By Stuart Prestidge
JANUARY 25, 1999: I am not, by nature, a fan of exotic, mystical cuisine. As a car should get you from "A" to "B," then food should as simply get from the kitchen to the mouth. I was born and raised in England, where "meat and two veg" is the staple of any typical household, and haddock, instead of cod, accompanying your chips on a Friday night is considered a step toward cordon bleu cooking. Spices are limited to salt and pepper, and the only taste of other worlds that most of us experience are vaguely remembered drunken affairs in local curry houses, initiated more for the love for the restaurants' extended drinking hours than out of love for the cuisine that accompanies the drinks.
I now live in Austin, Texas, and along with the many expected cultural and social differences I have had to adjust to, I have also had my eyes prised wide open to foods I never knew existed, let alone thought a sane human being would put into their mouths.
My first experience of such delights came at a Pappadeaux in Houston, Texas. It was to be an evening meal in which my then-fiancée (now wife) and I were to meet with her old school friends. The very fact that it was neither Christmas, anybody's birthday, or, to my knowledge, a day any different than any other, and we were to eat and socialise in a restaurant, amazed me. However I also had some lingering concerns about such an occasion. Why, I asked, was I not told sooner so I would have had the opportunity to starve myself? When were the reservations made? How could we afford such opulence as restaurant dining? And what on earth was I supposed to wear? It was only then that I was informed that eating out in the United States is akin to an Englishman going down the pub -- a social gathering for urbanites at the local watering hole. Relieved that the clothing and fiscal dilemmas were over I was still aggrieved that I was not given the chance to nurture a hunger so intense that only the consumption of everything upon the menu could abate it. The annual restaurant experience of the average Englishman is a deafening one. The rumble of empty stomachs from days of pre-restaurant purging can be heard from several miles, testament to the awe-inspiring rarity of such an event.
The restaurant itself was fantastic. Crazy music playing in the background of an origin I could not determine, and even crazier paraphernalia hanging from every available space combining to create a relaxed, and dare I say it, even fun atmosphere. Hovering in the air was a lack of an intense, concentrated hush that dignified starvation creates. Young couples and single people, and not complete family trees where even the most distant and decrepit members of the family are included to share in the restaurant experience, constituted the majority of the clientele. T-shirts and jeans were the prevalent code of dress, and the air was clean and fresh, free from the stench of mothballs and dust clouds emitted by the expected array of antique suits draped across equally antique shoulders.
The waiter, a large gentleman with a big grin and tailored waist coat, was swift in greeting us and detailing the day's speciality, which consisted of various fish I had never heard of cooked in peculiar ways and served with an assortment of sauces I had also never heard of. If the menu had ended there I would have been impressed. We were then given our individual menus to peruse over. Being a naïve foreigner, I would have been forgiven for thinking that the menu was in fact an inventory for a local exotic pet shop and not a serious attempt to induce gastric excitement. There before my startled eyes was an assortment of animals I either thought endangered, extinct, or at the very least unfit for human consumption. Due, in part, to my conspicuous incredulity that such beasts could ever appear on anything other than a zoo itinerary, it was decided that two appetisers of frogs' legs and alligator were to be ordered. I waited with bated breath.
As the large frame of the friendly waiter approached I knew that my ignorance of the wild world of American cuisine was about to come to an end. From this moment forward I could, with an air of erudite arrogance, regale my friends back in England with tales of the time that I ate an alligator, confidently describe the taste of such an animal, and compare it to other forms of as yet uneaten exotica. I was about to ascend the culinary hierarchy. The excitement of such a promotion quickly diminished at the first site of the food before us: There was no eight-foot-long, 500-pound monster complete with the obligatory apple in mouth sizzling on a specially reinforced skewer, but a rather modest array of unidentifiable battered strips. The frogs' legs, on the other hand, were slightly more bestial, resembling prepubescent chicken legs, again disguised by a layer of batter. I consoled myself with the comforting knowledge that although presentation is an important factor, the true essence of what food is all about is how it tastes, and so with renewed alacrity I placed an alligator in my mouth.
I found it to be slightly chewy, not excessively so, but also somewhat familiar. Surely my taste buds hadn't already encountered alligator? Of course not, the obvious resolution to this familiarity was that the waiter, being in charge of a number of other diners, had inadvertently presented us with fried chicken and the 500-pound, skewered brute was still under preparation in the kitchen, all was not lost.
"Hmm, nice alligator," was the response from a mouth with more discerning taste buds than my own, greeted by an equally discerning chorus of "Yeah, real good."
Was I suffering from the taste equivalent of colour blindness? Or did alligator really taste like chicken?
"Tastes a bit like chicken, don't you think?" I levelled at anyone who would listen.
"Yeah, I suppose it does," was the unanimous response.
Now realising, to my utter disappointment, that an alligator is really nothing more than an elongated chicken in armour plating, I picked up a frog's leg. Not only did it have the disadvantage of looking like a tiny teenage chicken to begin with, but, to my ever-decreasing astonishment, it also tasted like one. The Taxonomists, I decided, have it all wrong; there are not different species of animals at all, just different kinds of chicken.
Since that fateful day, I have steered away from any and all "zoo" animals I encounter on a restaurant's menu. I no longer wish to travel the world to sample such delicacies as dog from Vietnam, horse meat from France, or various sea creatures caught off the shores of Greek islands, instead content to visit the local Kentucky Fried Chicken/Alligator/Frog/Dog.
One day while I was driving to one such establishment, this time to fool myself into thinking the food before me was an Arabic specialty, I pulled up behind a car with a bumper sticker that read: "I like cats; they taste like chicken."
I just smiled and thought to myself, "Yeah, I bet they do."
Oxford, England native Stuart Prestidge now happily resides in Austin, Texas.
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