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Remedial Education for the Palate

A few nights ago, Elaine and I, along with two friends, drove to a restaurant in the heart of South Philly, an area filled with exotic and enticing eateries. This particular establishment had received rave reviews from critics in local newspapers, and their comments had clearly resonated with my companions. The conversation in the car was thick as stuffed cabbage with anticipation. Discussion ricocheted from one recommended dish to another. I, conversely, was silent, a listener, a total non-participant.

Generally, most subjects that stir animated discussion among family and friends tend to inspire my two-cents worth. I’m not, I admit, hesitant about offering opinions, however limited the expertise behind them may be. Whether the topic be sports, literature, theater--anything I have even a passing interest in, I regard it as my obligation to offer some sort of uncompromising analysis, the kind that strongly implies no sane person could possibly disagree with me. I wonder, sometimes, why I find it easy to see so clearly pathways to perfection for those under my scrutiny when my own GPS long ago conked out in that quest. I guess I was born to be a reactor, not an actor.

Where dining out is concerned, however, I’m aware of being overmatched, completely out of my league when informed discussion takes place. I’d rather read want-ads than salivate over food reviews. But the people with me in the car, I fully understood, are certified lifetime “foodies,” sensitive to the slightest subtleties of preparation and flavor. My taste buds, in contrast, never really managed to blossom. The reason for this deficiency, I understand, is that I was reared in a busy household where food was intended to propel life rather than enhance it. Consuming it rather than evaluating its aesthetic qualities defined our relationship with what was on the plate. Therefore, reasonably palatable as our dinners were, they weren’t topics for post-meal discussion. I simply and dutifully ate what was before me, with only one exception. I found Friday night’s traditional boiled chicken (an incomprehensible custom of long standing in my mother’s family) thoroughly unenticing, a judgement I preferred not to share with those around me. So I usually managed to sneak most of it under the dining-room table to our impatient, arm-nudging Doberman, who didn’t share my antipathy to the dish.

At this point in my food journey, while I usually make a sincere effort to enjoy what I’m told is really good food, eating it doesn’t send me into ecstasies. My restaurant preferences are relatively unspecial, confined to places that feature attractive salads and rich, aromatic soups, establishments like the Olive Garden and its kin. To be worthy of my praise, food must be served in respectable portions and it must taste “good,” which, with few exceptions, is my supreme compliment. Sometimes, when I’m especially satisfied, I embellish this modest praise with “quite” or “very.” And there have been exceedingly rare occasions when I’ve actually enthused that something I just consumed with relish (not a hot dog, smart guy!) was “delicious.” At least I think that actually happened once or twice, but it may be something I’d just like to believe.

I know my culinary limitations, so for me to evaluate imaginatively-prepared food would be presumptuous, almost like a first-grade scribbler critiquing the Mona Lisa.

Concerning the chew-savor-swallow gang, I do have one reservation (something not required at restaurants of my choice): while I respect true foodies for possessing taste talents that I lack, I think some of them are pretty gullible, particularly those who swoon at the mention of what are snootily advertised as “small plates.” The tininess of these pretentiously labeled “presentations” is flaunted as a virtue, I assume, to imply they are so obscenely delicious, that to try satiating one’s hunger with them would be unforgivably sinful. Even a miniscule portion, the logic suggests, should be sufficient introduction to something so edibly exquisite. As a bonus, of course, the experience may provide something brag-worthy for the next restaurant discussion with fellow mavens who have yet to experience that particular taste of paradise. There’s no denying that foodie-ism is also, inherently, a competitive sport, with prestige earned by the first one to salivate in previously unexplored territory.

I make no secret of my skepticism about those dwarf plates. In addition to their blatant appeal to snobbism, it doesn’t escape me that the smaller the portion, the larger the restaurant’s take. I guess enjoying the fruits of maximum profit is also a craving that requires satisfaction.

To their credit, my dining companions never condescend to my rookie status as a “foodie.” I haven’t observed one eye roll or lip curl yet. They see their mission as helping me cultivate informed aesthetic responses that good food deserves. Because their intentions are unfailingly good, I accept their coaching, even though I’m doubtful of ever ascending their stairways to paradise.

Still, I try to encourage myself by remembering some rare time when I actually did profit from guidance relative to deliciousness. Once, while traveling, I attended a social hour where I was about to pass up an offered drink. Someone suggested I should at least take a sip of what turned out to be limoncello, promising, “You won’t be sorry.” If ever there was a promise kept, that was it. It still provides some hope that I’m not completely close-minded to new food experiences. Actually, thinking broadly about my food consumption habits, I don’t deliberately resist new food experiences. Reacting to most things that claim my attention and require response, I consider myself to be a cautious realist. My digestive system doesn’t gear up automatically at the drop of a favorable adjective applied to a dish I’ve never tasted. I don’t unquestioningly assume the food will inevitably live up to the praise applied to it. My caution, I realize, discourages my “gee whiz” and “wow” reactions to novelty. My “prove it” approach, unfortunately, limits prospects for the honorific “foodie” ever being applied to me, except with a knowing laugh.

Early on, I was somewhat resentful of those attempting to lead me into the promised kitchen. Some, I thought, were braggarts, intent on inspiring admiration from others who lacked their sophisticated gifts and, therefore, deeply envying them. As time went on and I was exposed to greater numbers of the food-fluent. I realized, in most cases, I was wrong. What should have been an obvious comparison dawned on me. I re-visited the time when I was the cajoler, not the cajolee. When I was a teacher, I wanted very much for my students to understand and appreciate the many ways that insights into good literature and mastery of techniques that foster good writing can illuminate otherwise obscure corners of life. Only after I was away from teaching for a while, I realized that what I had been doing for those many years was not simply engaging in a profession. I truly believed in what I was teaching. I was a curriculum zealot. I now see my food mentors in that light. What I misinterpreted as generalized flaunting of a particular ability was the sincere wish to share with another person something that had enriched their lives. Their actions were the opposite of ego-driven; they wanted strongly to share some of life’s goodness, both figurative and literal.

Of course, reality has a habit of intruding; obviously, not all campaigns end in victory. Some of my “I wish it had been different” memories of those classroom years center on students who did poorly not because they lacked ability but because they lacked self-confidence. In their destructive thinking, it was better to fail as a result of insufficient effort than to try and then, possibly, be revealed as not smart enough to do the work. Those students were works in progress who just didn’t progress. Now, in an evolutionary situation myself, I come with no guarantee that I’ll be transformed into even a respectable semi-foodie, that I’ll rebuff the charms of Olive Gardens beckoning as I pass. Nevertheless, I’ll try harder in the future to fulfill the hopes my friends have for me, provided they don’t try conditioning me to crave those stupid small plates.

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