My abalone and green tomato aguachile was a Proustian heightening of a day spent in the tide-pools at Half Moon Bay. The shimmering rainbow shells held artless assemblages of ivory, apple green, and sprigs of purple seaweed, as if some rough Zen-master wave had tossed up onto the shore an ikebana summary of a walk along the strand. The mineral winds in my face, the seagulls joking on brine-crashed rocks, the subsiding crunch of sand underfoot.... Bright sun caramelized and Pacific breezes frosted my skin, orange slithering starfish sledded slowly over stones, crashing surf rolled onto the shore and sucked relentlessly back into itself. The world shrank to nothing but white sprays and sparkling foam rolling over metal-blue cascades of water.
The woman next to me was much more glamourous than I, in a modest and tasteful way. She wore an unostentatious fortune of diamonds on her ring finger, her black clothes were retiring and subdued, her hair lay just so, and her makeup was invisible. Her glamourous husband and she were modestly and tastefully picking at their $39 cod before returning it half-eaten, not touching the tortillas, maybe a tiny daub of the black beans to be polite. She saw what I had and her face lit up like a little girl looking in a Macy's Christmas window.
She wanted that.
Her desire humanized her and we chatted. Look at that! That was so beautiful! It looked so exciting! It looked so delicious! Wow, abalone, she hadn't known they had abalone here, what a special treat! How could she have been so boring, she wished she had gotten that! She had gotten the plain old cod, when she could have had that beautiful abalone in the beatiful shells, with the colours, and the tastes! She too could have tasted the briny breezes of Half Moon Bay! She too could have been transported to a summer's day of rock-skipping and sea-anemone-poking! Oh, regret, regret most crushing.
I silently agreed with her. Her exorbitant fish looked good, but it was just a fish, cooked as a peasant would have cooked it, presented filleted with salsa, and I could have made it at home for less than a quarter of the price. What was special about it was that it was homey and ordinary, and I can...do that myself.
Then the sea urchin came.
I had assumed, when I ordered the tamal de cazuela, that I would get something that at least slightly resembled a tamale. Instead I got a nest for the love child of a porcupine and a seagull. This black, spiky, Magic-8-Ball-sized nest with the top nicked off it loomed toward me and I felt like a virgin teenaged boy faced with the Queen of the Courtesans. How could I have had the chutzpah to order such a dish? Did I think I could handle the truth? I couldn't handle the truth!
I was not feeling lucky, punk.
I looked down at the black spiky nest, and inside was a mysterious pearly substance of unknown consistency, temperature, or flavour. On top of the mysterious pearly substance lay a gigantic fire-orange tongue, protruberant papillae and all, or so looked the sea urchin to me. And around that, a few strips of habanero-charred leeks. Of all the enterprising dishes I had ever ordered in my life, this one was in a class of its own. Even I could not just wade in. Would it be slimy? Would it be squishy? Would it be weird? I stared. The people next to me stared. The other people next to me stared. Just taste it, I told myself. You won't know until you taste it. I took a deep breath and, without breaking eye contact with the spiky nest, cautiously drew my spoon.
It tasted completely normal.
If I lived in Mexico near a beach, I could tell I would have eaten this or something like this millions of times. You know, around the campfire, with the guys. It was just cornmeal mush, with some cooked-oniony things, and a bit of whatever the local fisherman had caught in his net that day. For something that looked like an alien from Planet Zorphon, I had never tasted something so firmly within my comfort zone. The cornmeal was hearty, earthy, and grounding. The sea urchin was a bold yet balanced mixture of masculine, rich, umami on one hand, and feminine, oceanic, briny on the other. The leeks added aromatic spice, textural counterplay, and visual completion to the ensemble. Despite its intimidating demeanour, the dish had a friendly heart.
And the woman next to me wanted that. She was extremely polite, and certainly wasn't like, “I want your food!” But she longed for my scary food-nest, with its black spikes and white masa and bright orange naked-tongue sea urchin. Rather, she longed to be the person who had ordered that, instead of what she had actually ordered. Why (oh why) had she ordered the boring old mixed-seafood-fry when she could have had a spiky black sea urchin nest full of surprises? It looked so scary, yet so beautiful, and why had she wasted a trip to this restaurant on safe choices when she could have had something delicious and exciting?
I can be slow sometimes, but I realized: this is only nominally about sea urchin. This safely dressed woman, with her beautiful (yet unostentatious) diamond ring, her beautifully kept face and hair, her beautiful husband in his unostentatious sweater, the two of them picking meagrely at their safe expensive fish, not even registering the things on the menu that lay outside of their comfort zone, blind to everything that wasn't in their everyday scope of familiarity.... She didn't want protein and carbs, she wanted adventure.
She wanted to be the woman who went to the restaurant all by herself and ordered the most interesting thing on the menu. She wanted to taste new things. She wanted to experience new kinds of delicious. She didn't want to disappoint herself. She wanted to be able to see outside of her immediate scope of vision, wanted to take her blinders off, wanted to become aware of a wider world of opportunities and sample them for herself.
I had a hedonistic moral imperative to encourage her to taste the sea urchin, so I handed her a brand-new fork and asked her to try it. Because what if the safety and low-committment factor of not having to order it herself made it ok to sample this new thing, whereas she might not dare order it on her own? What if me getting her to taste the sea urchin today poked within her her “I'm My Own Woman” Button and reminded her that it's a big world out there, full of tastes and experiences and adventures, just waiting for her to try? What if that tiny gesture lit up a light bulb hidden in her depths that could then say, “oh yes?” That remembered that muted black clothes are one great choice in a whole world of great fashion choices, that togetherness time with husband is one wonderful note in a whole world of emotional notes, and that the amount of woman encircled by a pair of diamond rings is one tiny percentage of the much greater surface area of Whole Woman?
The world is waiting for you to discover it, just as much now as when you were a baby, I wanted to tell her, as she bravely took the bite. If you want it, it is there. If you don't want it, it will wait. It's up to you.
She too was surprised by how friendly and homey the taste was. Her husband was frank and charming and made me feel that we were all shaking hands over martinis at a yacht club. ….It was just a tiny gesture. But I felt like I could just as easily have been telling the woman, “your clitoris is over here.”
I'll have what she's having.