Thursday, June 04, 2009


Why Eating Out is Like Shark Research

We all have roles we just seem to fall into from our youth, be it the natural leader, the good listener or the born entertainer. One of the earliest roles I assumed was that of the kid who distrusted all the food served at church functions.

Older ladies from all over Henry County, Tennessee would spend hours preparing elaborate dishes for church potluck, only to be met with my furrowed eyebrows as I slowly backed away. This was a great source of consternation to my parents, who found this socially embarrassing and probably wondered if I might lose so much weight as to disappear into our plumbing one night while showering.

Just by looking at certain foods I’d instantly be able to tell that I could never keep them in my mouth long enough to swallow. I could never form a rational argument as to why, though, so I mostly answered with a shake of the head.

“Come on, Rob,” my exasperated parents would say. “You’ll never know unless you try it.”

Perhaps the most common critique of the picky eater like myself is that he or she creates great inconvenience for others. What those offering the criticism can’t seem to understand is the sense of comfort it creates, especially when eating out.

Such situations may be easy to avoid in one’s teen’s years, when one can survive on a diet of dairy, cereal, sweets and sodium even while taking part in sporting activities. However, age tends to result in more social obligations, plus a metabolism that requires actual nutrients.

This is actually a situation picky eaters can thrive in, because we establish early on what foods we like or don’t like. But even now I consider eating out to be a little like doing research into the daily routines of sharks: It’s beneficial, and can even be exhilarating, but it carries undeniable risk.

For us there are few things in life more relieving than to look over a lengthy menu, densely packed with unfamiliar words and spot a single entry one recognizes, be it a hamburger, cheese pizza or spaghetti with conventional tomato sauce. Suddenly, one then recognizes that the chances of his receiving an odd concoction of unfamiliar ingredients that he’ll spend more time scrutinizing than eating has considerably diminished.

But if one feels the need to greatly expand his/her personal menu, the two most effective ways to do it are 1) earnestly seek to try more things at your local restaurants, even in a place like Henry County, Tennessee, or 2) force yourself by choosing to live somewhere very far and very different from your home town.

Living in a place like Korea is especially good, because in a country where you speak none of the native language you get used to having to eat whatever’s in front of you, or at least trying to.

It’s also good because Korean food, which uses a lot of spicy ingredients offers a handy and easily believable excuse should it not be to your liking: All a foreigner has to do is hold his mouth open and start fanning frantically with his hand. You may not know a single word in common, but Koreans recognize this as the universal gesture meaning, “Too spicy!”

In fact, even if you react in such a way while having a dish with no actual spice, such a bowl of plain rice, so generous are the Korean people that they will assume you are really sensitive.

Sooner or later, though, the list of different kinds of foods one is willing to ingest can’t help but grow. Eventually, you’ll find that dishes consisting almost entirely of rice, vegetables and spicy sauce become endearing and you’ll actually start craving them at about the same time every night.

Korea has been globalized to the extent that there is a McDonalds and a Kentucky Fried Chicken (seriously) on practically every block, but Korean food is usually cheaper because it actually costs about a dollar more per serving for major fast food chains to push you one step closer to a coronary embolism.

Another advantage of living in a large metropolitan city such as Seoul, as opposed to Henry County, Tennessee, is that there is a wider variety of foods to try. Chinese and Japanese are quite good, but my preference is Indian because it shares the unique trait with Korean cuisine that I most look for: If eaten too fast, it will deprive you of your ability to taste anything ever again.

Hot, spicy Indian and Korean cuisine is not just the kind of thing you taste; it’s the kind of thing you overcome.

I will always remain somewhat of a picky eater, always refusing to eat a dish with more than two ingredients I can’t instantly recognize. Few things, though are more rewarding than knowing that you’ve grown closer to someone just by trying a food from their native land. In addition to relationship you foster, you may bring a new taste into your life that you’ll not only enjoy, but get to lord over your family when they come to visit.

“Come on guys,” you may say deviously to your skeptical parents with furrowed eyebrows, “you’ll never know unless you try it.”

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