Last night I ate chicken sashimi.
Yes, that’s raw chicken breast.
Which is normally an insane thing to do.
Unless you’re in Tokyo with a Japanese host, in a restaurant with no English where chefs are diligently fanning real charcoal with bamboo fans. Where their chicken livers were probably still squawking 6 hours ago.
After you’ve eaten the raw quail egg mixed into chopped turnip and a skewer of ginkgo nuts (which are sorta technically poisonous) and you’re just like, “Well, what the hell. I have 48 hours to process this before I have to get on an intercontinental flight.”
Then you say a prayer for your stomach’s hydrochloric acid and tuck in.
This is my first Asia trip. But I’ve already traveled throughout North America, Europe, and the Caribbean, mostly on my stomach.
I’ve eaten fresh-killed moose and beaver (go ahead, laugh… huh huh beaver) in Canada’s North and Texas BBQ from a hole-in-the-wall joint in Austin. I’ve sucked crab meat out of spiny legs on North Carolina’s barrier islands, slurped rice and peas at a roadside stand in St. Lucia, and chewed gummy beluga whale fresh from an Inuit chef’s knife.
I ate three kinds of whale in Iceland along with puffin and reindeer sausage, plus tiny fresh blueberries I collected from the side of a windswept mountain. (After getting hit in the face with a falling rock. But that’s another story.)
One New Year’s Eve in Italy, I ate horse carpaccio; another New Year’s Eve I got drunk in Barcelona and might have had a sardine martini.
Do you know what a duck press is? Now I do, after an epic dinner in Switzerland where two muscular hopes for the Teutonic race cranked on the duck press like it was a stuck submarine door. Imagine a juicer… for a duck. With a big cranky wheel on top. Because duck are harder to juice than, say, kale or pineapples.
Snake, alligator, frogs, elk, sea urchin, insects, snails, jellyfish… livers, brains, stomachs, hearts, tongues, tails, feet, intestines, testicles… all these and more have shared their ultimate end with me.
Charles Darwin apparently belonged to a club dedicated to eating any species that was dead and not poisonous. I have adopted this as my mantra.
This adventurousness is more than simple sampling the world. Though there is that.
One of my life goals is, well, living. Sucking life dry. Chomping on life until it squirts out its juice.
Being in and with my life, fully awake and present, instead of being a traumatized passenger in a speeding car, huddled down avoiding the window as my existence rushes past without me.
I’ll try anything once. Because you just gotta.
Especially where you are, wherever that is.
If you’re in Germany, you gotta drink German beer.
If you’re in Naples, you gotta eat pizza.
If you’re in Switzerland, you gotta eat hay soup. (And wash it down with some cheese and chocolate.)
If you’re in the Caribbean, you eat roti although there is some debate about whose roti is the best. (I have heard some Jamaicans say that Jamaicans suck at roti and you should really only trust Trinis on this score, but hey, I’m not here to judge, I’m just here to eat the contestants.)
That’s how it is.
That’s the flavour of the place.
That’s a thing that has to happen there, in that exact geo-social location.
But it isn’t just about being a tourist and vacuuming up whatever stuff you find. Without understanding where you are, what you’re doing, and why.
Because if all you do is air-drop into a place and hoover up their decontextualized comestibles, you’re kind of an ignorant putz, to be honest.
Your ignorant putzitude only increases if you start making ridiculous magical claims about that cuisine, like All X eat Y and they’re super healthy! or Have you ever seen a fat Z? QED!
You’ve gotta pay that food, that situation, those people, that world, some respect.
Maybe you’ll never understand every last subtlety of each dish, or the complex zeitgeist of the people who serve it to you, but try.
Try to “get it”. Crawl into that world as best you can, using that crowbar of comprehension — however small — to pry open your worldview.
Crack open the slats of your mind and let some sunlight stream in through the mental dust motes.
Ultimately this is about being grateful. For this magical thing that nourishes us, and unites us as humans in our shared need.
This is about recognizing and appreciating the incredible gift that we have been given, this gift of economic privilege and three squares a day and not being poisoned by our water supply. (I don’t care how fucking broke your ass is right now, if you are reading this on a computer you are very probably economically privileged in a global sense.)
The instructor, an astoundingly happy woman, announced that her nickname (“Chompoo”, or “rose apple”) was “kind of funny in English!” then handed out “I cooked with Poo, and I liked it!” aprons.
On one level, Cooking with Poo is about having fun with Thai food — taking a market tour of the famous Khlong Toey market where one can buy a bag of live frogs or eels, or a pig’s head (wearing a slightly bewildered expression), or a pound of giant water bugs, or a fish freshly eviscerated into a kiddie pool of blood and guts by a guy in rubber boots.
Or a crepe spun on a hot griddle by a girl of 13 (who should have been in school but at least wasn’t working the bars for a few baht from gross old white men).
Or candied fruit that had previously shared its plastic tub with a cheeky giant cockroach.
Miss Poo encourages us all with her eager smile and exhortations to be brave with the chili peppers.
“You learn to cook, maybe a nice boy walking by hears you pounding chili paste and then you get married!”
On another level, Cooking with Poo is about poking affluent Western visitors in the eye and saying “Hey, assholes. Check this out. This is how most of the world lives.”
Miss Poo deliberately lives and holds her classes in Khlong Toey’s slums, where she grew up.
