MEMOIR: ME VERSUS JAPANESE FOOD (Major Rewrites)
I was more than fifty years old, and I was afraid of all sorts of food, but none more so than Japanese food. It was full of raw seafood. I couldn’t cope with the thought of it. It messed with my head. It was horrifying. It reminded me of going fishing with my dad when I was a kid. There were dreadful, disgusting things when you went fishing. The things you had to do with raw baitfish. The things you had to do with fresh fish you’d just caught, when they were still alive. In the dank and fevered swamps of my mind, Japanese food loomed large and terrifying, a source of waking anxiety and awful dreams. I couldn’t bear it.
What was it, exactly, that scared me about it? What specific thing? As with all my food-related phobias and aversions it was my old problem of the gag reflex and the possibility of public vomiting, and especially public vomiting in front of family or loved ones, just like when I was the little kid gagging on the boiled corn and Mum and Dad were furious. All my life, with countless foods, even the thought of trying something would put me in a very high defensive state, leading to gagging when I put whatever it was in my mouth, then retching if I managed to get past the gagging. And all of that in public, in restaurants, in front of guests. The mortification, the humiliation. You feel yourself burn to ash. This was my entire life with food of all sorts.
So, there I was, 50-Year Man, who had lived his whole life afraid of so many kinds of food. I felt ridiculous, ashamed. It was time to do something, or at least try to do something, about it. My greatest fear was vomiting in public–and all my life that felt to me like the atom bomb of personal fears. It was a mortal, overwhelming terror. It was so vast, urgent, suffocating—you did not dare stop and question it. It was a classic major anxiety trope. You don’t question the anxiety. You don’t look behind the curtain.
But I was fifty years old and fed up, so to speak. I was ready to ask questions. All my life I’d had this mortal terror of vomiting, losing control, embarrassing myself, making a scene, drawing attention to myself, in public. It was intolerable. Shaming. It would shame me, and especially my family. There would be no way to recover lost dignity. No apology could ever be sufficient. It would be the atom bomb of social gaffes.
Yes, I thought, examining the apparatus of the anxiety my brain had put together. It was pretty impressive as these things go. There was no easy way to disassemble it, and open it up to see what made it tick. But I did get it open. I started to think: was vomiting in public truly as bad as all that? Couldn’t I just use a napkin to catch whatever came up? Couldn’t I run to the bathroom at the first sign of distress? It occurred to me that I could very possibly do these things. It had never previously occurred to me that I could do these things.
Then there was data. How often had I ever actually vomited in a restaurant, in public, bringing unbearable shame upon my family, etc?
I could not think of a single instance across my fifty years. I had just about always gagged on food, from tiniest childhood until the present day. Any time I was in a situation where I was expected to eat something over which I had no control, and the food in question was not something I knew about, I would almost certainly gag on it. And if I persisted, despite the gag reflex, and tried to swallow that food, then I would get the retching, and that would likely lead to vomiting. But if I’ve got the gagging, I’m not likely to proceed further. Because why would I? I would rather go hungry.
So as far as I know I was terrified of vomiting the way I was terrified of nuclear war: something urgent, overwhelming and suffocating, but which has never so far happened.
Also, on reflection, it occurred to me that there were probably worse things I could do in a restaurant, if I applied myself to the task, than mere spewing. In any case, “mere” spewing was still plenty worrying, and I was in no rush to do it–but I was in a rush to put my plan into effect.
I told Michelle about it. That I wanted to eat Japanese food.
Once I’d revived her and helped her up off the floor, she agreed to take me to some suitable places.
The first place we went was a Japanese café in Subiaco, a little place, not fancy, not crowded, and just right. I stood in the doorway, sniffing. It did not smell bad. It did not smell fishy. It had previously occurred to me that “smelling or tasting fishy” was one of the things that put me off about Japanese food, and that I equated that with the most disgusting thoughts imaginable. Once I stopped to examine that thought, it began to seem strange, and foolish.
So there I was, in the doorway of an actual Japanese establishment, nostrils twitching, checking for fishiness–and it was fine. There was a food or cooking smell, for sure, but I couldn’t identify it. One thing I could tell for sure: it was not “non-food”. It wasn’t my category 3.
We went in, and found a table. I felt weird and shaky, cold and wobbly in the legs, and jittery in my stomach. I was aware of a sensation of being a bit “brave”, for certain values of “brave”.
Then I was sitting there, looking around, an astronaut on a distant, alien world taking in the vista before him, aware that everything he sees and says is historic. The very fact of my being there was shocking. The last time I was in a Japanese restaurant was in about 2003, and I was an invited guest to the local science fiction convention, Swancon, and that year the convention committee thought it would be fun to take all the guests to dinner at a Japanese restaurant. It was excruciating and mortifying for me, but I couldn’t imagine not going because I was a guest–they’d been kind enough to invite me. I still remember the waitress on her knees begging me with the greatest humility to please just eat something, and having to politely, so politely, refuse. It was awful.
So here I was on my alien world, taking historic steps. I examined the menu. The names were mysterious. Michelle explained things. I settled on the grilled octopus balls, and the teriyaki beef skewers. I went for the octopus because they were the most objectively terrifying thing available. Octopuses wig me out, and the idea of eating them doubly wigs me out. The beef teriyaki skewers were intended as something rational, understandable, food from my home planet.
