Have you ever got half-way through a plate of something, and thought ‘I’m not sure that that this is such a good idea?’ I don’t mean because it tastes vile, but because the collateral damage it’s causing to your companions, self-esteem. clothing or teeth or all four. There used to be a Malaysian restaurant in Westbourne Park Road. Ever time I went there I used order the crab sambal, and every time I’d regret it. Not that it wasn’t a brilliant dish. The taste was fine, rich, rollicking and spicy. They were generous with the crabs, too. But I had eat with my hands By the time I’d finished, I required a shower and a complete change of clothes, as did most of the people around me. That crab sambal was a problem food.
We tend to skirt around the subject or problem foods. I’m not talking here of liver and lites, of monkey’s brains and sheep’s eyeballs, chickens’ feet and rams’ testicles, the kind of food that causes the gorges of the more sensitive to rise. I want to deal with foods that are perfectly acceptable on the surface, but which, on consumption, turn out to be booby=trapped.
Take a plateful of spaghetti, for example. What could be more placid, more submissive than a plate of pasta? But in the wrong mouth, spaghetti takes on a violence all of its own.
Almost everyone can get a decent wodge of spaghetti into their mouths, but no matter how masterful and spaghetti hand you are, there are always a few trailing ends hanging from your mouth that need to be tidied up, and that’s where the trouble begins. The experienced spag hand knows to hold his or her head over the plate, and to bite off the ends so that fall back where they came from. The unwary, on the other hand, try to suck up the recalcitrant strands into their mouths. The previously docile strands are suddenly convulsed into life. They thrash around like the tentacles of an octopus in its death throes, pebble-dashing anyone within range with blobs of sauce. It makes you realize how little there is between us and the lower primates.
I used to have an elderly aunt. She was well advanced in years, sans her own teeth, but not sans taste. She was very partial to pudding. I learned, through bitter experience, not to give her that favorite of her – and my – youth, gooey treacle tart, particularly topped with chopped, toasted hazelnuts, once a modish touch. The sight of her as her dentures got to grips with the gooey treacle, lifting them away from her gums, will be with me for the rest of my life, as will her fulminations when the chopped nuts got in underneath. They might just as well been ground glass. My mother always said that the reason she gave up eating figs, fresh or dried, was because they had the same effect, if the seeds got in between denture and gum.
It’s not just the old who suffer. I was once almost moved to tears by the story of a friend, who, as a young cub reporter, had been sent to interview Cary Grant over lunch. Cary Grant was the epitome of suave charm, the George Clooney of his generation, only more so. My friend was bowled over, and spent a good deal of lunch dazzling him with her smile. Until she went to the loo to touch up her lipstick, when she realized the spinach soup she’d had as a first course, had cloaked her teeth with much the same effect of that brilliant green seaweed you see wrapped around the pilings of a water-break.
I, myself, have fallen foul of a salad of endive frisee aux lardons et aux croutons which made me look as if I had showered in fat by the time I’d finished it. That may not say much for my eating habits, but have you ever noticed how springy a leaf of frisee is when you disentangle it from the plate, and then find it’s too large to get into your mouth?
Which reminds me of the open Danish sandwich smart bomb. They were once immensely popular, open sandwiches, all the rage at smart drinks parties. Most of them were fine, but one, in particular, was a social IED of the highest order. It was the prawn sandwich, a slice of slightly friable rye bread piled high with pink prawns, dusted with paprika. Anyone who has ever tried to eat one will remember them, because, by an exquisite refinement of design, the pyramid of shrimps was always slightly too high to allow you to get the damn thing into your mouth in one piece. You’d see people making the most extraordinary gurning maneuvers as they tried, opening their mouth like hippos, tilting their head over sideways, attacking from the top. The results were always the same – a cascade of pink shrimps onto the floor, where you had the choice of either picking them up, and so attracting attention to your faux pas, or grinding them into the carpet with your food, and hoping no one would notice.
But even the Danish open prawn sandwich pales into insignificance compared with problem of flatulence. St Augustine had something trenchant to say on the subject, and that great and good man, St Jerome, abjured nuns from giving vent on the grounds that in partibus genitalibus titiliones producunt. Go on, look it up.
It turns out that there are several causes. We swallow air when we eat and drink. Anaerobic bacteria produce a mixture of hydrogen, methane and hydrogen sulphide. All bacteria help to put together highly odiferous indoles and skatoles. As the American found out, when they were investigating this problem in the course of putting a man into space (they were afraid that a spaceman in a sealed space suit might asphyxiate himself with his own methane), different people are susceptible to flatulence in different degrees. The cause, it seems, are pesky things called oligosaccharides, which, as we can guess particularly prevalent in dried beans. As usual when called on to do something really important, scientists have yet to come up with a solution to flatulence.
So the next time you’re rustling up a dish of delight, pause and give a thought to the law of unintended consequences. And avoid Jerusalem artichokes as you would the plague.