It’s the kind of place where someone’s house could be a piece of plywood covered by a plastic tarp, perched precariously over a fetid open sewer canal. Where you might see a 4-year-old girl with dirty feet, alone, holding out a paper cup for change.
Miss Poo’s food is basic — simple street cooking, like what the millions of massage girls and motorcycle cabbies and other service workers tote to their backbreaking labours every day, and eat on benches or in staircase nooks or on the front steps of “health spas”.
1 billion people worldwide live in slums. Billions more toil in low-waged work, one notch above slum living, grateful perhaps for power and plumbing that more or less works, sometimes.
They are everywhere but invisible; the teeming unseen of the globe who try to eke out a meagre living and survive with dignity.
Many are the people who grow and process your food; glue together the high-end sneakers that you wear to do Crossfit or stitch the Lululemon pants that lift and separate your buttcheeks as you downward dog; assemble the electronics that let you track (or guiltily ignore) your latest set of self-improvement resolutions.
I’m not saying you should feel guilty.
I’m saying you should understand the big picture.
Think bigger than yourself, your workouts, whether you should choose Piloxing or Fitwall for maximum shredding, whether a pumpkin spice latte will kill you, or whatever’s on your plate (or not) today.
Think about yourself as a world citizen. About what that means if you’re reading this from an affluent industrialized country where you have the luxury to be neurotic about your body, or to choose your food… or to choose to have or eat less than you need in general.
Tokyo and Bangkok couldn’t be more different.
Bangkok canals and sewers smell like burnt hair and plastic and toe-cheese and chicken poop and some pollutant that we probably haven’t even invented yet in North America. There are literally pythons in the sewers, which apparently people don’t mind so much because they eat the Yorkshire-terrier-sized rats. (Nature’s miracles!)
Bangkok cabs are held together with duct tape and have no seatbelts. (On the other hand, flying Thai Airways is like flying a high-end bordello couch. Would madam care for a spritz of French cologne in the airplane loo? Hot towel perhaps? Suck it, skinflint North American airlines. I actually started to panic on takeoff because I couldn’t feel the plane launching… it just kind of gently wafted into the air on flying couch pixie magic.)
Conversely, you could eat off a bathroom floor in Tokyo and it would probably improve your health to do so. Cabs have lace doilies covering the seats and each taxi car looks like a foreign diplomat’s.
Bangkok is like the United Nations. Faces and languages from everywhere, all mashed together in a glorious, smelly, messy, grubby, beautiful cacophony of motorcycle madness.
Here, in Tokyo, I’m gaijin — foreign. Many parts of the city are ethnically homogeneous; in some areas, I’m the only white person besides my cracker lunk of a husband.
In Tokyo, I’m too big (even at 5′), too loud, too talky, too crude, too slovenly, too unfeminine with my thick shoulders and sternocleidomastoids and chunky gastrocs slopping along in sneakers instead of slim stilettos. My gestures are all wrong. I sneeze in public. And I probably smell weird.
I not only don’t speak the language, I don’t even recognize the alphabet. I don’t know what anything is. I have to rely on the kindness of strangers and — last night — the bilingualism of my host. (Shout out to the guy who helped me order my lunch from a vending machine at the ramen place in Harajuku. Thanks, man.)
I can’t remember when or where in my travels over the years that I stopped giving fucks about dietary regimes and rules.
But it was pretty early on. Something about nomadic displacement and culture shock slaps you out of your little picky-princess world real quick.
In a weird way, I like being gaijin. It reminds me that I am in the world, not the world itself.
I like that in Tokyo I am confronted with the utter impossibility of being good enough. And that in Bangkok they charge me more, just for being a foreigner. And tell me to hurry up because I am slow.
Getting told to get the fuck off a riverboat seems much more honest than a world — like the fitness-industrial complex — that sells me the pipe dream of eternal self-improvement and magically acquired long, lean muscles, if I only try hard enough.
Here, I fail before I start. Which is kind of a relief. In Fitness World, one can end up chasing the rainbow for the pot of golden six-pack abs forever.
And in the grand scheme of things, I am very, very small and insignificant. (Except, of course, when I’m troll-like and monstrous next to tiny, tidy Japanese femmes. Galumph.)
Now I can just kick back, put my flappy flipper feet up, and enjoy a bowl of hot ramen. And wash it down with some mochi cakes. And watch the world go by. And give no shits at all.
If you’re getting too easy and comfortable in your routine and your lifeworld, maybe you should consider a shakeup.
Research on collective intelligence finds that being too comfy-cozy with all your likeminded buddies actually makes you stupider and more extreme in your views, while diversity and varying viewpoints and perspectives makes you smarter, more intellectually flexible, and more creative — both individually and as a group.
You realize — as Charles Darwin might say — if you don’t adapt, you’re in deep shit.
Plus if you see a package labeled Crunky, you just gotta.
Are you shrinking your world with restrictive rules and neuroses?
Are you hanging around only with people just like you, who believe the same things and affirm all your biases?
Are you fist-bumping and circle-jerking the same old shit and everyone else who’s drinking the identically flavoured Kool-Aid?
Or are you going bigger, juicier, broader, more complicated and confusing and challenging?
Are you stumbling through something so weird and new you aren’t sure you’ll survive, but part of your brain loves it anyhow even as the rest of your brain is complaining about finding a recognizable receptacle to pee into?
I know what I’m doing… and it starts with getting crunky.