Wednesday, February 18, 2015

10 Weirdest Meals

My Mother never particularly enjoyed cooking for all of us, and so her mind
would wander at times. This led to a long-standing family habit of conducting triage at the dinner table to see what Mom had forgotten to serve.

Usually we could figure out what was missing before a pot boiled over or the oven started belching smoke – but not always.

I remember her one attempt at croutons – a cookie sheet of carbon. Me standing on a chair and waving a dish towel at the fire alarm was a weekly occurrence. 

So I have a long and tragic history of weird meals. Here’s the top 10 in no discernible order:

1) I don’t do spicy. I am Irish through and through and so anything spicier than a potato is off the menu. But I am also completely gullible, so when the guy at Church’s Fried Chicken advised the 15 year old me to eat a huge jalapeno pepper I shrugged, popped the whole thing in my mouth and started chewing......

......And spent the next 24 hours crying, with a bleeding nose in the middle of my swollen face, sitting on the toilet, losing it at both ends. I’ve never been back to Church’s Fried Chicken.

2) I went through my Rocky Horror phase as a teenager. I spent nearly every weekend night for about two years at the Balboa Theater, dancing the Time Warp, yelling myself hoarse and basically working up an appetite. Afterwards most of us Teenaged Transylvanians would head for Charlie’s Chili in Newport Beach. 

Now imagine that scene. No crowd looks as strange as a Rocky Horror crew decked out in full regalia, but imagine it two sweaty hours later, at 2 in the morning, stumbling into a brightly lit diner. Even the drunks who were there sobering up would flee. We looked like the survivors of a drag bar that had blown up.

3) Soon after that, in a complete coincidence, both of my parents moved out and I lived alone in the family house for two years. This meant that I had to feed myself. So one day I drove down to Stater Brothers and quickly found myself standing slack-jawed in front of the Hostess display. Unsupervised.  I spent the night sweating, shivering, cramping and learning how to say “Pancreatitis”. Probably the only way that someone could eat 24 ding-dongs and lose weight.

4) On the Great Peace March lunches were a wholesome affair. Out in the vast American desert choices were few, and it was best just to eat what was handed to you, cuz you might not see anything else for quite a while. Somewhere East of Needles I once had a lunch that consisted entirely of one sandwich. Two pieces of bread and two fillings; That’s all.

Jicama. The slices on the right are about right.
But as with most things, the fiber is in the details. The bread was 1 inch think and handmade with 17, count ‘em SEVENTEEN whole grains. And the filling was hand-cranked, homemade raw peanut butter and thick slices of raw jicama.

This one sandwich took me an hour of concentrated effort to consume and I used an entire canteen of water in the process. By the time I finally choked down the last mouthful I had a jaw ache that lasted all afternoon. And I spent most of that evening in a port-a-potty having a lifetime experience.

5) Later on the Peace March times got tough. Money was tight and one time we had to break out the emergency rations. These consisted of spam cans the size of loaves of bread. Stenciled on the side of these cans were lots of letters and numbers and the words “U.S. Army”. Not listed anywhere was an expiration date. And inside were survival biscuits, designed for bomb shelters in the 50’s. And for all we knew these were the original tins and biscuits from the Eisenhower Era.

Survival biscuits. Barely.
They looked nice enough; kinda like a large, doughy beige cracker. But once in the mouth they stubbornly resisted all attempts at mastication. It was like trying to eat an Air Jordan. And they tasted like lint. If the bombs ever fell and I had a choice between a bomb shelter full of survival biscuits and the apocalypse, I would be joining the Zombies in no time.

6) There have been three widely separate times in my life where I have enjoyed a meal that consisted of an entire box of Ritz Crackers, and a can of chocolate frosting. And only one of those times was I on magic mushrooms.

7) Ten years after the Great Peace March I was traveling again, across the pond to England. By the time we landed in London, got our luggage, taxied to the hotel and stowed our stuff I was starving. It was 3pm in London, which to me meant, breakfast! This was my first trip abroad and I was eager to sample the local cuisine. What was British food like? Why were there no English restaurants in any town I ever lived in? (And no, pubs don’t count.)

So I zipped down the stairs and through the halls, keeping to the left, of course. And sure enough the hotel had a restaurant! I rushed up to the entrance, stopped short, and my jaw continued on and clattered across the floor.

Standing before me was a smiling hostess dressed in cowboy boots, a denim skirt with white lace trim, a gun belt with two toy six-guns, a gingham shirt, a tan leather vest with a Sheriffs star, and a gray ten-gallon hat.

I would not have been more flabbergasted if she had been standing there nude with a third arm coming out of her forehead.

She noted my vapor-locked amazement and pointed up. I looked at the banner above her. It read 'Wild West Days!' I read this pronouncement several times - and slower each time. 

Eventually I looked back at the hostess, who by this time had retrieved my jaw for me. “Howdy, Guv’na!” She said with a brave smile.

I recovered slightly. “Um…..One?” I croaked. Hoping that word translated to whatever strange new world I had been beamed to.

She smiled and grabbed a menu with a picture of a Conestoga wagon on it. “Jolly good – I reckon.” And so my first British Meal turned out to be a buffalo steak, fried chicken, corn on the cob, watermelon – and tea. And not long after that I found out why there are no British Restaurants in America. That was the best meal I had in the UK.

8) Yeah. British meals, not so much. But there is a mealtime that I came to thoroughly enjoy: Tea. As in High Tea. As in the only thing we could find open between the hours of 3pm and 5pm were the tea shops. And every town, no matter how postage stampial in size had a tea shop.

