I’ve mentioned it before elsewhere, but if you haven’t read it yet, I should tell you that as a child I lived on bread and water. Dry bread, no butter or condiments; water cold but no ice. No, my parents were not cruel, torturous beings, nor did I grow up in unfortunate poverty. Rather, these basics were all I really liked … besides cherry-chip cookies the grocery store gave away free to kids, and cream-filled long johns that my mom used as bribing material to get me to eat a vegetable. So my first trip abroad presented both culinary delights and horrors.
I went to France and Switzerland as part of a French language program the summer that I was 16 with twenty-some other students from around Colorado. You can probably guess the delights … chocolate, pastries, croissants, etc. In truth, the only horrors came while I was staying with a host family as part of the program.
The first was, I firmly believe, intentionally inflicted on me by my host mother who regarded me with some animosity. I doubt she’s a wicked person at heart, but she was sorely disappointed that I’d had only one year of French, when she had been under the distinct impression she would be hosting a more advanced student. She was typically sullen and impatient with me. Fortunately my host siblings spoke very good English and were sympathetic and fun.
But one day I was left alone with Mama for lunch and she asked me what I wanted, providing a list of options, or so I thought. I chose something, though now I cannot recall exactly the conversation; I no longer remember how the verbal foible came about. But the end result was that … keep in mind I had to be bribed with donuts to eat anything remotely green and even then sometimes I forewent the donut … Mama stood at the stove for awhile and then plopped a plate on the table before me. It was full to the brim with nothing but green peas. Petite peas, les petits pois. No bread followed, no lunchmeat or cheese, no nothing. Just peas. I looked up at her forlornly and she returned a devilish smirk.
I picked up my spoon but could not muster the politeness to mutter merci, thank you. To this day, it remains unequivocally the longest meal I have ever had to endure.
The other culinary horror befell me at my host family’s country estate, where we went on holiday one weekend. Extended family were there as well. I’d already made a fool of myself when the elderly uncle started a conversation with me. Nervous about my fledgling language skills, I listened with intense concentration trying to pick out any French words I recognized. In distress I finally admitted, “I’m sorry I don’t understand you, I don’t speak French too well.” He said in exasperation, “But I’m speaking English to you!”
Then it was time for dinner. I was expected to try everything that was passed to me, and when the plates of raw seafood and meat hit my hands, I was in turmoil over what to do as my stomach turned at the thought of eating it. I sucked it up, though, and placed a piece of raw salmon and a piece of raw beef delicately upon my plate and tried to look pleased. The salmon went down surprisingly easy. Encouraged, I stuffed in the piece of beef. Difference is, salmon has no fat, whereas this beef had a terrifically large streak of it through the middle. I chewed and chewed trying to break up this long string of raw fat, but it resisted all attempts of my chomping teeth to penetrate it in any way. Finally, as the whole family watched me, rapt, for my declaration of approval, I decided I just needed to swallow the whole thing at once.
Gulp. Gulp. Gulp again. Panic set it. The string of fat was caught in my throat, half of it sliding down and the other half stuck up top refusing to take the plunge. Swallowing was ineffectual and the fat was provoking that feeling at the back of your throat that triggers the puking response. All eyes were on me as I tried to quell this involuntary response. Mama already hated me, I felt, and barfing all over the dinner table would not help matters. My eyes began to water with the effort of dealing with this situation. Finally I grabbed my glass of wine and chugged it. Probably that wasn’t very couth either, but it actually worked, and the fat string slid on down. I smiled and raised my wine glass in a gesture of cheers. “Delicious!”
I was so proud of myself for swallowing that wretched thing, and an intense wave of relief swept over me at having lived through it without embarrassing my host family. “Bon!” they all cheered. “Have some more!”
As a little postscript, my culinary tolerance has since improved, and I have actually become a fan of carpaccio, raw red meat sliced extremely thinly. In retrospect, I was served just a crude version of carpaccio, simply lacking the finesse of the thinness of slice; instead it was like a hunk of Canadian bacon. Peas … I eat them in fried rice. That’s about it.