I’ve tried as many strange foods in life as I could arrange. Quite a few I have liked; some, not so much. I do know that my taste mechanism doesn’t work like those of most people. For example:
- Kimchee: so good. I hate cole slaw, love kimchee.
- Limburger: not much flavor at all. Smell unpleasant but not that big a deal. Much ado about nothing either way.
- Nuoc-mam (anchovy sauce): love it and put it hungrily on many things.
- Raw tomatoes: literally make me nauseous. Don’t like tomato chunks, either, even when cooked. (Puréed is fine when cooked.) Diced tomatoes the worst: too small to pick out. At least the big chunkers I can put to one side.
- Vegemite: delicious. Smell doesn’t bug me. Great added flavor on ramen noodles, and for an excellent snack with wheat thins and cheese.
- Cooked spinach by itself: looks like pond bottom muck. Smells worse than pond bottom muck. Tastes about like I’d expect from pond bottom muck. Fine in spanokopita, where it’s puréed to where I can’t really taste it, and the smell is covered.
- Stilton cheese: absolutely delicious. Yeah, smells like improperly maintained feet, but don’t care.
- Coconut: can’t even stand the smell, and the texture can ruin anything.
- Ouzo/Nyquil: I cannot smell or taste one bit of difference. Loved retsina, but anything smelling or tasting of black licorice revolts me. I fear I am ruined for Sazeracs, another thing I’ve meant to try.
- Pisco sours: a hell of a good drink if you’re ready for a wallop. They’re strong.
- Anchovies on pizza: absolutely. Any time I’m making it when Deb is not home, that’s automatic. Unless I decide on…
- Smoked oysters on pizza: fell in love with the combo in, of all places, Raymond, WA.
- Menudo: such a delicious soup, spoiled only by the chunks of slippery latex (cow stomach) and the acid reflux aftertaste. Which is rather a powerful spoiling combination.
- Muktuk: traded Dilettante chocolates to some Alaska Natives for it. Pretty sure they got the best deal. Ate it wrong, smelled like fish oil for three days, and committed a felony all in one go–not exactly my most shining moment. Doesn’t have much flavor of its own. Maybe that’s merciful.
- Asparagus: the smell alone ruins my appetite.
- Lutefisk: not that big a deal. Gelatinized fish, about what you’d expect if you boiled it in Drano.
- Head cheese: pretty good on sandwich, but very much a misnomer. It’s not cheese. It’s chunks of abattoir pig leftover in a gelatin semi-binder. Don’t heat the sandwich up; stuff falls to bits.
That’s all I can remember right now. Won’t that do? Remaining on the bucket list are hákarl, balut (that may be the hardest to nerve myself up to), haggis, and surströmming (the videos I’ve seen give me some trepidation; maybe I’ll wait until I am in Sweden, then see if I can get them to ply me with liquor first in return for the spectacle). Fairly sure I can’t handle cazu marzu. I don’t see the attraction of fugu, even granting that the Japanese laws governing the stuff are exacting even by Japanese cultural standards.
Some six months ago, my wife and I were at a local Filipino grocery store gathering ingredients for our annual Christmas dinner ethnic food. We had settled on Pinoy, with olympias and pansit and adobo. We always prepare this meal as a team, and about three times out of four, we get a fiasco. I still feel bad for the friends who joined us for Polish food, at which we failed. I’m glad no one else was around for the Jewish cooking experience etzleinu; that was a big oy gevalt. Pinoy went pretty well; my olympias especially were a hit, though it took me a couple of hours to master the rolling method. Pretty sure the average Pinay grandma could have done it perfectly in forty-six seconds without exerting herself.
While hunting for some exact version of this or that ingredient, I came across a freezer that contained durian. Two of them per package, skin removed, sealed in rugged plastic. Both were the size and color of peeled baking potatoes. I stuck my nose into the freezer to see if anything had leaked, but no. I grabbed a package and put it in our basket.
“What is that?” asked my wife.
“Durian, dear. It’s a fruit that smells so bad it’s banned from airlines in Asia.”
“And therefore you want to eat it.” She has known me over two decades. I ceased to surprise her one of those decades ago. “Don’t do it in the house, or else.”
She had no worries. I may be dumb enough to try stuff like this, but even I am not dumb enough to risk spilling it in our kitchen.
I then mostly forgot about it, as outdoors in Portland in December and January hold limited al fresco dining appeal. You’d need to start thawing it a few days before, counting on a warm spell at just the right time. I’ve been taken hard aback by enough Inaccu-Weather forecasts around here to realize that the local meteorologists have a hard job. They’re wrong often enough that you can’t depend on them. You definitely wouldn’t bet your durians on them. I decided there was no hurry, and that I had all spring to nerve myself up.
In the latter third of June, nearing the summer solstice, nerving leveled up, durian achievement possibility unlocked.
I took the ziplock bag out of the refrigerator and was glad I’d double-bagged these. As all students of physics of course, know, there is no such thing as impermeable; the question is what may permeate what substance. Put another way, I could smell something through the plastic if I huffed with a little effort. It smelled like very bad breath–a person with untended rotting teeth, eating lots of sugar and never drinking enough water.
