This is one of my most clearly defined, early food memories. I was about five or six years old, and we had gone to dinner at some fancy-type restaurant for a business dinner with my father's colleagues. I sat next to a man who, by my memory, was not that much larger than me. He was short, I remember, and quite round. He had dark hair and a sort of reddish complexion, and eyes I never saw. I don't remember his name, though I do remember talking to him quite a bit. I do remember, however, that he was blind, and that he was very willing to answer all my questions about being blind. Until it came time to start thinking about dinner, which he was very much interested in.
He told me he was planning to order, for his first course, the escargots. I didn't know what they were, and so I asked. I remember how severely my nose wrinkled up when he told me they were snails, and moreover, that snails are quite delicious. I didn't believe him for a moment, and so I quizzed him at length about them. The man told me the thing that most influenced my love of food, which was that even when things sound gross, there's a reason people eat them and so one might do best to try these foods before judging them. It was a longer, expanded version of "don't knock it until you try it," but it got through to me somehow. After all of this, probably because he had been so honest with me about all the particulars of his blindness, I trusted this man. And so I too ordered escargots.
I remember the dish arriving and being placed in front of me. The strange bowl, with little cups in it. The heady smell of garlic, wine and butter. And because of the little cups (and the shells), I remember not having the first clue how to proceed. So I asked the man. I figured since he got me into this, he could explain the ways of escargots to me. And so he did. He instructed me on how to get the little gems out with my small fork, reminded me to swish them more in the liquid to give them more flavour, and he also told me to chew my food slowly. At that point in my life I was a good chewer (I'm a much faster eater now that I'm grown, though I suppose that happens to all adults) and so that last bit of information wasn't especially needed. It was a good reminder though, and one I give myself every time I think of this man while I'm eating.
I pried out a snail, and I dipped and pressed it into the sauce before putting it in my mouth, as instructed. And then I chewed. The burst of flavour and happiness in my mouth was immediate. I could feel the slightly rubbery give of the snail's flesh, and taste its relatively mild flavour. The sauce was an explosion of fattiness and wonder, and as I chewed the sauce pushed itself into the recesses of the snail, making sure each time my teeth clamped was a new and wondrous experience. I was in heaven.
This snail, that I was so hesitant to put in my mouth... this bug in my mouth... was one of the most incredible things I had experienced. It remains, to this day, one of the most incredible things I've experienced. I ate them all. Every single one. The man and I sat, in silence, eating our snails. There was a table full of other people there with us, but to me, only the man, the snails, and I existed. Nothing else. When we finished our snails, the man asked me what I thought about them. I'm sure he regretted that decision, since I was a much more chatty kid than I am as an adult (unbelievable, huh?). I told him at length about my impressions of the snails, and he told me about other sauces they sometimes come in. We talked about nothing but snails. It was wonderful, that sense of adventure, exploration, fellowship, communication, newness and wonder. It is the experience with food I look for every time I eat. And though only one in a thousand meals gives me this exact feeling, I cannot stop looking for it. I was addicted to food in that moment, and it's the reason I continue to be addicted o food.
It's strange sometimes to think that this man whose eyes I never saw (because of his glasses), whose name I still don't know, gave me one of the most influential moments of my life. It changed my life, and all my views on food. That change still exists today for me. Sometimes I will be looking at a menu, or an ingredient in the store, and my first, archetypal American response is, "Ew. That's gross." Every time that happens, the escargots and the man come to my mind, and I can hear his gentle rebuke about judging a food before I've tried it. And in those moments, even when I'd rather order something familiar, or even just something that seems a little less weird, I go with the escargots. They're not usually actually escargots, but I never eat the weird food without remembering the actual escargots.
And so, this man, whom I met once, changed my life forever. He is the reason I maintain this blog. He is the reason I eat with such abandon. He is the reason I try things I have no interest in trying. He is the reason I seek that bliss with every bite I put in my mouth. I don't know who he is, but I am thankful to him, every day of my life, for the incredible and inexpressible (though I'm trying) gift he gave me and the way it shaped my thinking.
Is there someone who does or did exist in your life who gave you a gift like this, or who influenced you in such a remarkable way? I'd love to hear y'all's experiences too.