Tuesday, 3 November 2009

A Dish Of Culinary Xenophobia

My knife slides into the avocado and the two halves fall apart, all green-edged pale yellow perfection. "Look!" I say, breathing a sigh of relief, "it's just ripe enough."

Avocados are tough to get just right: sometimes one that looks absolutely fine will turn out to be rotten inside, nothing but fibrous and rancid brown mush. The fact that this one is so beautifully ripe and flawless is a real stroke of luck. But the ring of faces around me registers deep suspicion. Nobody seems impressed.

"Now, we'll just put the avocado halves in this bowl here," I go on, handing one boy a garlic press, "and squeeze some garlic and a little lemon juice into it--"

"Hojam, I no like," the boy interrupts glumly, pointing at the garlic.

I look up at him in consternation. Last week, I asked everybody if they liked garlic and I'm sure I got nothing but enthusiastic nods. Maybe nobody understood me. Maybe all those nods were the equivalent of my students' kneejerk yeses when I ask if they've done their homework, even when they've hardly glanced at it.

I try to keep my face from falling. "You really don't like garlic?" How can someone not like garlic? "You didn't say anything about not liking garlic last week..."

The boy shivers and looks at the garlic press in my hand, his upper lip drawn back. When I suggested doing guacamole last week, everyone seemed keen enough. From the looks on their faces, I might as well be mixing up slug slime with gasoline.

I don't actually want to be here, doing this, but I have no choice. This term, our director got the idea that we should have after-school clubs for the students, in order to offer them a more diverse and stimulating social life. In the warmer months, there are a lot of things the students can do, but when it gets colder, they get bored. Students have complained that they do nothing but -- gasp! -- study, and commute back and forth to school. So now we have a tennis club, a football club, an engineering club, a conversation club, a drama club and a 'gourmet' club. I'm in charge of the gourmet club.

We should not have called it a gourmet club. Why not? Because it turns out that none of these boys will try more than the tiniest smear of guacamole. They feel the same way about the cheese and spring onion quesadillas we have fried up. The same food my own kids can't get enough of is clearly grossing them out in the worst way.

"No thank you," murmur all the boys, one after another, shaking their heads as I hold out a bowl of fresh tortilla chips and point to the guacamole. They avert their eyes and make nauseated little moues.

I should have known the boys weren't wholeheartedly behind the idea of trying Mexican food. When I reminded them about it earlier, they frowned at the avocados and started talking about kebabs and pilaf. They've eaten hundreds upon hundreds of kebabs and pilafs, but not one of them had the tiniest idea about Mexican food. I just wanted them to try something different. This is a Gourmet Club, after all! This is what I get for wanting people to love the things I love. For wanting them to try new things and expand their horizons.

All too keenly I remember the time my eldest daughter convinced me to make sushi for her class in Scotland. I told her it was a bad idea. I tried my best to discourage her, only partly because I didn't feel like going to the trouble of making sushi for a bunch of strangers: I knew that her classmates could not possibly appreciate my efforts as much as she did. People can be very squeamish about certain kinds of 'ethnic' food, and our little town in Scotland is hardly a cosmopolitan metropolis. But my daughter begged and begged me, certain that her classmates would be as thrilled with her favorite food as she was, so with great reservations, I sent her off to school proudly carrying a plateful of futomaki, stuffed with soy-cooked shiitake, carrots, cucumber, egg, and crab.

Sure enough, my daughter came home from school with an empty plate and a glum expression. While some of her friends loved the sushi, a lot of kids played ball with them in the classroom. "They didn't like the nori," my daughter told me. "They said it tasted like paper." I made a sympathetic face and refrained from saying I told you so. "All they like is chips," my daughter grumbled. "They don't even want to try other stuff, no matter how good it is."

"Turkish boys like kebab, Mary," my colleague informs me primly as I wrap up the scorned quesadilla and dump the guacamole into a plastic container. I scrub the chopping board and try to keep my irritation from showing. Of course Turkish boys like kebab -- I know that! But this is a gourmet club, not a Let's make the same old food you eat every single night club, right?

Looks like next week we'll be making a pilaf.



Kim Ayres said...

What about gourmet chocolate fudge brownies, or gourmet maple & pecan pie, or gourmet Scottish tablet?

They might end up overweight, spotty and hyperactive, but I'm sure attendance and enthusiasm would sky rocket :)

Postman said...

Oh, good grief. Slug slime? How could anybody look at guacamole and think slug slime?

...okay, bad example. But seriously, how could anyone not like garlic? Jeez.

Another good one. It's interesting to find out that people on the other side of the world might be just as finicky about food from other continents as we are ourselves. And it's a darned shame to boot.

Vijaya said...

Hmmm, maybe all that head nodding from the previous week was an emphatic NO!

Oh, I wish you had Rosemary Well's YOKO book on school lunches and sushi to share with these gourmands.

Eryl Shields said...

A gourmet club for teenage boys? You have my deepest sympathy.

Helen said...

