projects and writings of T.A. Burkholder
It’s easy to poke fun at or be embarrassed by Americans abroad who will only eat at McDonald’s and the like. We call them immature or provincial or ugly. They’re taking the easy way, choosing the familiar over the foreign. If they were being asked to do something dangerous or taxing or complicated, it might be forgiveable. But trying some food you’ve never had before in a restaurant you’ve never been to is a ridiculous fear to have. The worst that could happen is you don’t like what you’re served. That’s a pretty low bar as far as risk goes. Still, it’s what so many people do.
If I’m being honest, it’s what I do too. My own aversions stem from the same impulse even if they show up at a different point along the spectrum. This week we’d been gifted some money to spend on eating out. I could feel myself wanting to cling to the walls of my well-worn groove. The groove is smooth and comfy and meets all expectations. But just because my groove includes a large number of great local eateries rather than a standard list of fast food chains, doesn’t give me license to back down from the smallest of challenges, to risk feeling uncomfortable and shy away from a table full of vaguely unfamiliar dishes.
So we went to Pok Pok, Portland’s renowned Thai street food restaurant. The place sits less than two miles from my house and yet over all the years it’s been there, I’d never tried it. Not even once. My reasons (a.k.a. excuses) for not going were as follows: too long a wait, too dense a menu full of dishes I’d never heard of and could barely even picture, too confusing a lay-out with outdoor tables and indoor seating and a take-out shack all crammed into a tiny lot, and too much hipster attitude from tattooed waitstaff who would sniff out my newcomer status and sneer at me for the duration of my meal.
Paltry, ridiculous excuses. Of course. Life outside the groove is usually pretty sweet, afterall. When we arrived, a cheery woman showed us to a cozy table inside within a couple minutes. The menu was a bit overwhelming, so we just picked a couple of house favorites and a few other specials and confirmed with the tattooed, but helpful, non-sneering waiter that our choices were sound.
The food was new and amazing and delicious. As we nibbled and swooned, I became so inspired by how well this little adventure was going that I did something I hadn’t planned on; I plucked one of the famous fish sauce wings off Sean’s plate and ate it–the first chicken I’d had since 1989.
It felt a little weird to hold an animal’s wing between my fingers and scrape my teeth along its bone. But I’d been growing more and more lax with my diet for years. In fact, I’d been saying that I wanted to try some meat again, an actual hunk of really good meat, so this wasn’t exactly shocking. And while I don’t plan on making a habit of it, that first wing was so good, I went ahead and had another.
And that’s the thing about nudging yourself out of the same old groove. Sometimes you find something good, something worthy of a new groove all its own. Most of me knew this, believed it, even acted on it a fair amount. Still, it’s easy to be lulled and lazy. It takes some active effort not to succumb. Doing this project, I hear the whisper of the familiar more clearly now. On the surface that whisper sounds reasonable and sweet, but now I hear the undertones and they sound mostly like the fake cries of a five-year old begging for a PBJ. Forget it, kid. It’s spicy papaya salad or nothing, so deal.