Monday, September 8, 2014

Broccoli, Caesar, and Sex

The following autobiographical essay is completely true.

Well, okay, it's mostly true.


Something like this almost happened to I guy I knew.

Broccoli, Caesar, and Sex

Many of us have clear memories of the first time we tried, say, sushi. Or Key lime pie. Or haggis. But these are the exceptions to the rule. Normally, one’s taste in food changes slowly, like the hands of a Swiss-made watch.

When we’re young, for example, the only acceptable condiment for a hot dog is ketchup. Then, sometime in our early teens, our palate starts to accept yellow mustard. Then onions. Then pickle relish. Until, by the our mid-twenties, hot dogs just aren’t enough anymore, and we find ourselves topping home-grilled bratwurst with spicy brown mustard and heaps of sauerkraut. Or jalapeƱos.

Or, that one time in Las Vegas, pastrami.

At least, that was my experience. The switch from plain old ketchupped hot dogs to steaming loaded German sausages happened slowly and imperceptibly. And that’s how I think it is with developing a taste for most foods, from Japanese potstickers to Polish pierogies.

But occasionally, one adds a food to one’s culinary repertoire suddenly and forcefully. Take, for example, the story of how Caesar salad and broccoli entered my gustatory field of vision:

I had successfully spent two decades hating both broccoli and salad — salad in general, much less some ancient Roman version — before I made the switch, and that switch came, as monumental shifts in a man’s personality often do, because of a woman.

Let’s call her Elsa.

When I first met Elsa, I was a 20-year-old college student passing the summer before my junior year in a ramshackle house on the edge of campus. She was a 23-year-old senior who looked like a TV star — which is similar to looking like a movie star, but without all the glamour and ego. She was a friend of one of my housemates, and stopped by often to go bar hopping, complain about summer classes, or smoke weed. Sometimes all three.

We fell into a romantic relationship the way a 10-year-old boy who’s afraid of the water falls into a swimming pool after being pushed by his older, meaner brother. She was smart, confident and beautiful; I was introverted, lonely, and aimless. I was smitten and enthralled, and she was gentle and understanding. I was willing putty in her hands. It was the perfect recipe for a wonderful, if short-lived, relationship.

As new couples are wont to do, we enjoyed doing things for one another. I wrote her a poem, for example, and she bought us a bottle of cheap vodka. She stayed with me when I dropped acid, and I helped her fold her laundry.

One night, she decided she wanted to prepare us a romantic, home-cooked dinner. Something from scratch. She asked me what kind of foods I liked.

“I’m not picky,” I told her.

It was the truth, or what I thought was the truth. I wouldn’t recognize until much later, after I had eaten my way through larger regions of the world’s culinary landscape, how small my palate really was back then.

But at the time, I loved food and I loved her and so the thought of turning her down never even entered my mind. The possibility that she could be a horrible cook — that I might find a plate of unidentifiable lumps of meat smothered in gravy the color of wet newspaper — had crossed my mind, but the promise of a “dessert” that most surely waited for me sometime after we finished the ice cream gave me the resolve to eat whatever monstrosity she put in front of me.

Or so I hoped.

The evening of the dinner came, an overcast but dry Saturday. She had already begun preparing the meal when I knocked on her door. She refused my help in the kitchen but asked me to light the romantic candles and pop open the bottle of red wine that I didn’t know from vinegar. I asked her what wonderful meal she was preparing for us, and she said our romantic dinner would begin with a Caesar salad.

I had never tried Caesar salad before and knew only a few things about it. I knew it used a different kind of lettuce than the nutrition-free iceberg lettuce I was used to. I knew it used a special, creamy kind of dressing, which was worrisome to me. Whenever I ate salad, which was as seldom as possible, I preferred an oil-based dressing.

I had to find out what I was getting myself into. So while Elsa made her final preparations, I surreptitiously peeked at the ingredients on that evil green bottle of semen-colored dressing that threatened to defile my salad.

Its main ingredient, I discovered, was something called anchovy paste.

My stomach shrank three sizes.

I hated seafood back then, and anchovies were the worst. I had never actually eaten any before, but they had always been there as that “joke” ingredient adults threatened to ruin an otherwise perfect pepperoni pizza with.

