I just saw on CNN how ~25% of Americans would consider sampling a cicada. That’s surprising. I’d have thought fewer Americans would be open to breaking down such a huge cultural barrier. If Americans had grown up eating bugs — as some other cultures do — we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Food and culture are inextricably linked. Americans like their protein big. We think “cow” or “pig” not “insect”. In time though, even a food we used to revile can become a luxury item. Take lobsters. Today, they’re expensive. They’re a treat for the wealthy. But, when Europeans first started arriving in North America, lobsters were so plentiful that “piles up to two feet high would wash ashore in Massachusetts Bay Colony.” They were used as fertilizer and to feed the poor. I mean, look at the damned things. They’re called “cockroaches of the sea” for a reason. While lobsters are only distantly related to cockroaches, they have enough in common to have made eating them that very first time likely an act of desperation or starvation. If you’d never eaten a lobster before that first time, would you really look at one and think “I gotta eat that!”?
Americans aren’t as obsessed with food’s freshness as other cultures are. The whole point of wet markets regardless of how we might feel about what’s being sold at them is the obvious freshness of the ingredients being sold. Pangolin lovers love their pangolin meat as fresh as they can get it. It’s why we love farmer’s markets. We love the idea that the food we’re eating today hung on a tree yesterday. Or walked around. We don’t need to know how it walked around or where, just that it did — somewhere in the abstract. I wonder how many of us would turn vegan overnight if we had to go out and kill our own food.
I still remember the first time I tried sushi — at a place in NYC in 1982. The whole idea was still incredibly novel; there weren’t more than a handful of sushi restaurants in all of America. Americans did not eat raw fish. That first piece of tuna stuck on my tongue and went to war with my gag reflex. Jump forward a year and I’m happily snarfing it down, eyeing the more adventurous parts of the sushi menu. I’m an adventurous eater by and large. My culinary mind’s open to a lot of things — to at least try once.
A few years ago, I did some consulting for Electronic Arts. I got hired by their studio in Vancouver, BC to help their game designers think more like storytellers. This particular studio was run by an innovative guy named Nilo Rodis. For about a year and a half, I worked on various projects with various teams. One cool project involved a completely reactive environment where the game player really could impact everything. If they blew up the room they were in, that room was going to really blow up — killing their character. Another project I worked on was a fighting game that originated in their Tokyo studio.
For about six months, I scripted the game and helped revise the story and characters in Vancouver while the game’s designers — in Tokyo — did their thing. Finally the project was nearly finished. EA sent me to Tokyo for a week. Nilo felt some face time with each other would speed us through the last phases of our work. And that’s pretty much what happened. We had a good week together.
When I arrived in Tokyo, Ken, my host at EA (and my boss — Ken is Japanese-Canadian) asked me, as we’d be dining together a lot during the week, if I had any likes or dislikes. The last thing Ken wanted to do was put us at a restaurant where there was nothing on the menu a fussy American could eat. Embarrassment is anathema to Japanese people. “I will eat whatever you eat,” I told Ken. “Great!” said Ken, pleased.
Over the course of the week, we ate in some very cool places. Remember the restaurant in Food where that huge fight scene happens? That’s a real place. I was taken there my first night. The sushi was awesome. The shootout was even better. Every meal was fantastic as far as I was concerned; I love Asian cuisine above all others, no matter which one. The week having been a raging success, Ken wanted to take the whole office out for a meal on my last night in Tokyo in order to celebrate.
Being a special occasion, Ken chose a restaurant close to the office that the whole group liked. In particular, they liked the restaurant’s specialty. They didn’t tell me what that specialty was. It was chicken sashimi.
We all arrive at the restaurant more or less together, remove our shoes of course, and follow our host to the private room reserved for us where we sit low to the ground on tatami mats. Food lands on the table immediately. Various innocuous Japanese starters. Ken — I’m sitting next to him — leans close and tells me that they’re about to serve the restaurant’s specialty. It’s why they came here; everyone in the office loves it! I look to the table as small dishes of what looks like pale yellow sushi are set down in front of everyone.
