"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.
Foie de Lotte
(raw monkfish liver)
sprinkled with sea salt
Patta Negra Bellota
whose fat and flesh melt sequentially
at La Crèmerie.
Perdreau rouge avec champignons à la forestière et chaîtagnes
(red partidge with wild forest mushrooms and chestnuts)
at Chez Michel.
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.