I recently had a run-in with a sweetbread and decided it was offal.
Stop looking at me funny. That was a pun.
We were ordering dinner at a restaurant celebrated for its way with food and opted for the “tasting menu.” Before a crumb of bread would be served, a decision was required of us, a decision that is a fork in the road, if you consider dining out a voyage. We were required to make a decision — admittedly with a gulp of saliva that trickled its way downwards, dripping with a gloop of worry into the pit of our stomachs where it then settled with a chill — that yes, we were adventurous diners.
When talking about taste, the term adventurous is relative.
It has much to do with where you were raised, who was responsible for the food preparation while doing that raising and how many trips to the darkest of Peru the raisers escorted you on for vacations. It also, as Frank Bruni pointed out in the New York Times, depends upon your level of food maturity and to what lengths you have experimented with foodstuffs as you aged. Tasting a new dish is half the battle; the other half is an open mind.
We are raw oyster slurpers, sashimi fish nibblers and beef tartare gobblers (wobbling raw egg included). I will take a dare, IF that dare has something to do with eating. My daughter-in-law recently challenged me to join her for a Nuclear spicy fire noodle Eat-a-Thon when they visit over Christmas.
So we were okay with the “adventurous of palate” description.
That means we didn’t provide the waitress with a list of “maybe’s” — those menu items you skim over with a shrug and a “No, thank you.” Because, face it. You only go around once in life and a meal isn’t typically a last supper in the sense that you’re confined to a cell and have an early morning date with the man in black.
Although, considerations like that do create another qualm of worry: what if those sweetbreads you supped upon were slated to be your last? Mightn’t there be a layer of residual disappointment in those last breaths, knowing the most recent taste to pass your lips was offal? What if you had been craving fiery hot Cheetos and you didn’t get them before, well, you know. . .
Even so, we tucked in our napkins and corralled our minds, convinced that (1) the restaurant serving the offal had experience handling oft-discarded animal parts; and (2) a skilled restaurant would be unlikely to offer awful offal to its patrons, knowing that they may never return. A situation like that could make for many empty seats in the establishment.
But before I took a bite, I realized there is a much larger question here. Taste is all about perception.
Do we taste what we anticipate or do we taste what is experienced? Is it situational? Is it driven by hunger or curiosity? And which do we savor more in the long run, the brief ride over the taste buds or the memory of what we convinced ourselves we tasted while engaged in the process.
My friend Heather had a similar experience related to burrito disappointment.
She stopped by a Mexican food drive-through one day because she was craving a spicy bean-and-cheese burrito. She was particularly anticipating the green chile. It was the only reason why she left work at lunchtime. Cravings will do that to a person.
Unfortunately, Heather had bad spice Karma that day because she was handed someone else’s burrito order, one without green chile. To some, this might be considered a travesty, and yet Heather understood people do make mistakes. Green chile failure happens.
She went on her not-so-merry way, observing that the green-chile-deprived burrito was a bland disappointment of bean and cheese. But Heather, who tends to have a philosophical bent, believes, “Taste is often heavily influenced by expectations.” She says that when she’s in the mood for a certain food, it’ll taste all that much better when she gets it. And if she can’t or doesn’t get what she craves, “The unmet desire can make perfectly great other food seem vaguely disappointing, even if I would, under normal, not-craving-some-other-food-sort-of-situation, like that other food equally as well.”
However, if she were starving and someone handed her a bean-and-cheese burrito with no green chile, she admits it would be the best damned bean-and-cheese burrito she’d ever tasted. Hunger has a way of playing with your mind.
But back to the sweetbreads — those glandular nuggets of thymus.
They weren’t awful. In fact, they were fantastic. Creamy and slightly sweet, the meat was tender and moist with none of the aftertaste some organ meats will have. I wondered if the sweetbreads tasted good because of the name — how could anything related to sweetness and bread create a bad impression? Or was it that element of trust we had in the restaurant’s skill? I’m not sure what I expected to taste before that first bite. There were certain expectations. There was the expectation of excellence and the expectation that we were jumping off the cliff into a culinary adventure. The perception was a combination of factors where all of it weighed in to create the whole, the balance hanging favorably for experimenting.
I’m not sure I’ll be able to say the same for the Nuclear spicy fire noodle challenge. I’ll get back to you on that one.
Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @EmFeedsYou . Life inspired. Vodka tempered.
Interested in reading Emily’s new award-winning novel, Drinking the Knock Water: A New Age Pilgrimage? Find it on Amazon and in Indie bookstores.
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