chair at dinner, making undignified gagging noises, when a Chinese exchange student who was living with us prepared an authentic meal. I remember this so distinctly because of the punishment I received, although it did little to endear Chinese cuisine to me.

When I was about 11, I went on a wonderful tour of Thailand. I spent most of the time searching out the few restaurants in Bangkok that served Corn Flakes or hot dogs while my mother shook her head in despair over having such a pathetic excuse for a daughter.

Around age 13 I went with my gymnastics coach on a sports exchange to China. Through Beijing, Shanghai and Canton I survived on steamed rice, losing several pounds over 3 weeks, while I counted the days until our arrival in Hong Kong, where I raced across the border and straight into a McDonald's.

I am the first to admit that these beginnings were less than glamorous. But people do change.

In my early 20s I began to genuinely like ethnic food. Indonesian, Indian, Chinese, not to mention Italian (and I'm talking capers and garlic here, not marinara). I began to like condiments on my food and all sorts of vegetables. But on one thing I remained consistent: meat.

Now, my rules for meat are not difficult to understand. I like chicken, beef and some pork so long as it is well-cooked and processed enough so that I cannot tell what it originally looked like. Call me squeamish, crazy, whatever you want, but I like ground beef, boneless, skinless chicken breasts and not much else. I don't want to see fat, bones and certainly not any tendons or tubes of any kind. I won't eat lamb, bear, reindeer, rabbit, or anything else that, to me, tastes gamey and like, well, dead meat. I can say this because, yes, I have tried these things. Once, and that was enough.

Not liking meat (and, admittedly, most kinds of fish) does not make me a foodie oaf. It makes me a quasi-vegetarian. I love pasta with all sorts of vegetables and seasonings. I adore bean dishes. Shrimp and scallops (so long as they are ultra fresh) thrill me. There are few restaurants where I can't find something to enjoy. Even the deep pit BBQ places my carnivore husband loves have chopped beef sandwiches, which I can enjoy with sauces and plenty of pickles.

Let's be clear. You will never see me biting the heads off of crawfish and sucking out the juices. I'm not the one gnawing on the giant turkey bone at the Renaissance Fair. And I don't relish dripping, bloody roasts of any kind. But if you happen to have me for dinner some time and you serve Osso Bucco, don't worry. I will love the sides. And, didn't you know man can thrive on bread and good company alone?

Yes, I enjoy a good burger and various other fast food offerings from places like Subway, Taco Bell, Carl's Jr. (McDonald's is at the bottom of my fast food list, except for the fries, which I love). But I don't ONLY enjoy these things. I would always prefer a salad or pasta dish, a good bowl of soup or a grilled sandwich. Going out for a good meal is a joy. Being served one at the house of a friend, even more so, no matter what is served.

I hope this sets the record straight. I, for one, feel much better!


John said...

I love japanese food and their culture too, both are amazing.

Annie Bizzi said...

Although not organic, and far from gourmet, I really liked your baked bean and homemade macaroni and cheese combo any day!

Jen said...

I for one have sen you eat plenty of wonderful foods. Now I realize this is coming from someone who for along time would only eat things, as Jay said so long ago,with a shelf life of 100 yrs!! I remember you being particularly picky but my mom getting you to eat steak and artichokes and that was only the start. I think you have come very far since the days of tantrums over food and I for one am extremely proud!!

Tina said...

Suz, This was so fun to read. I would agree with you that you are not a foodie oaf; however, you have made Tim and I laugh each time you turned up your nose at our home cooking. Granted, our meals can be very unconventional. Ok, weird! Given that game meat is a staple in our diet, many would consider our cooking weird. But the fact that you'll eat Tim's Buffalo Tacos does thrill him. So, for Thanksgiving weekdend do we bring Deer, Duck or Buffalo? HaHa!!