Securely plunked upon the lap of a sumo-sized ne’er-do-well in the backroom of a low-lit Rodriguan restaurant, an airplane of fishball soup approached my lips.
“How do you know you don’t like it if you haven’t tried it?” asked my mother, who would be impressed to know that her voice could be heard clear as day mid-night on an Indian Ocean isle half a world away.
“I just know, that’s how!” I pouted, and my father’s wry chuckle rang out even clearer.
After eight months sailing aboard a tall ship bound around the world I had become predictably accustomed to encounters with unusual locals however, my taste buds remained those of the sullen eight year old girl that smashed her plate on the kitchen floor when given the ‘wrong’ kind of cracker. While the plate incident is no exaggeration, the maturity of my taste buds most definitely is, for in the subsequent 16 years I had expanded my culinary repertoire to include ‘things that were touching’ and what I consider to be quite a respectable range of crackers.
As a steadfastly stubborn picky eater, I had become skilled at dodging culinary bullets during my travels by disappearing opportunely, feigning illness and relying on the generosity of a fellow traveller’s willingness to down two portions of local delicacy; but in that seedy restaurant I was in over my head. With a hibiscus in my hair and under the influence of the island brew, I had been lured away from the flock to perform translator duties for none other than the ship’s cook Joe and this small gathering of eager ruffians.
Joe was a sea cook of the rum-guzzling and shanty-singing variety (yes, there are other varieties) who sought out the nittiest and the grittiest at our ports of call. It was rare that our paths intersected ashore given that I leaned towards island tours and waterfalls but on board we had developed a mutually mocking rapport from when he first confronted me about my less-is-more eating style early on in the voyage. Not wanting to insult the man responsible for my nourishment in the upcoming year, I had nervously explained how much I truly loved food but only in its simplest form: no seasoning, no sauce…
“No flavor!” he screamed and beamed, revealing his Camel-stained, camel-coloured teeth.
It was on.
Over the months, I would patiently listen to his serenades of “Monochrome,” the bland, single chord version of Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome,” and in response he would hear out my complaints regarding the unhealthiness of the excess salt in my food from the unnecessary addition of sweat from his sopping brow.
So, it was with a very distant hope that I looked across the table to elicit from Joe a sympathetic interruption to the soup’s flightpath, but I was met with a weathered face writhing in revelry. After months of watching me boldly scrape his hot galley offerings into the slops bucket, I was finally squirming. The culinary battle of wills we had been waging was about to be won.
Would I keep my childish pride and risk insulting my monstrous creole pilot or would I wash it down with a steaming fishball?
My eyelids fell.
Then my jaw.
Joe cackled as my tongue darted around my mouth trying to bounce the rubbery ball down my throat.
“See, it wasn’t that bad, was it honey?”
“Yes, Mum. It was that bad.”
I tried to pass it off as no big deal, smiling and suppressing my gag reflex with the ‘mind over matter’ mantra. Joe knew better, but my hosts were satisfied with my reluctant indulgence and I went on to translate their tales of black market dealings until the wee hours with a hops-flavoured mouthwash in hand.
In the months that followed, I noticed my attitude towards new and previously-snubbed foods had begun to shift from one of flat-out refusal to skeptical acceptance. I would sneak tastes of this and that when prying eyes were distracted so I could revel or reject in private and slowly but surely the number of ingredients in my mental cupboard grew to a respectful size. That one spoonful of fishball soup had awakened my culinary conscience and though I hadn’t wanted to be there with my back up against that burly islander staring down that steamy spoon, with every new flavour that brushes my palate I’m very thankful I was.