And paste? I had heard tales of children — intellectually slow ones, mostly — eating paste, but I had never done it. And I certainly never expected it to be a part of adult cuisine.

Nonetheless, I resolved that I would power through this meal. The possible reward was too great to back out.

I took my place at the table. Elsa swooped in and placed two bowls of Caesar salad on the table. Then she sat down across from me, poured herself a glass of wine, and smiled.

At that moment, I recognized the salad for what it was — not a moderately healthy and delicious appetizer, but a test of my devotion to her. I was Orpheus, she was Eurydice. If I managed without looking back to keep down the weird, crunchy lettuce, the hard croutons that tried with every bite to shred my gums, and, most importantly, the fishy glue that held it all together, happiness waited for Elsa and me on the other side.

So, without complaint or hesitation, I pushed the first forkful of fresh Hell into my mouth and chewed.

What you and I know now is that Caesar salad is neither disgusting nor named for a famous Roman murder victim. The salad’s creator was the eponymous Caesar Cardini, an Italian immigrant who, legend has it, faced an ingredient shortage at his restaurant and created the salad on the fly with what he had on hand. This was sometime in the mid-1920s, when restaurants never ran out of anchovies because, as today, nobody ever actually ate them.

I learned both those things over salad that night.

After the salad came the main course: Chicken breast, plainly prepared; homemade mashed potatoes with fresh thyme pulled from her herb garden; and steamed broccoli.

My trial, it seemed, was not over.

Chicken breast and mashed potatoes I could eat all day every day, but broccoli? Steamed broccoli?

Throughout my life, broccoli had been little more than “those little green trees” that I did not eat. I grew up not liking broccoli in a family that didn’t like broccoli. In twenty years of living, never had I knowingly ordered a restaurant meal that had broccoli in it, on it, or with it. Never had I faced a mound of those foul things on a dinner plate. Never had I been forced to sit at the kitchen table until every last crunchy branch of broccoli, warm or cold, was eaten — a tactic I have heard some parents use on their children.

I hated broccoli.

And this was steamed, which meant it was not fully cooked. What few vegetables I had grown up with had begun life in plastic bags we kept in the freezer, and by the time they reached my plate, they were tasteless green things the consistency of a damp sponge.

My childhood, it seems, had left me with a skewed view of what vegetables really are. But I didn’t know that when I was faced with a healthy serving of Elsa’s crunchy little trees that, unfortunately, had slid far enough to one side of the plate to mix with the mashed potatoes.

I wondered if she would believe that I had stuffed myself with too much Caesar salad to eat any more. I looked around for a dog I could surreptitiously feed my broccoli to under the table, but he had been relegated to the backyard. I was trapped.

Elsa dug right into the flora on her plate. Every glance in my direction was fraught with expectation, always on the verge of disappointment or offense. That’s how it looked to me, anyway, as I enjoyed the dry chicken and buttery mashed potatoes as if they were the only foods in front of me.

What we talked about I don’t remember, but it was distinctly not about my untouched broccoli, looking ever more obvious as its neighbors disappeared by the forkful down my throat. She adamantly avoided mentioning my broccoli. Each non-mention of the broccoli was passive-aggressive paralipsis aimed at reminding me that I wasn’t eating my broccoli. She was relentless about not talking about my broccoli.

Eventually, just to stop her nagging, I speared one (just a little one) with a fork and lifted it to my lips.

It was uncomfortably crunchy, and it needed salt. Not a whole pillar of it, mind you, but a dash to make it more edible. She ceased her incessant deflecting, then, and asked me how it was.

“It’s good,” I lied.

It would take a few more broccoli side dishes over the course of months before I developed a true taste for it, but today it stands as one of my least-hated vegetables.

We men will do strange things both for women and because of them. Sometimes they’re positive experiences, like eating one’s vegetables, writing a sonnet, or learning Esperanto. But all too often they’re horrible decisions that don’t reveal their true ghastliness until years have passed and we can read the situation with more clarity and objectivity. By then it’s too late, of course.

Eating common vegetables certainly isn’t the most outlandish thing I’ve done in hopes of winning a woman’s attention. In fact, it’s probably one of the least embarrassing. Nothing close to my first time eating sushi.

Your turn: What improvement have you made in your life that might never have happened if you weren't trying to impress someone else?