Fish Paste. Not pictured: The smell.
I came to thoroughly enjoy the English tea itself, made with loose leaves with milk and sugar added. This is tea that does not mess around. One small cuppa and you are ready to sail around the world and enslave everybody you meet. 

But what makes High Tea a nominee for this list is the accompanying dishes.

First you get a sandwich with fish paste. Now I’m not sure if this paste is what came out of a fish, or just the pureed unwanted leftovers of the fish itself. Either way a simple piece of bread is too good for it. Fish paste should only be served on Survival Biscuits, and only when we’ve run out of everything else and the zombies are pounding on the shelter door.

Next up is a scone. A scone is like a biscuit that’s been through a centrifuge. All of its connective tissue has been removed and so one touch with your mouth and it will completely disintegrate into atoms of quick bread. This makes it virtually impossible to eat unless you lap at the pile of crumbs like a dog.
Scone with jam and clotted cream. NOM.

Luckily the Brits have a work-around for this, and so along with the cakes you are served a couple of sticky substances that you spread – carefully – on top of them in order to impart some cohesion to the scone-shell.

First you apply about a cup of raspberry jam. This will hold the scone together for a short while. Then you add the final coat of goo that will form a protective shell around the scone and ensure that it will exist, intact, in your stomach for the rest of your vacation.

Clotted cream is the only liquid that is classified as a solid on the periodic table of the elements. You can find it in the lower middle of the chart, between Thorium and Polonium, with an atomic weight that would be right at home on Jupiter.

It’s formed by heating unpasteurized cow’s milk and allowing the cream to condense and rise to the surface, like the sea giving up its dead. Clotted cream is at least 55% fat, putting it in the density company of seal milk, deep fried Twinkies and the sarsens that make up Stonehenge. Your scone particles aint going nowhere.

High Tea is considered a snack. a SNACK.
And neither are you because after tea with milk and sugar, a sandwich of fish squeezings  and a plate full of angioplasty fat bombs it’s time for the dessert course to our 3 course 'snack'.

Rolling up to your table is a cart. On the cart is a multi-tiered rack. And on the rack are about 60 different cakes, tarts, torts and other superior examples of sugar-conveyance vehicles. We’re talking desserts so sweet they will make your mouth go numb, followed shortly by your brain.

And behind the rack is your waitress. She will come out from behind the teetering, pyramidal wedding cake of insulin inhibitors. And this British citizen will smile at you. And in that smile you will see the effect of centuries of eating High Teas such as this.

9) One late afternoon I was walking down a street in the Upper East Side of Manhattan, just South of Harlem. Coming up on my right was an Indian Restaurant. The door was open but no light was coming out of it. What WAS coming out were heat shimmers like you see in desert horizons or mirages.
Slowly eating through the bottom of the pans....

I stopped walking before I encountered these, and I peered in through the uncurtained window. It appeared to be full of people, but it was the darkest restaurant I have ever seen. Or, not seen.

It took me a moment to realize that I was not looking at a room full of African American people, but one full of people from North Eastern India, who can be the darkest people on the planet. And judging from the acidic stench from 30 feet away, nobody had ordered the ‘mild’ option.

My stomach gave a flip and my eyes started watering, but I took a deep breath and hurried past the open door anyway. Bad idea. I was engulfed in a wave of mustard oil, onions, chili pepper, raw cumin, ginger, red pepper, garlic, pickled prawns and a curry made from a mixture of napalm and Satan’s testicles.

I staggered on, blind and nauseous, until I had finally escaped the cloud and I could breathe and I discovered that I was now bleeding from every orifice in my body.

10) When I was a kid I once almost had dinner with my parents at the Orange Hill restaurant in Southern California. This is a swanky, frou-frou restaurant with snooty waiters and prices that will make you go get your glasses to make sure you read that total correctly.

But the appeal of Orange Hill is its views. It is situated, as the name would suggest, at the top of a steep hill. Diners sit in terraces that descend down this hill, each one below the next, with a short, wide hedge serving as a privacy screen between one table and the one immediately below it.

On a clear day you can see all 500 square miles of Orange County’s identical one story subdivisions. I recommend visiting after dark, where you can at least pretend that all of these lights are hiding something pretty.
Not pretty!

Anyway, I was there with my parents. We had no sooner sat down when my mother excused herself to the ladies room, making the long, arduous journey back up the many flights of stairs.

My Father immediately ordered appetizers with a big grin and I knew I was in for a treat. The service was excellent, and the elegant plate of small gray shapes quickly arrived. I dove right in. They were chewy, but not bad. “Es-car-what?” I asked as I added some more to my plate.

“Escargot.” He replied with a wide smile, and then waited the perfect sitcom pause. “They’re snails.” But alas, before I could even register shock or nausea his little joke backfired, and in spectacular fashion. My Mother reappeared at this moment.

She did this by falling off her high-heels, tumbling down the steep stairs, and hitting the low hedge above us with a solid thunk.

Sadly not the first or last time I've
had a french fry in my beard.
This, in turn, launched her airborne. A mom-rocket. Forever frozen in my memory is the super-slo-mo image of her flying over our table, ass over tea-kettle, arms and legs flailing, purse flying away, with a blood curdling scream that echoed amongst the hills.

She landed in the hedge below us, showering the lower customers with ferns, dirt and her shoes.

Much later that night, on our way home from the Emergency room, I was given a Happy Meal.

Angus McMahan

Pics from: Authors collection, (ding-dongs), (jicama), (survival biscuits),, (fish paste - eewwWW!!), (Scone with binding agents), (high tea display), (spicy indian foods), (Orange County after dark), (OC in daylight), and the Authors collection (1986 on the Great Peace March. A diner in Beaver, Utah.)

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