Friday, January 24, 2014

I Need Some Fine Wine, And You, You Need to Just Order!

One of the most noticeable differences between me in my early 20s and me on the cusp of 45 is how specific some my friends have become, especially during meals. I like to think of myself as being pretty easygoing when it comes to food -- if you serve it, I'll probably eat it, even Ramen Noodles, one of the few things I can prepare on my own -- but in that regard, I'm often a party of one.

I remain resolutely a non-foodie. I don't cook. I can't cook... much. It's been at least 20 years since I tried to please anyone in the kitchen with food. I haven't bought table salt, or anything else that would be considered seasoning, in centuries. I've never tasted coffee, so maybe it wouldn't be much of a surprise that I have no idea how to prepare it. And I wouldn't know a "coffee plunger" if I woke up next to one.

That was one of the items on the inventory list for my new Cape Town apartment. Checking things off was particularly challenging because I couldn't identify so many of the appliances by name. Should I know the difference between a "paring knife" and a "peeling knife"? Have I ever seen an "egg lifter," and how does it differ from a regular "lifter"? Are "trivets" those metal things on which you place scalding pots and pans?

I've never baked a chicken in my life, not because I don't know how to shove a bird into the oven but because I wouldn't know how to begin to season it. I've always thought I make the best scrambled eggs in the world, with nothing more than two or three eggs and a little butter, but would anyone else want to eat them? The last person to cook for me, last Sunday morning, made me doubt my breakfast-making skill for the first time by scrambling the eggs he made for us with curry (yum).

There are so many palates. How do I know how much spice is too much, too little, just right? I can pour a killer glass of white wine or mix a vodka tonic that'll please just about anyone, but I've heard enough mixed reviews of the same meal to know better than to try to cater to the wildly divergent tastes of finicky eaters.

Oh, to be a 21-year-old University of Florida journalism major again. Life and lunch was so much easier then. When my friend Maureen and I were UF students in Gainesville, we shared a favorite activity: going out to eat. And we did it often. It was the perfect time to multitask: You could catch up on all of latest while satisfying one of the basic human needs. If you were lucky, as we were one Saturday afternoon when we went to Cafe Gardens for lunch, you might even spot future two-time Oscar nominee Woody Harrelson across the room, heading to the toilet.

Another great thing about going to lunch with friends when we were in our early 20s was that everyone was so easygoing when it came to food. Many of my friends back then were vegetarians (though I didn't eat red meat or chicken, I had to have my scrambled eggs and my fish, especially salmon), yet we never seemed to have any trouble finding menus that were agreeable to everyone. When we took a road trip to New Orleans for Mardi Gras during my senior year, we probably expended more energy on deciding what our next drink would be (and where it would be) than on figuring out what we were having for lunch or dinner. (Obviously, we slept in, right through breakfast.)

Once we were seated, whether in Gainesville, New Orleans or some spring-break destination, there was no haggling over ingredients or talk of allergies and lactose intolerance. Maybe we were still too young to know exactly which foods didn't agree with our bodies. Maybe we were still so poor that we were happy just to be eating out. We devoured pretty much anything that fell within our culinary limits, and we usually loved it. (God, I wonder how those beloved big breakfasts at Skeeters on 13th Street in Gainesville -- half a dozen scrambled eggs, hash browns loaded with ketchup and biscuits the size of volleyballs -- would go over with my friends today.)

I don't know when things changed, but change they did. Somewhere around my late 20s, the ordering stage of group meals started to feel more like contract negotiations. Everyone seemed to have their special non-negotiables, certain things they couldn't eat. "Is this good?" someone would consult the waiter as if one taste fit all. All of the fine print had to be carefully examined and explained before a decision was made.

"Okay, I'll have the Pomeranian beef-filet with juniper turnip cabbage and mushrooms. But hold the cabbage. And the mushrooms. Hell, while you're at it, hold the Pomeranian, too. I don't want to have to sit through a barking dinner."

There was an episode of Sex and the City in which Carrie was having dinner with Berger and Charlotte (who had just ditched her date), and Carrie made an elaborate list of requests when ordering, including the biggie: no parsley. She couldn't just leave it at "no parsley." She had to instruct the waiter to tell the kitchen not to even sprinkle it on the plate ("I'm just really allergic"), and while he was at it, find out if the marinade for the tuna has any parsley in it -- "Because if it does, I should probably change my order." When Berger, frustrated as I was, pointed out that she wasn't even allergic to parsley, their pre-break-up fight ensued. It was the only time I ever understood where Berger was coming from.