Oh Mary! How rude of those boys not to appreciate you and your slug slime! Just the idea of somebody making me something (ANYTHING!!) to eat that I don't have to make, makes me want to swoon. I do believe it is a boy thing though - my son will manage to find the smallest speck of green in food, and spend the next five minutes whining and removing said offensive green-ness. Next week, just give them two-minute noodles and be done with it.

Robin said...

Those rotten little ingrates! Send that guacamole over here. You can put all the garlic in it that you want.

Our families have very similar eating habits. If we could get together for a big family dinner, we'd sure eat well.

Anne Spollen said...

Lol, slug slime. I think you should just use "gourmet" chocolate every time to get through it. Doncha love the ideas that get into school administrators' idle minds?

But go chocolate, and do lots of demos.

angryparsnip said...

Such a shame, rather picky not to even try. . . my children are adventurist eaters and will try anything at lest once.
Wonder if they are like that with everything in their life shows a pattern maybe? If it is unknown it can't be good?

Good Luck with the rest of your club, maybe something with Chocolate next time?

Aren't Kebab marinated with garlic and spices?

kara said...

neither b nor i enjoy the avocado. when this news is shared, the average response is usually a follow up question regarding our sanity.

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- They would probably LOVE tablet. One taste of tablet has enough sugar to keep me going for a week, but they're used to baklava, saturated with sugar and gooey with honey.

Come to think of it, I don't believe I will make tablet with them, though: I don't even want to THINK about these kids being any more hyperactive than they already are.

Postman -- I'll try just about anything and even if I don't like it, I generally appreciate the experience. I'm not really all that adventurous and I can be picky about certain things, but around these kids I'm a culinary adventurer. I agree with you about the garlic though -- how can people NOT like it? Good thing you like it, too, given that you lived in Korea; even if you only spend a couple of days in Korea, you can't get away with not liking garlic.

Vijaya -- But they said they liked to try new things! I couldn't have misheard that!

I wish I'd had Rosemary Wells' book to share with the Scottish kids who threw my sushi around the classroom. Never mind: all the cool kids (with the cool parents) liked my sushi. Sniff.

Eryl -- Yeah, I'm such an idiot, too. I could have bought a six pack and a couple of bags of crisps and won their undying love.

Helen -- Me too! One of my colleagues made me soup last month and served it with bread, olives and yogurt. I practically wept from the sheer novelty of it. (Though having written that, my husband does his fair share and then some in the kitchen, and he sometimes reads this blog -- hi honey!)

I wish I could have made the guacamole for you. And take heart: my kid used to be the World's Pickiest Eater, but she plowed into that leftover guacamole like it was melted chocolate. Keep nagging and your son may be won over too!

Robin -- I swear, I wish I'd made that guacamole for you and Helen, above. We could have had a better time than those boys and I did, and I'd even throw in some tequila, chicken escabeche, and refried beans (though not all together, of course...) And yes: bring on the garlic, and who cares who doesn't like how it smells on our breath?

Anne -- Next time, I'm going to do brownies. I have the recipe all picked out and everything. If they are nice, I may even put walnuts in them. Um, the brownies, that is.

AP -- You are right: Turkish food has plenty of garlic in it. One of the other boys didn't want to make spaghetti with onions in it, so that was out. Yet another said he didn't like celery, and another would not eat beans. Sheesh: I might as well have been cooking for my kids, ages 8-12 again.

Thanks for the good wishes -- i fear I'll need them. Brownies. Next time we're making brownies.

Kara -- I used to HATE avocados when I was growing up: my father grew them pretty much for a living, and we had rotten ones lying around the house all the time, waiting to be deseeded. Rotten avocados are every bit as nasty as rotten anything else.

Try a just-ripe one drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar, with a little garlic, crushed fresh basil, and carrot sticks. That's what turned me.

laura said...

Teenagers! Why we spend so much time trying to please them, encourage them, educate them ... is beyond me! They can be such ungrateful snots!!! I guess we just like a challenge.

Falak said...

Hahaha... Try fried meat items and french fries.... Or just melt chocolate in a bowl and give it to them. It usually works for me when I end up baby-sitting my bro and cousins ages 5-15. Next time round please send me the guacamole and quesadilla...... I shall be indebted to you for life if you save me from the monotony of eating sambar and rice day in and day out;)

Charlie said...

I've always thought that teenage boys would eat anything, similar to our garbage disposal. With spurts of growth, they are "bottomless pits."

I have a suspicion, then, that they are giving you their usual hard time.

Chocolatesa said...

I TOTALLY understand your frustration! I love trying new, unusual, ethnic foods, but my husband is the complete opposite. He refuses to try ANYTHING new. Or almost. He did try an artichoke leaf last week, but didn't like it. But come on, who on earth doesn't like creamy artichoke dripping with garlic butter?!? The other day we went to a greek restaurant (gasp!) and he didn't even know what greek salad was, or feta cheese. And olives in salad!??? Why on earth would anyone want to try that disgusting concoction?? [/sarcasm] ARGH!!!

Angela said...

I can't believe they wouldn't at least try it! What a shame.

i agree with some of the other posters--start serving up some sweets to get them hooked on trying something new. With all your worldly experience, you probably have so many culinary treats to offer!