They all look jazzed. Some have already started eating as my sushi lands in front of me. Ken can hardly wait to tell me what a treat I’m in for: “It’s chicken sashimi,” he says as if that would explain everything.
I’m absolutely certain he’s kidding. What’s the course after that? Pork sushi? But Ken’s already got his chicken sashimi chop sticked and heading for his mouth. I glance at the table. My co-workers for the week are all eating it and loving it. They brought me here to share this thing they love with me, the gai-jin (outsider) they’ve been working with all week — the gai-jin they liked enough to bring here.
My next thought — okay, it’s Japan. They have all those wacky game shows. This one’s called “Prank The Gai-Jin” and I’m the gai-jin they’re pranking. While they all eat chicken sashimi made of marzipan, I’ve been served the real deal and the point is to fool me, the gai-jin, into eating it. Sensing my natural reluctance, Ken tells me quietly that the chickens are all grown on the property — no factory chickens. They’re grown here, hand-slaughtered here, processed here. That’s how we’ll know its safe to eat. I nod but not because the explanation satisfies.
As more and more of their eyes look to me — awaiting my reaction to the chicken sashimii, I begin to realize I have no choice here. I mean, sure — I could tell them they’re all crazy but I still have to work with these good people. I don’t want to insult them especially when I told them I’d eat anything they ate. I’ve set everyone up for failure… except I don’t have to “fail” everyone if I just… eat… the damned… sashimi.
I pick it up with my chopsticks and bring it first to my nose. This bird may have been raised like a prince but it still smells like raw chicken. Now I’m aware of Ken’s eager expression. His eyebrows, arching, are telling me: “Go on!”
Some of the others dipped theirs in soy sauce first. That will be my salvation. I practically swirl the sashimi in the little dish of soy sauce and, in one deft motion, pop it into my mouth. Immediately the “smell” of raw chicken hits the back of my throat. It takes everything I’ve got to keep my gag reflex in check. Instead, I chew — slowly — trying, with my tongue, to push the thing toward the back of my throat so I can just swallow it. And I smile all the way. “Mmmmmm-hmmmmm,” I say trying to will the thing down my gullet.
Still it clings to the inside of my mouth — like it wants to be there as long as possible. Like it’s found its new home. Chewing, even softly, releases more raw chicken essence into my mouth. I feel like I’ve gone for a swim in a lake filled with raw chicken. It’s like I never introduced it to the soy sauce.
Finally it slides down, more or less whole, the taste of raw chicken lingering.
My smile now approximates a death ricktus but my hosts buy it. More importantly, my boss beside me buys it. And, nodding happily at having found a convert, he starts on what will be my bigger problem than “Piece Of Chicken Sashimi #1”. Ken has piece number two between his chopsticks and heading for his mouth. So’s everyone else at the table. Again, I’m going to bring up the rear.
Let me tell ya, hard as the first piece of chicken sashimi was for this gai-jin to get down, “Chicken Sashimi Piece #2” was harder by a couple of multitudes. This time, I knew what was coming. So, in addition to the soy sauce coating my piece of chicken sashimi, now I also had dread.
That second piece of chicken sashimi has come to symbolize a certain kind of moment in my life — one where you know from personal experience how badly the shot that’s coming at you is going to hurt. The mere fact that shot number two exists makes shot number two worse.
There’s a terrific piece in a recent New Yorker about disgusting food. Writer Jiayang Fan captures both the squeamishness other peoples’ strange food can cause and the sense of communion food makes one feel toward one’s tribe (especially when your tribe’s food seems stranger to more people than yours does to them). One of the great points Fan makes is how adaptable our palettes can be if required. As Cervantes put it in Don Quixote, “Hunger makes the best sauce in the world”.
That means that given the proper incentive, and a little time, I could learn to love chicken sashimi.
*Sashimi actually but “sushi” is a funnier word.