It's a good thing he never went out with David, the British guy I dated in Bangkok who had the oddest, most arbitrary food hang-ups. For instance, he could eat tomato sauce and cooked tomatoes, but the idea of putting raw tomato slices into his mouth freaked him out. So did olives, black and white ones. Grapefruit was another no-no. On our first date, I had to drink one of his happy-hour cocktails because the bartender included a splash of grapefruit juice, which he decided didn't agree with his taste buds after our round arrived. On another date, when he ordered a chicken mushroom dish, I jokingly reminded him that he didn't like mushrooms, though he'd never told me anything of the sort.

"Oh, yeah, that's right," he said and called the waiter back. "Will you please hold the mushrooms, too?"

When we broke up, just as he was entering a one-week vegetarian phase, I was relieved, if only because I'd never again have to hear about his dietary restrictions.

I'm not saying that they're never conducive to a happy meal. Now that my best friend Lori is a vegan, she is one of my favorite people to eat with (along with Cara, who knows an excellent grilled-salmon selection when she sees it). Not only is Lori always excellent company, but her switch from vegetarianism to veganism a little more than a year ago has changed everything. Her vow of non-carnivorism and her eschewing of all things dairy mean that once we find a restaurant in which she can eat, her options are so severely limited that there's absolutely no agonizing over the menu.

During the three days I spent with her and her husband in Tuscany last September that meant slight pangs of guilt over my myriad choices, but I'd chose those over the frustration of trying to find a vegetarian restaurant in Bangkok, which as we found out when she visited me there two years ago, can be a bigger challenge than trying to catch a whiff of good air, which, by the way, is an impossible pursuit in Buenos Aires, despite the fact that the name of the city literally means "good airs." The next time Lori and I hang out there, I know a fantastic Asian-run vegetarian restaurant right off the corner of Borges and Paraguay that she'll just love.

It's a cafeteria-style set-up where you walk through with your plastic container and fill it up with whatever catches your appetite. That means it's up to one of the workers to explain what everything is. Last year when I spent seven weeks in BA, I stayed in an apartment right next to the vegetarian restaurant, and not once did I trouble anyone with having to identify what I was adding to my lunch box. As long as it looked edible, I'd pile it in. With the exception of snails, rodents and anything with more than four legs, I'll try anything twice. Trial and error is the spice of life.

Of course, I wasn't about to say anything like that back when I was living in BA, and someone from the U.S. who didn't speak Spanish was in town. I'd often find myself at Green Bamboo or La Cabrera (my first and second favorite restaurants in the city), struggling to translate words on the menu that I'd never bothered to learn because once I re-introduced red meat and chicken back into my menu after 17 years without either, I would eat pretty much anything, even if I didn't know what it was.

Most of my visitors, though, had to know the details of every single ingredient listed. I never really understood this, but like I said, I'm no foodie, and I live to keep it simple. I've always mentally filed main courses under chicken, meat, fish, pasta and salad. It doesn't really matter to me how the chicken is accessorized. I tend to not notice accessories when Best Actress Oscar nominees are wearing them on the red carpet, and I also tend to not notice them when they're in my food.

Had I lived in China when I was 22, my friends would have visited me, and we probably would have ordered from menus entirely in Mandarin, not having any idea what we were getting, and it wouldn't have mattered. As long as they got our drink orders right.

And thank God for drink orders that translate to pretty much the same thing no matter where you are in the world. If you order a "Jack and Coke" in Buenos Aires, in Melbourne, in Bangkok, in Berlin, in Rome, in Tel Aviv and in Cape Town, you'll get pretty much the same thing. And they make the best dinner dates. I never feel like a third wheel when I'm having dinner with Jack and Coke. They'll soak up anything, and give me enough of them, and I'll totally tune out everyone's list of demands. I probably won't remember to ask the waiter to hold the garlic (the one food I'm allergic to) either.

"And what can I get for you sir?"

"Surprise me."

Don't worry. I'll enjoy it now and pay later.
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