Robert the Skeptic said...

There were a lot of foods I hated when I was young. Turned out that my Mother was a horrible cook.. and I mean HORRIBLE. Fortunately we lived in San Francisco so we had Mexican and Chinese as choices. But I never had a Pizza until I was in high school.

When I went away to college the students complained about the cafeteria food, I thought it was gourmet and couldn't get enough. I learned to love vegetables again.

My wife is an EXCELLENT cook; I look in the fridge and only condiments, but she makes a whole dinner out of almost nothing. It's a wonder I am not huge.

I am told she makes fantastic guacamole - I can't say; I don't like guacamole.

Merry Monteleone said...

Poor Mary!

If it makes you feel any better, my kids would've cleaned you out of guacamole. Maybe you should serve American crap instead of gourmet... I bet they'd eat a cheeseburger loaded with everything :-)

Mary Witzl said...

Laura -- Teenagers try the patience of saints. The only reason I put up with them is because I was once one myself. And sadly, my memory is the one part of me that is still pretty close to 100%.

Falak -- Sambar and rice? I would happily swap! The only time I get to have Indian food is when I can be bothered to make it myself.

Melted chocolate poured over ice cream with toasted almonds and pecans on it, topped with whipped cream and a cherry -- that ought to do it, eh? The very thought of it has certainly made me sit up straight.

Charlie -- I thought the very same thing. I picked guacamole because they told me they wanted to try different things. Avocados are incredibly nutritious, and guacamole is spicy and different -- I figured I'd picked a real winner. And quesadillas! Who in their right mind doesn't go for melted cheese?

Next time I'll make brownies.

Chocolatesa -- I eat feta and olives literally every day -- I'd be lost without them. I feel your pain: it's so hard to live with people who don't want to try new things -- who can only bear to eat the same old stuff time after time. I come from a family of fairly adventurous eaters, but if I go out for Chinese food with my younger sister, she can't imagine ordering anything other than fried rice and sweet and sour vegetables. I go for something new practically every time.

Angela -- The three of them probably put away no more than a teaspoon, tops. I felt like crying. They told everyone that the food I picked was weird and inedible. Little sh*ts.

You're right: I would have been wiser to start off with brownies or hot fudge sundaes. Live and learn.

Robert -- My mother could cook, but she resented it; (she worked full time: she had a right to prefer TV dinners.) Like you, when I left home, I was amazed to discover things like broccoli, garlic, fish that wasn't straight from a can, and a whole menu full of foods from different countries.

You've passed on your avocado aversion to Kara, I see! Actually, I think that some food likes/dislikes MUST be genetic, not just plain old finickiness. But my young Turks are just finicky -- no doubt about it.

Merry -- Last term, one of the boys I teach told me he'd been to the States and loved 'American food'. I was pleased and asked him what he liked specifically: jambalaya? Chile and corn bread? Soul food, maybe, or clam chowder? No, it turned out that he was talking about Big Macs. He said he had eaten Big Macs every single day for a month. Really, I could cry.

Wish I was cooking for your kids!

adrienne said...

I LOVE guacamole, but I guess I can see how it might be scary. I mean, it is green and slimy, after all.

My relatives just brought us cans of cuitlacoche from Mexico - something they adore. It's a fungus that grows on corn, and it looks as disgusting as it sounds. I haven't worked up the nerve to try it yet.

Juniper said...

Ha ha ha what a good post! The parallel to your own daughters experience in Scotland with Sushi was great. Sorry to hear the boys turned their noses up at it. I can relate a little, I love cooking and there was a point when we lived in England where I was in a similar situation to your after school club. I was in the position of teaching a group of fairly new arrivals (all boys between 13-17 years old from different countries in Africa ) the basics of cooking a nutritious meal. I remember they could not stand the fratata I made, even the lasagne didn't go down well. Likewise here we had some friends over to dinner (a French food anthropologist and her Maltese husband) I made a three course Mexican meal (which took a lot of effort as cilantro is near to impossible to find here and cooking black beans for nearly 24 hours was also a lot of effort). I was shocked when they turned their noses up as soon they heard I had cooked Mexican. It certainly does not have the best reputation outside of the the Americas. Sigh, luckily your own family is open to different tastes and thats a gift that keeps on giving throughout their whole lives.

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- Cuitlacoche sounds awful, but only because I'm thinking fungus as in athlete's foot. If I think fungus as in shiitake or portobello mushrooms, it sounds pretty good. Go on -- give it a try! (Then tell me if it's any good and I'll have a bite too...)

Juniper -- I'll never forget the first time I made Mexican food for Japanese friends. They were pretty disgusted with it: they love beans, but tend to eat them with a lot of sugar. The thought of mashed beans as a savory dish had never crossed their minds, and they were definitely not fans. Too bad that your Maltese/French friends didn't appreciate your Mexican food, though! Mexican food, properly made (as opposed to the made-for-Americans stuff you can get in the States) is easily as good and as hard to make as French food. Wish I'd been there instead: I love cilantro!