The octopus balls came out, hot and alive. They had these flakes of bonito fish on them which wafted about in the heat coming off the balls, making the entire thing look alive and menacing.
And, ladies and germs, I ate one of those bastards. I jammed it in my mouth, and it felt a bit weird in texture, but not disgusting, just unfamiliar–but the best part was that it tasted meaty, savoury. It did not taste the least bit seafoody or fishy. It was good!
I enjoyed the second of the two I was given, and felt like the King of the Freaking World, like I could do anything.
The teriyaki beef skewers were a bit sweet, but were grilled beef bits on sticks. Definitely food from my home planet, posing no problems.
I left this cafe 2–0, feeling pretty damned good, ready to take things up a notch. This was forthcoming. Michelle later took me to another Japanese restaurant she knew near IKEA, which she said was good because it was always crowded, which meant the food must be very fresh. I liked her logic.
I’d never been to a sushi train restaurant, so that was fun, with little plates of things trundling past, leading to a lot of intense, split-second decisions. On this occasion I was determined to investigate the whole raw fish thing, so when a couple of pieces of raw salmon sushi came by, I grabbed them. Again, I was nervous as hell, moreso than I had been at the other place. The stakes were higher. This food was raw, while the food at that other place had been grilled (which improves everything). The sense of being an astronaut a long way from my home planet was even more acute. I was here with Michelle but I felt all alone, just me and my treacherous, ready-to-spew stomach.
This raw salmon sushi was exactly the kind of thing I was most afraid of. Imagine being afraid of spiders and then grabbing one with the intention of eating it. Imagine your fears becoming manifest. But also imagine knowing your fears are stupid, and trying to beat them.
I picked up one of the salmon sushi pieces. It looked huge, but I had seen people eat these things in one go, so I tried that. I shoved it in my gob–
First, there was no fishy or seafoody taste.
Second, I gagged hard. I was about to be sick.
This was it. The doomsday scenario.
I’m aware that there is Too Much Food in my mouth, that it’s uncomfortable, like something’s about to burst. I’m glancing about, because obviously People Can Tell. I’m starting to sweat. I’m retching. Thinking about where the toilets might be, and how to tell Michelle. Can I remove the salmon from my mouth first–might that help, or is the situation too urgent? It feels like this situation has always felt: profoundly anxious and shameful, as if I’m bringing shame upon my household from which we will never recover. What’s more, I know this is nonsense, but it is nevertheless what I’m feeling.
I’m chewing like mad. There is so much to chew. I must be chewing an entire freaking fish! There is nearly no taste to it, which helps. There is just this mass of stuff in my mouth, and over time the feeling of it pressing down on the back of my throat, on my gag reflex, subsides. I swallow, and swallow again. I have a little green tea. I swallow more.
Normal service resumes. The crisis passes. I mop my brow. The manager comes by and asks if everything is all right. Michelle smiles for both of us. I just nod, exhausted.
The sense of relief afterwards. That I got through that piece of salmon. I had thought about eating raw salmon sushi for years and years. I had seen people in YouTube videos jamming the stuff into their enormous mouths and exclaiming about how good it was. I’d seen this kind of thing so often I wanted to try it, but it made me anxious. Surely there’s a fishy taste and smell. But they always said there was no taste or smell when it’s fresh—but how could that be? I lay in bed, wrestling with this problem, wrapped around it like a Colossal Squid wrestling a Sperm Whale in the inky depths of the ocean. The squid is all, “No fishy taste!” but the whale insists, “It must be fishy—it’s fish!” And on they go into the abyssal depths, unable to resolve their differences. I don’t understand it, either. But I was shocked at the lack of fishy taste. If I hadn’t been having a four-alarm vomiting freak-out emergency, I might even have enjoyed it!
That night I also tried a bunch of different things, and that gagging emergency aside, I had a nice time. But that is also the last time we went out for Japanese food, and it must be more than a year now. It was good, but I didn’t love it madly.
One thing that night I did enjoy was another salmon sushi thing, aburi, but this was salmon whose skin had been lightly seared, with a blow torch. I also took the precaution of eating it in two bites rather than one—and this proved the highlight of the entire evening. It was tasty in a way I did not expect, and eating in multiple bites was exactly the right idea. There was no anxiety, no panic, and no gagging. I enjoyed it.
There are still Japanese food things I want to try. I chickened out on the prawns that night. And I’d like to try sashimi, and Kobe beef, okonomiyaki, and much else. And I need to investigate the world of noodles at some point. I’m put off all things ramen (and related phenomenon of Korean ramyeon) by the very non-food smell of it. Michelle is a ramen devotee, but every time she has it there’s a distinct non-food smell to the stuff that I do not like. I’m not sure what it is that causes that smell, but it puts me right off. It would be curious to see if that smell is an artefact of the instant-noodle process, or if you get it with restaurant ramen as well.
The main thing, when thinking about these remaining Japanese food challenges, is that they are simply challenges now, rather than existential problems and threats. I can imagine going into a Japanese restaurant as a regular customer, knowing about certain items on the menu, and feeling fairly comfortable. I wouldn’t have to feel so much like an astronaut landing on a remote alien world, making history with every step and gesture. I could just enjoy myself as a regular doofus Earthling. A regular doofus Earthling who nonetheless managed to get himself to go up a level with this whole experience. It is a powerful thing to face down a fear and push yourself through it and out the other side.
You feel reborn, as if you can do anything.