Sunday, February 1, 2009

Food is Life

When I had cancer at 27, part of what I got was a message one day from the doctors. They told me that after my impending surgery, I would never be able to taste food or drink again and to prepare myself for that fact. 

So, I did. It made me sad, of course, because I was a big Texas food man- chicken fried steak, enchiladas

Lyon, a plateful of chicken liver salade, and a glass of wine. Happiness!
Gulf seafood, barbecue, good Bohemian and German sausage and potato salad, my grandmother’s eye-popping fried chicken and gravy, my mother’s chili that she and her pals swapped recipes on one year and used us as lab rats. I had made a minor career in Austin out of writing and talking about Texas food, Cajun food, Mexican food, cowboy food. But, as I had found already in that long, scary year in the hospital, a human being can do anything, literally, that it has to. That is why you see people in the most horrific, impossible situations continue to live, somehow.

After the surgery to remove my tongue (and half of my neck, but that is another story) I waited a long time before I was recovered enough to actually attempt a meal. Solid food. A group of us, I think it was my family, went out to eat at a Mexican food place. (The word “Tex-Mex” never crossed our lips in those days- it was Mexican food both to the purveyors and to us, because they felt that they were cooking the food of their people and they were Mexican Texans, after all.) I ordered a plate of cheese enchiladas with red chili sauce and rice and beans, the touchstone of Mexican food joints all over Texas. Half way through the first bite I realized that it tasted just like it always had- the complex flavors of comino, chilis, corn tortilla, mild cheese, onion, garlic.* I wish I could say that I got up and danced around the room, because I should have, but I was very, very surprised and very, very happy to have this gift handed to me by fate.

You don’ miss your water ‘til your well runs dry” will do here. When something you love is taken from you, that’s the time when you find out how much or how little you really cared about that thing. Now take that thing away, mourn its loss by the hour and the days, and then have it restored to you. There are very few days in my life, or moments I should say, when I have been as flabbergasted and happy as the moment I found out I could still taste food.

That was also the moment I vowed- honest, I swear this is not hindsight- that I would never waste another meal or another mouthful or another day, squander another precious second with bad food or wasteful living. People ask me when I learned to cook, or when I learned about wine and food. That was the second it really began, because I understood that I had only begun the voyage into a world of flavor and ingredients and techniques that has carried on to this day. There is no time to waste, and every time you cram some crummy triviality into your craw you are sinning against life just as surely as if you had spent the day watching soap operas. Hie thee to a grocery, grab something real, get out a good cookbook, learn to turn ingredients into art, open an eight-dollar bottle of French wine and sit down to it while you remember how to live again. 

Selfish? Yes, but are we not a hungering self? I’d say we owe ourselves a life lived fully as well as a measure of service and care of others. Even Jesus loved a good meal and a good joke with friends and a glass of wine, regardless of what the fundamentalists absurdly claim. My point here, however, is really about awareness, or what my Buddhist friends call mindfulness. When we become complacent about simple everyday things we are losing something important. In having “food” jerked out of my mouth and then given back to me, I got more than a sense of taste back- I got a jolt of gratitude and awareness of the preciousness of existence that I am still aware of thirty years later. Drink up! We have nothing to fear...

*”Flavor” is almost all aroma, and perceived in the brain as a result of the aroma of food in our mouths and as we swallow. Only sweet, salty, sour and bitter are perceived by taste buds on the tongue. I found that my sense of flavor was undiminished and that I even had residual taste buds in other locations in my mouth besides my much-mourned tongue. God-dammit and thanks God...