Okay, this is a thing that happens: You sit down to a nice meal, either at home or abroad, take a forkful of the fare in front of you, and something about it doesn’t seem quite right. It’s got a little “twang” to it, as my husband Jim’s Southern grandmother used to say. Mind you, this food item in question doesn’t necessarily have the stink of rot to it, nor is it a totally weird color of green, like Oscar’s sandwiches in The Odd Couple (“very new cheese or very old meat”). It just tastes a little . . . well, off.
My first reaction? Get someone else to taste it, too. Nothing like a little consensual validation at mealtime, I always say.
I don’t remember the first time I asked Jim to taste something of mine that wasn’t setting well with me, but I remember him being compliant – at first. He’d lean across and take the offered morsel, taste test it, and at least go through the motions of giving me honest feedback. Now, after decades of being the Queen’s Taster, he’s a little tired of the role: “Send it back – what makes you think I want the memory of that skanky fish in my mouth.”
As you might guess, my daughter, Yao Yao, now does the same thing. She considers herself a non-meat eater, although she doesn’t think of herself as a vegetarian either. The truth is, she simply doesn’t like most steak and all lamb, but is cool with just about everything else. For her, it’s not so much taste as texture: It’s more like, “This chicken has wobbly bits,” or “Dad, you said this steak wouldn’t be chewy!” Bacon must be super-crisp – almost burnt – and never, ever “fwobby.”
And whereas most kids can’t abide chicken with a fancy sauce on it, Yao Yao won’t eat any chicken without one.
Now, anyone who knows me knows I am a bit . . . well, I like to think of it as “structured.” During the week I tend to eat the same thing over and over again, week in and week out. Jim used to do most of the cooking when he was freelancing at home – he’d watch Molto Mario at 3:00 and then run to the grocery store and make that very meal that night. For himself, that is. At the time, I was eating nothing but salmon with Busha Browne’s bottled jerk sauce. To this day, Jim can’t bring himself to sniff an open jar of the stuff – much less taste it.
I still love salmon and could and can eat it four or five times a week. I go to a local fish store and buy one-third of a pound of organic Scottish salmon, and have it with either sautéed Brussels sprouts, a mixed arugula salad, or some other vegetable, almost every night. Even though we purchase our fish from a local fishmonger, not a grocery store, there are still nights that the fish just doesn’t taste right. Ergo, the following
“Taste this. It tastes funny.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, I’m not going to taste anything that doesn’t taste good!”
“Come on. Pretty please? Just one bite?”
“Why would I do that? What are you going to do with that information? Why is it so damned important for me to tell you what you already know?
We go like that for a few more minutes, and I know if I keep him talking, keep him on the string, he’ll come around eventually.
Now, I believe this all began when I was a child. I come from a relatively large family, and my mother was an unusually skilled and adventurous cook – but she had no sense of smell. This occasionally resulted in sour milk being served with our breakfast cereal. My siblings and I often tried to get each other to taste it, with much hilarity, and much to the irritation of my mother. But today, I won’t try anything that’s even within shouting distance of the sell-by date.
This is a particular problem in Third World countries like Myanmar. In Mandalay, we visited a Buddhist monastery, and the lay people who worked in the kitchen invited us to join them for their simple lunch. Jim settled in and began ladling some chicken curry onto his plate, not realizing till later that he had used the “communal spoon” to serve himself. (Everybody else would take a bite using the spoon, then return it to the bowl.) We’re not certain this was the cause of Jim’s two-day bout of food poisoning, but he wasn’t tasting anything for me, or anyone else, for a while.
A few days later, after an all-day boat trip downriver to the city of Bagan, I might have oversold a little local eatery to both Jim and Yao Yao. Jim was still a little shaky, and the feral dogs roaming outside the premises might have been the first clue as to food quality. Jim went with the fried chicken, thinking this would be the blandest thing he could order. I opted for the vegetable curry, which was the exact same thing as the vegetable soup, only with more vegetables added later. Yao Yao ordered a chicken curry, and when the bowl arrived, she pushed the gray, milky substance around for a while, her face twisted in concern, shoveled a big forkful at Jim, and asked, “Hey, Dad, does this taste funny to you?” Jim, ever the dutiful father, turned white as a sheet but tasted it, declaring, “Yep, it sure as heck does.”
At the end of the meal, Jim left a few pieces of chicken on the serving plate. When the table next to us ordered chicken, the waiter moved our leftover chicken to their table and added a few other pieces to make a full order.
Jim’s tasting days, on this trip, were officially over.