When I was a kid, my dad said that I must learn to eat anything if there’s a war. His childhood village in the Philippines was attacked by the Japanese in WWII, and he survived by learning to live off the earth and the sea. He brought this survival mode to Hawaii and it was the foundation of our dinner table lessons.
As a child, I eagerly waited as he cracked open a live sea urchin so I could taste its fresh roe. I ate live baby shrimp I caught with a small fishing net, and my mother had to ration my portion of fresh seaweed I had just plucked from the reef. I looked forward to raw baby mullet mixed with ginger and lemon; I had no problems with their tiny bones.
I have eaten pork cooked in its own blood, and raw tripe from freshly slaughtered cows. I once had the pleasure of sharing a dish of the fresh brain of a cow that an hour before was led to be slaughtered. I enjoyed the leaves and beans from the kalamungai tree in my dad’s makeshift garden and looked forward to family outings when we drove along the Pali Highway looking for ripe guava to pick.
As I got older, I understood that my culinary tolerance was uncommon. My classmates made fun of many Filipino foods, and I learned that picking fruit along public roadways was the mark of a scavenger.
I also learned that my dad himself had his limits. He really only meant food of his own culture. Chinese food was “slimy,” Hawaiian food was “not so good,” and Japanese food was “not our style.” He did not eat roasted turkey until my husband Richard prepared a traditional stuffed turkey with its side dishes on Christmas. Dad always asked for rice with his spaghetti, and bagoong (fermented fish sauce) and soy sauce were everyday condiments on our table. For Richard’s surprise 50th birthday party, I rented a small family owned Thai restaurant for the day. That was a huge challenge for my dad; he participated mainly to please my husband.
Dad eventually did expand his eating repertoire. He roasted a few turkeys (learned from Richard), and enjoyed the simplicity of steamed vegetables (sans fish sauce and soy sauce) from our son Marco. He learned to eat many of the “non-Filipino” vegetables I grew and helped himself to my herbs that were a novelty for him.
Today, I continue to have no limits. While I have preferences, I will sample any food put before me. Here in Texas, I have had grits (interesting), Roteil (don’t need to have it again), chicken fried steak (the taste itself seems unhealthy), and barbequed ribs with a dry rub (yum-yum!). Mexican food is incredible, and that is my next foray in cooking experiments.
I figure that, if other people are still alive after eating a dish, I can at least try it. I don’t diet or count calories, and I don’t get bogged down by nutritional warnings. I do adhere to moderation, however. On a daily basis, I avoid a lot of sugar, salt and fat, but I allow exceptions – frequently. Plus, I don’t believe that fast foods constitute a meal . . . except perhaps at airports.
Of course, my long-standing ability to eat anything is no longer to prepare for war. After all, today’s war technology could annihilate whole populations and environments. Eating would not be a primary concern.
At least I thought so until I saw the movie The Book of Eli the other day. It is a thought-provoking and startling depiction of the world 30 years after a catastrophic war. The opening scene has Eli (Denzel Washington) killing an animal (that I have never eaten), and carrying it around until he can cook it over a fire. Later in the movie, there is another food source that is, well, despicable. (I’ll not reveal what was eaten, but let’s just say I realized I am not totally omniverous!)
The bottom line is that I am a happy omnivore. I believe that eating should be enjoyed; eating is not just a stop at a fueling station. Eating should also be social. Meals are about relationships and conversations, not just about stuffing food in my mouth with other people doing the same in relative proximity. Eating should also be an adventure, since life in itself is an adventure.
So, like Zorba whose mantra for life was “Dance, dance!,” I say, “Eat, eat!.”