You Want Me to Eat What!?!

Warning: the entry you are about to read contains graphic descriptions of human consumption of fish. This subject may not be appropriate for vegetarians, small children, and sea creatures. Reader discretion is advised.


Food occupies a special place in the psyche. Certain foods carry strong associations in our memories, dating back years, decades, and even to our early childhoods. We ascribe certain emotional qualities to food, labeling some “comfort foods,” others “pick-me-ups.” We believe that some foods are imbued with medicinal properties while others have the power of aphrodisiacs.

And there are some foods we just don’t like. No matter how wonderful everyone else proclaims them, no matter how the great chefs of the world prize them, no matter how beautiful they appear to the eye: we ain’t touching them with a ten foot fork. Sorry Charlie, you couldn’t pay us to eat that stuff.

It’s not scientific or predictible. It’s very individualistic. Our mouths know what they like, and what they don’t like. Some foods do magic tricks on the tongue; others might as well be rodent droppings.

And then there is that other category of food dislikes: neophobia. That’s the stuff we think we hate, but have actually never tried.

Psychologists believe that our food prejudices actually outnumber epicurean misgivings of the palate. Cultures that graze from an extremely limited number of food items or that are particularly xenophobic naturally produce a higher number of finicky eaters than more open-minded cultures. In America, where the average person eats food composed of a mere dozen different ingredients per day, children and adults alike are more likely to turn up their noses at an unfamiliar dish than, say, in France (old Europe), where the average daily diet includes not less than thirty major constituents. Hence, Americans traveling abroad often seek out McDonalds hamburgers – familiarly awful in every venue – rather than exploring the local cuisine. And Americans are hardly alone in this.

Which brings us to my mother.

Raised in small-town Kentucky, she was weaned on a diet so bland she would have become white if she had not already been born white. Still, from the time she left home for college, she developed a keen sense of wonderment and a curiosity about the world beyond. When she and my father lived in Europe in the early 1960’s, they took every opportunity to try the local cuisines. They were undaunted by the exoticism of the food and, in fact, intrepidly embraced each new culinary experience as an adventure. (Neophytes will always make mistakes, of course. There is the wonderful story of my father draining a bowl of lemon-scented water after a meal of paella in Barcelona and pronouncing it the perfect palate cleanser – only to learn that it was a finger bowl.)

But it turns out there were limits to my mother’s open-mindedness.

We were always told that she didn’t like sushi; and we always took her at her word. One day, however, upon cross-examination by my sister, her story fell apart. Though she swore up and down that she had tried it on several occasions, it turns out she was unable to name one of them. Funny thing about eating something you detest: you remember it with painful precision. Her story simply didn’t check out.

So we did what any mother-loving children would do. Yoo-Mi, Betsy, and I force-fed her a sushi dinner tonight.

And not just any sushi dinner: the best sushi one can possibly eat outside of Japan and not in a restaurant eponymously named for Matsuhisa Nobuyuki, Vancouver’s fabulous Tojo’s. She started with a sashimi of toro, topped variously with a light ginger paste, finely sliced scallion greens, and some manner of roe and served with a shiso leaf and deeply chilled ribbons of daikon. From the look of abject horror on her face when the dish arrived, you would have thought that we were asking her to eat uranium pellets. Her first approach was cautious. In fact, there was almost a Strangelovean dyspraxia to each bite, with her chopsticks mechanically delivering each morsel to a mouth unwilling to receive it.

But she survived the sashimi, acknowledging that it was delicious as though she could scarcely believe the words were coming from her mouth. Next came a salad of smoked salmon and mussels in a mustard sauce; followed by a rounds of tuna wrapped in nori and lightly tempuraed; then onto a warm smoked black cod with a ragout of black mushrooms and Napa cabbage on the side. She seemed to relax a little with each passing dish, increasingly confident that her children meant her no harm.

The platter of sushi that arrived next set back her confidence a bit. Though the maki were colorful and creative (rolls of crab and avocado, topped in a crimson sheath of smoked salmon; or asparagus and lobster, covered with a slice of scallop and topped with tiny, evanescent, platinum-colored roe), there was no mistaking the o-nigiri for anything other than raw fish (yellow-tail, halibut, sea bass, and tuna) on rice. She ate each offering without comment but, by the end of it, seemed equally satisfied with both the food and her effort.

The meal was crowned with handrolls of lobster, cucumber, and tobiko. By that point, her sushi aversion had been tested and discarded. She pronounced the handrolls spectacular, as indeed they were.

Tenzing, who is no novice when it comes to sushi, contented himself with a bowl of miso shiru, a piece of unagi sushi, and a hunk of smoked black cod. He washed down his meal with apple juice served in a sippy cup, for which Tojo’s did not charge a corkage fee. Afterward, he agreed that the food was good. When asked whether the restaurant was fun, he repeated “funny” several times, as if for emphasis. We consider this a good review, although we suspect our mother found the experience less humorous.

When Yoo-Mi and I were first learning to eat sushi in the late seventies, our friend Eric used to divide the cuisine into two parts: the easy stuff and the tough stuff. There’s no question that tonight my mother started on the easy stuff – and some of the most beautifully prepared easy stuff in North America. But it is no mean feat to overcome a primal fear like ickyfoodphobia.

My mother was a champ tonight. Always is.


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