I began to suspect that this stuff could knock a raccoon on its ass at fifty paces. Maybe even a raven.
Was I stalling? Not really. Well, a little.
I took the package outside on a plate, bringing fork and knives, and did a ginger job of cutting it open. Both durians inside were wrapped in cling wrap, like a package of two peeled, individually wrapped baking potatoes–but a lot mushier. Up from the pierced plastic arose a pretty bad smell: fruit cocktail mixed with life-threatening halitosis. The thaw had completed (maybe not such a wise idea on my part, and the one I opened was mushy with clear liquid spilling out onto the plate. Not enough to spill over and get all over the bottom, thankfully. I hate that.
Next I turned on the hose, so that I didn’t have to handle the thing any more than unavoidable. Once I had laid bare a durian, there was nothing for it but to slice off a piece and eat. Let’s do this.
Definitely fibrous, but not in the tough and persistent way of celery; nothing difficult to cut with a serrated knife, nor difficult to chew. I see what they are talking about concerning the vanilla custard taste, if you can imagine eating vanilla custard with terminal knee-buckling halitosis emanating from it. Stringy vanilla custard, yes, but definitely sweet.
Putting it in my mouth wasn’t as hard as chewing and swallowing, because that takes a bit of time, and that gave the smell time to permeate my senses. This is not the sort of scent with which I would normally permeate those. My snapshot thought as I swallowed: not a bad basic taste at all, but I don’t like the texture, and the problem is that along with the smell hitting one’s nose, one can literally taste the smell in one’s mouth. I don’t think that my nose works the way others’ do, but it reminded me of the fermenting-garbage smell of limburger–only quadruple strength.
Sorry to disappoint all you career sickos (you know who you are), but at no time did I throw up, nor even come close. Perhaps if I’d eaten the whole durian, who knows what could have happened? But the plan wasn’t to gorge on durian; it was to try the stuff. Durians taste like stringy vanilla custard radiating eye-watering halitosis in every direction. If that sounds like something you’d rather not eat, you and I concur.
After two bites, I figured I had done my share. The rest went into the dumpster, brought with commendable foresight to the back yard beforehand. I chose Thursday because Friday is our trash day. Then I went inside to write while all this was fresh in my mind, leaving the plate out in public. When I finished writing, I would see what it might have attracted. I could always hose the plate off, of course.
It hadn’t attracted anything. In Aloverton, we have these enormous fat houseflies. Some are the size of a marble. I expected to return to find the plate covered in loathsome flies. Not a one; not even the flies want this. As I cleaned off the plate and utensils, I reflected that my least favorite aspect was the persistent aftertaste/aftersmell. Half an hour later it lingered in my mouth, a source of vague discomfort. The sweetness had moved along, but the unpleasant aftertaste/aftersmell stayed with me. I ended up going back outside for a cigar just to sear the rest of it out of my mouth.
Bringing the dog outside with me helped me to put my finger on something. I had missed a bit of description, a nuance I could not quite put into words. Our dog, a miniature schnauzer named Leonidas, is a deeply annoying little creature; cat brain, dog body. Imagine a cat that still seeks to coat you with saliva, but wouldn’t know a litterbox from a Tardis, and never feels especially guilty for decorating the floor. For reasons I don’t understand, my wife likes him. For that reason, and for reasons of fundamental humanity, I tolerate him and do what is needed to prevent him from suffering. He represents a marital compromise, one forged after many battles: no, he may not sleep in the bed with us, not if you want me sleeping in it as well; no, he cannot have free run of the house now that he’s got dogabetes; no, he cannot go everywhere with us, because I treasure my vacations away from him; no, we can’t get another one, because I have a hard enough time tolerating a single dog, especially one this insolent and obstinate.
Well, Leo has bad dog breath even by the considerably shocking standards of the canine species. I don’t see why I even bother with weed killer when I have a perfectly organic means of killing all life: let Leo breathe on it. Durian’s smell reminds me of Leo’s breath. And even after a forty-minute cigar and a big slug of iced coffee with non-Nestle creamer (those people are diabolic), I could still tastesmell a bit of the durian smell in my mouth. Eventually I’m going to have to rinse with peroxide to kill this.
The interesting effect there: how excellent the cigar and iced coffee tasted. I don’t smoke very expensive cigars, and they can be hit or miss on taste (and draw, and burn, and wrapper integrity), but this smoke tasted like one of triple the cost. Very, very pleasant, as was the coffee. The durian impact on the mouth, from only two bites, is sufficient that anything else not revolting takes on a very welcome flavor.
I’m not big on bathroom humor, so let me just say that the experience did not improve as my body performed the standard nutrition processing habits. Those who desire may use their imaginations in order to perceive this brief, disagreeable, unforgettable completion to my adventure, confident that they are unlikely to overstate the reality.
I don’t recommend durian, but at least now I know why.