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Unplugged: 5 UNdocumented Meals

February 11, 2011

Announcement: this blog is going to be SILENT from 6 PM tonight to 6 PM tomorrow.

Tonight, I’m unplugging. Yes, this program is Shabbat-oriented, but you really don’t have to be Jewish to do it. We all know technology controls us (always a comforting thought). And as much as I love the joys of blogging, there are definitely times where I just. Don’t. Want. To. Do. It. (But I do– this is how much I love you guys)

So in the spirit of the National Day of Unplugging, I’d like to share some meals and dishes that never made it on to this blog. Why? Because I never took a photo. I never wrote anything down. Their only documentation is in my head. I actually wrote an essay on this once, but it is nearly impossible to document taste– what you think of as remembering taste is really smell, touch, your surroundings… In order to remember what something tastes like, you really have to put it in context. Where was it eaten, and how did you feel eating it? Who were you with? How did you feel before you took the first bite/sip, and after you were finally satiated?

Writing and photography are currently the only way we can preserve food in our memories, and yet it remains maddeningly frustrating that we will never succeed. Blogging is my way of bringing food to you, but it really doesn’t change the way I feel about it. I can envision the dishes I’m about to mention just as well as what I ate this week, practically taste them on my tongue– but not quite.

Taste is elusive. It defies technology, even if we don’t.

Octopus Gourmet’s Top 5 UNdocumented Meals:

(Surprisingly, none of these are in China, which is what would first come to mind)

1. Strawberry milkshake in Costa Rica when I was nine. I was, believe it or not, the pickiest eater in the world, subsisting mainly on a diet of McDonalds and dumpling wrappers (I discarded the filling). The detour our mini tour bus made is still vivid in my memory. We had stopped at a tiny local shack, hardly even a restaurant, where without requesting anything, we were presented with glasses filled with a concoction of the palest pink. It was a milkshake, but not in the traditional sense. There was no ice cream– only the freshest, sweetest strawberries you will ever had, whirred quickly in the blender with creamy whole milk.

2. Vegetarian tagine in Montmartre in 2008. I did, in fact, return to the same restaurant and order the same dish, but good as it tasted, the magic had dissipated. My friend and I were lost and hungry. What looked deceptively small from the outside turned out to be the most comforting little Moroccan restaurant. First, there was mint tea, poured from a copper teapot with a long spout like a watering can. We sipped the steaming liquid in little shot glasses guilded with flower designs. The tea was almost too sweet, but the mint was cold, sending chills down my esophagus while the heat of the drink burned my chest. The tagines were next—served in clay pots, there were carrots, olives, zucchini, and preserved lemons. We ate in silence, letting our taste buds govern our minds, and occasionally we would find a dried apricot or fig, like buried treasure. The couscous had none of the metallic taste of the boxed kinds—the grains were fluffy, almost dissolving on our tongues. The meal, like the couscous, was too elusive. The ghost of the flavor lingered in my mouth, then disappeared as quickly as it had come.

3. Local stir-fried noodles in Shanxi province. I don’t particularly like noodles, but Shanxi is known for them. After a long morning of archaeological exploration, my parents and I stopped at a small courtyard house. There was elderly man, maybe in his sixties, who let us sit down. I don’t even remember if he was a complete stranger or not. What I do remember is the air, which was heady with the smell of ginger crisping in hot peanut oil. “Are you hungry?” He asked us. We were. A woman was turning out plates of chewy wheat noodles interwoven with tender napa cabbage. I slurped and chewed those noodles like I hadn’t eaten in days.

4. Butternut Squash and Apple soup with Pheasant at Blackbird in Chicago. I had finally overcome my phobias and become a die-hard foodie. I was also going through my fancy restaurant phase. That being said, I ordered this soup on three different occasions, it was that good. Squash and apple puree, without the unnecessary addition of cream, was sweet and velvety, but aggressively studded with house-made croutons and shreds of earthy pheasant.

5. Finally, salmon sashimi at Ajihei in Princeton, of all places. I was going from New York to Princeton with my cousin, and we had been given generous cab fare from our grandma. We didn’t end up taking a cab, so that money got added to the sushi fund. The restaurant is one of those places that is literally never open and located below street level. Everything we ordered was incredible– spider and salmon skin rolls were little bundles of crisp nirvana and silky avocado– but it was at Ajihei that I had the best salmon sashimi of my life. It was so marbled with fat as to be nearly stripey, so creamy chewing was unnecessary.

I realize that most people skim over wordy posts, which is why I do my best to avoid them. But I think we underestimate the power of words, which in many ways allow us to experience taste far better than a camera would.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. squigglefloey permalink
    February 11, 2011 8:56 pm

    Today is National Unplugging Day? I had no idea!
    Anyways, I’d do horribly because I have the worst issues with unplugging — I just can’t! I panic when my internet is down. Yes, I’m that person. Can’t wait to hear how it turned out for you!
    Your hair is adorable btw 🙂

    • February 11, 2011 9:09 pm

      Aw, thanks!
      hey, i never said unplugging would be easy. it’s definitely going to be a struggle for me..

  2. UOOG (Uncle of Octopus Gourmet) permalink
    February 12, 2011 3:05 pm

    What a beautifully written and evocative post! Sometimes, as in the best French films (e.g. by Eric Rohmer and Jacques Rivette) more words are just…more.

    PUOOG (Proud Uncle of Octopus Gourmet)

  3. Tim permalink
    February 14, 2011 3:51 am

    Your posts are always interesting and insightful, Lida, and this one is especially so! If you’re interested in more stuff on the senses, Tim Ingold’s book “The Perception of the Environment: Essays in Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill” contains a few chapters on the subject. Nothing on smell or taste, sadly, but if you ever find yourself interested in the other senses, it’d be a place to start.

    • February 14, 2011 6:34 pm

      Thank you so much! I’m VERY interested in the senses, especially the synesthesia (I’m a Nabokov junkie).
      When I get a chance, I”ll make sure to check out that book. Have you heard something called “A short History of the Senses?” it’s on my bookshelf, but I haven’t read it yet.

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