Friday, November 23, 2012


A reader writes:
"I went back and read your entries from the ChowTour 2006 – and I still remember your Kugel Catharsis article – and your review of the International Food Store in Lodi --  and my eyes tear. Being an Orthodox Jew – Ill never get to partake in 99% of what you had reviewed. Now – back to our memories of NewfoundLAND...."
I talk to lots of eaters, and everyone has limitations of one sort of another. Some have allergies, some are vegetarians, some have health problems, others are obese and trying valiantly not to be. Some simply live in areas with monotonous food choices, while others can't afford anything beyond rice and beans. And lots of people are just naturally picky (I was the pickiest child on Earth; my father sneeringly referred to me as "Charley Gourmet").

But the most mournful of all seem to be those who keep kosher. Deprivation of bacon and scallops (and, for some, anything lacking the stamp of just the right rabbi) makes them rue the vast swathes of deliciousness they're missing. I'll resist the impulse to make a crack about praying for a miraculous alleviation of piety, and tackle the issue directly:

I must be one of the freest eaters ever. I'm familiar with lots of cuisines, and feel comfortable striding into restaurants filled with people who don't look like me. I can't afford to eat high end every day, or even every week, but I can try such places once in a while, plus all-I-can-eat pizza slices and tacos. I can travel pretty easily; being a New York jazz musician is a little bit like being a Japanese karate pro - I can quickly find work anywhere in the world to help defray costs. I'm extremely omnivorous; I'll eat anything (except blu cheese, liver, stinky tofu, olives, and hot dogs). And I can go explore at the drop of a hat, thanks to being single and having a flexible freelancer schedule. Best of all, I like to drive!

But even I am extremely limited. Crushingly limited. Downright hog-tied! I can't eat before the gym or twice-daily meditation, which creates huge logistical burdens. I can't eat at night or I get heartburn. I can't eat a lot, or I get fat. I can't eat sugar or I get addicted. I can't eat salt or I bloat (I do all these things sometimes, of course, but must choose my battles). And I can't eat what's not here. The supernal roasted chicken from La Llar De L'all I Oli just outside Barcelona is not available to me right now. And it's worse for me than for you, because while you can only dream of shrimp chow fun, I have unlawful carnal knowledge of this poultry. It haunts me so.

There's unavoidable limitation in any human pursuit. And even sterner limitations apply, paradoxically, to those who've scratched out some extra freedom. Like any candy store worker, I've been taught tough lessons. I don't spend every waking moment darting to places like Worcester, even though I nearly could. The last time I did that for a sustained period of time, I wound up exhausted, sickened, bloated and jaded. Have a look at the slideshow documenting all food eaten during that two month Chow Tour assignment. As one eye-buggingly succulent dish after another zooms by, you'll go through Elisabeth Kübler-Chowhound's five stages of food grief: wonder, hunger, nausea, pity, and death (my boss at CNET simply couldn't understand why I insisted on scoring it to such sorrowful music). The next time you regret food limitations, just replay that slideshow. See freedom and retch.

Creativity thrives under limitation. If you can only eat snickerdoodles, well, just work your ass off to find (or to bake) ridiculously great ones! I once met a guy who suffers from Homocystinuria, a rare condition where you can't tolerate gluten or protein. He eats sublimely, with the infinite care not of a sufferer but of an aesthete. Under such conditions, you can either mourn (a calamari kaddish?) or else do what every human being is challenged to do in every realm and in every moment, anyway: play the cards you're dealt, hoping to make the best of it by investing all creativity, drive, and passion into coughing up something stupendous in spite of it all!

In other words: go find some ridiculously great glatted-up snickerdoodles, and make me jealous!

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