Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Brain Food

"Chicken or pork?" said the flight attendant, and I couldn't help thinking that she reminded me of someone.

"Pork," I replied, and then realized the connection. I saw Inland Empire last week, and it's been bubbling up like indigestion ever since.

The pretty girl with the Polish accent was, through the Lynch lens, now a prostitute. And the meal that she placed before me was suddenly sinister.

What exactly was it?

Spaghetti, ostensibly, drenched in red with fleshy bits. Bits that glistened beneath their blanket of melted cheese. I eyed the mass warily, poking at what were possibly the remains of some passenger. That woman, perhaps, who was protesting the new liquid regulations?

I closed my eyes, willed myself out of the labyrinth, and took a bite. It was, in reality, the most innocuous meal in the world. Here before me was the Midwestern culinary trinity: a mildly tangy tomato sauce, some delicately sweet browned meat, and melted cheese.

Various permutations of this had sustained me during childhood - a period in which I was "allergic" to nearly everything. Cheeseburgers, pizza, and enchiladas - these were the building blocks of my youth. I consumed more ground beef and defrosted cheddar in those years than have been seen in whole regions of China.

This continued until 1995, the year in which I moved to Arizona. At twenty I was running away from Kansas, leaving a burnt-out apartment and everything else behind. "Everything else" included the university, my family, and eventually my food phobias.

I got a job in a bookstore in the college town of Tempe. I spent lunch breaks behind the shop in an enclosed garden that tinkled with the sound of running water. I devoured books and, after some time, the exotic offerings of a Lebanese food cart.

This practice wasn't immediate. In my first few weeks on the job, I'd been trekking to Carl's Junior to retrieve my lunch. It turns out, though, that a sourdough bacon melt isn't the best thing to be eating in 120 degree heat. My co-workers seemed to be enjoying themselves in the garden, but that food?

I still remember, more vividly than my memory of first sex, sitting alone one afternoon and contemplating tabbouleh. "This is a bite of onion," I told myself. "This is what it feels like on your teeth. Is it really so disgusting?"

It took nearly an hour to work my way through that salad. There were so many elements that were foreign to my protected palate. Raw tomato (I know). Parsley and garlic. Lemon, for God's sake.

My orientation to food, following that tabboul-ephiphany, began to change. But the transformation was anything but rapid. I added new foods slowly, painfully, and because it was "good for me." It felt more like homework than pleasure.


It would be years before I'd eat my first fresh fish. A taste for sushi arrived only with the millenium. And my first brain, well, that was only last week.

I sampled brain recently at Le Midi-Vins in the 6th. Lamb's brain, to be precise, sautéed and sprinkled with toasted almonds. Andreia, whose dish it was, pointed perplexedly to a jiggly bit at the base. The lessons of high school anatomy came flooding back to me. "The cerebellum," I nodded, and described its role in motor functions. I avoided that nubbin, but was not disgusted to bite into the rest.

It's no big deal, I suppose, for a frenchman raised on offal. But for Le Meg, raised on Le Mac (and cheese), this is something of a triumph. Had I held to the bizarro food convictions of my youth, I would have missed out on the following pleasures in January:

Foie de Lotte

(raw monkfish liver)

sprinkled with sea salt

at Ploum.

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Patta Negra Bellota

(Spanish ham)

whose fat and flesh melt sequentially

at La Crèmerie.

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Perdreau rouge avec champignons à la forestière et chaîtagnes

(red partidge with wild forest mushrooms and chestnuts)

at Chez Michel.

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Is this bragging? Vulgar boasting about my gastronomic triumphs? You bet your sweet oxtail it is. But it's also a call to all you food neurotics out there to please and finally get over yourselves.

You are strong enough to eat better than you do.

It's simply mind over (grey) matter.

Bon appétit!

10 comments:

amy said...

Meg, what an inspiring entry. I'm a huge believer in the value of acquired tastes, and I find it terribly sad how many people have psyched themselves out of some of the greatest sensory pleasures of human experience. It's far more socially acceptable, but to my mind it's just as neurotic as avoiding sex because it sounds "icky".

I haven't tried brains since I was a teenager, and I wasn't a huge fan. But this post has inspired me to give it another go -- a pleasure that must be worked for is all the sweeter for it.

Edvard Moonke said...

As a frustrated food-loving Brazilian living in the north of England, this post certainly strikes a chord. I've cooked for Yorkshire friends who refused to eat it because I was 'daring' enough to put olives in it.

Last year we stayed in a farmhouse in Umbria with its own restaurant actively engaged in the slow food movement.

The first starter arrived at 8 and the pudim at 11.30. No menu, 8 courses, the sort of meals that made you feel that perhaps the world isn't such a bad place after all.

P.S. I could attack any of the above dishes right now.

Alice said...

I often find myself rattling on about the fact that there are so many more things I eat NOW than I would years ago, and how I really enjoy them... And I'm CONVINCED that it has a lot to do with my having lived in France off and on for the last 10 years. When I was much younger, there were so many things I wouldn't touch with a ten-foot pole, stuck in my rut and my American habits. And when I first arrived in France, I wouldn't get anywhere near offal, much less other exotic foods (from even farther-flung foreign locales) like couscous and sushi...

Now, ironically enough, I'm a fan of both of these and much more...!

I agree that so many things are an acquired taste, and sometimes it just takes a little patience, persistence -- and perhaps even a bit of risk... We only live once, after all, and food is just so much FUN!

Le Mal Du Pays said...

Meg-I absolutely love your blog. I am an ocean away from the land I love, where you currently reside, and I can't tell if reading your entries is exacerbating my mal du pays or if it brings a small reprieve. Thanks for the anecdotes and life tidbits.

Bennett said...

Well Meg, I just discovered that you were a food "post-American". We're having rabbit tonight. Raw horse meat in a couple of days, quails are often on the table, just as deer (fresh meat or salami), lamb liver... and other meaty delicacies.
You're free to chose any of the above, pick up a date and come over for dinner. Serious.

Linda said...

I had my first ephinany when I finally had shrimp and snow peas at a chinese restaurant-I was in college. It was like, "Where have you been all my life?" My gastronomic horizons spread even further when I moved to France. Now I get it-this is why fois gras, champagne, fill in the blank, is so famous--because it tastes so fabulous. But you know what? I can't get my French husband to eat coconut, bananas, pinapple or things with cinnamon, yet he will sit down and eat veal brain. I guess it's what you are used to.

Aubrey said...

I've also slowly been expanding my food tastes. I like you, remember my first sushi moment. I made reservations at a French restaurant in America for Valentines Day, where they serve rabbit. Rabbit!!?? Well, I'm inspired by your post, just in time, to keep experimenting. I'm not to the brain level yet, but maybe some day!

wendy said...

Great post!

Kirsty said...

Hello lovely. I adore brains, absolutely adore them. I went to a restaurant in London called St John on Friday night that specialises in offal and was in heaven. Hope to see you Sat week xx

Chrisos said...

Hi Meg,

Nice to hear that it's Lebanese cuisine that released your interest in food and cuisine!
If you like offals in Paris, you should try Ribouldingue http://scope.chrisos.com/diner-au-ribouldingue-57/.

From 11 to 20/21, I decided that I disliked fish and seafood, and haven't ate any for ages. During a week end at La Rochelle, where the only food was fish and seafood, I had to quit my fish-less habits to avoid starvation ;).

Now I can eat almost everything, but I avoid rabbit, having had a pet rabbit when I was younger.

I love raw meat in general (tartares and co) and especially sheep or goat liver (another great Lebanese specialty)!