Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Repeat Wednesday: Once in a Cordon-Bleu Moon

Eating dinner in New York makes “Fear Factor” look like a church picnic. Some years ago, the residents got bored with real food and demanded the restauranteurs offer ultra-rare flora and fauna that no one had ever considered eating. Now they smugly declare themselves a culinary capital, standing in sharp contrast to the rest of the world.

Mid-America’s favorite foods come from:

(a) the freezer
(b) a bucket with the Colonel’s picture on it
(c) Olive Garden
(c) the Little Debbie display near the supermarket checkout

But a New Yorker’s favorite food is

(a) deadly unless cleaned by a licensed chef
(b) aged, uncooked meat, smuggled in through Customs
(c) found inside a sick goose
(d) dug up by a pig.

Now, we’ve got all the obligatory fast-food restaurants here, so this weirdness doesn’t affect those of us with normal appetites. But the Chelsea McDonalds isn’t a place to take a date, even if it does have a piano bar. I was seeing a guy named Anthony, though we had yet to do anything physical, and I figured I’d need to really impress him to leap over that hurdle. The city’s most expensive Mexican restaurant should do it, I convinced myself.

And today, the waiter confirmed, was our lucky day.

“We have something very special to offer you. Our chef recently returned from an excursion to Oaxaca with several ounces of huitlacoche. It is a rare, elusive fungus that grows solely in August on the south sides of mature corn stalks. As the kernels are infected, they grow large and puffy, turning gray to black as they fill with spores. It’s a rare treat, and was considered a delicacy by the Maya. The chef adds it to fire-roasted tomatoes and a fine julienne of papaya, enrobes it in a dried corn husk, then steams it especially for you.”

At this point I start thinking, buddy, you’ve got the wrong guy. You’ve got me confused with Mario Batali, or maybe Truman Capote. In fact, I’ve been scanning the menu looking for one of those frozen burritos you find at the grocery store priced at seven for a dollar. Yup, I know it works out to twelve cents a pound, and I know full well that neither meat nor potatoes nor corn costs twelve cents a pound, so obviously a brick-shaped amalgam of them shouldn’t cost less. But do I care? Nah. It’s just food. I’ll like it even if it wasn’t dug up by a pig.

Anthony, on the other hand, lights up like a chandelier. He acts like Alec Baldwin just jumped in his lap and started rotating slowly. “That sounds incredible,” he says. “I have got to have that.”

What? I thought, shaking my head like a soggy dog. Which part of “infected,” “spores” or “fungus” sounds best? I mean, if my date is going to eat diseased corn, why did I just spent the last three hours disguising a cold sore on my lip?

Unfortunately, dinner was the highlight of the evening. Saying good night at his door, Anthony looked considerably less happy than when he was eating. He shook my hand, said he’d had a nice time, and that was that. I told my friend Steve about it later, and he knew exactly what was going on. “See, average isn’t good enough for New Yorkers. If it was, we’d still be living in Boise and wearing Keds. This guy doesn’t like average, and Roman, you’re about as average as they get.”

Some people might take this as an insult, but some people don’t think Kenny Rogers makes the world’s best rotisserie chicken. “So how do I make myself look special?”

“Marketing,” Steve says. “Take Gucci, for instance. If you could just walk into any store and buy one of their handbags, nobody would pay that kind of cash. So they make a few a day, hand them out to celebrities, and tell the press they’re sold out. Everybody knows it’s just marketing hype, but it works anyway. People get into fistfights over the stuff.”

Hmm. That was mighty tempting. I mean, I couldn’t get people to fight over me if I had Al Sharpton perched atop my head. “So I should make myself scarce,” I say, to an enthusiastic nod. “Maybe stop answering the phone, make up nonexistent previous engagements, send myself flowers?”

Steve nods, and I shake my head sadly. “You know,” I say, “that advice was stupid when I read it ten years ago, in Cosmopolitan.

Naturally Steve got angry, though only a real friend will tell you when your advice is crap. Still, the more I thought about it, the more sense it made. New Yorkers have to make a big deal out of everything. It’s not enough just to eat something: you want to eat something that’s nearly extinct, that’s prepared by an eccentric band of monks, that’s scraped at 4:24 in the morning from the teeth of sleeping hyenas. I mean, how else do you explain truffles? If they grew on trees they wouldn’t be on the menu of every restaurant here, from Le Bernadin to Taco Shack. But pigs find them underground in a small part of the south of France, only a couple months out of the year. Needless to say, most New Yorkers want them in everything, from their toothpaste to their zit creams.

It was like pulling teeth getting Anthony to go out with me again. First he said he was busy, then he wasn’t feeling well, then he had friends coming in from out of town. After a month of bargaining with his answering machine, I finally wore him down. I promised him tickets to a sold-out Broadway show, and dinner at a restaurant that had an unlisted phone number.

The night went by quickly, though the conversation didn’t exactly flow. When we got back to his place he looked at me like I was cauliflower in a world of chocolate cake. Yup, I thought -- it’s coming. The “we’re not right for each other” speech.

“Can I come inside?” I asked. What can I tell you? I’m an optimist.

He shook his head. “I’ve got to get up early tomorrow.” He unlocked his door, stepped in, and turned. “Roman,” he announced, “this isn’t working for me. I think we should call it quits.”

I gave him the big-eyed, pleading stare of a Keane waif painting, but he was resolute, and started to close the door in my face. Wait, I thought -- I can still save it. Think rare. Think elusive. Something I’ve got that’s one in a million.

“You don’t know what you’re missing, bud,” I called seconds before the door shut completely. “This is the first hard-on I’ve had since Christmas!”


Yet Another Steve said...

New York dining begins to sound like that of the Roman Empire -- larks' tongues, stuffed dormice, peacock brains, young sow stuffed with sausages and live birds, and other delights, all smothered in the Roman equivalent of ketchup -- 'garum,' a sauce made from fermented fish guts. Yum! Even Haägen-Dazs doesn't make that flavor anymore.

You were LATE getting today's blog up, and my morning crashed to a caffeine-stained halt they could have used in one of those drivers-ed horror films of the '50s. Watch it, buster. Emotional Distress lawsuits loom.

Jamie said...

Would the outcome have been different if the meal had featured, oh I don't know, chicken fried bacon?(!!!)

Not exactly NY fine dining I admit. But really, how could anyone go wrong with deep fried bacon?

RomanHans said...

The other night at a dinner party I casually mentioned that I'd eaten Costco frozen falafel balls for dinner the night before. That's when gays will reach total equality: when we can admit that sort of thing to a roomful of heteros and no one will pass out.