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On Something I Ate

Pesto, A Near-Death Experience

By Bryan Douglas

I am not one to shy away from offbeat cuisine. I am not a zombie, but upon finishing a main course of brains I did exclaim to my sister, “I just had a great thought!” I will try anything at least once. Gluttony is my favorite of the seven deadly sins. I heed the ancient creed: Moderation in all things, including moderation. There have been some instances when I thought I was going to die after eating some idiosyncratic foodstuffs, like an entire habanero pepper. For the following twenty-four hours, my innards took up a revolution, but the insurgency eventually subdued and all was left intact. At age ten my life flashed before my eyes when I discovered that McDonald’s french fries and my guts do not agree. In fact, it seems the only thing that can really harm me is fast food and non-food items with imitation red dye in them, which, for the record, are typically not quality foods. Woe is me forced to eat natural and real food. If it’s real I’ll eat it.

An influential factor in my epicurean forays as an adult is my having been subjected to almost two full decades of terrible cooking at home in my youth. Most meals were bland, while others triggered my gag reflex. I love my parents, not their cooking. Though my mom did bake cakes, cookies and pies quite well, the main problem is that in order to partake in dessert, the only palatable food available, I had to finish dinner first. This meant that I would have to find a way to swallow every last bit of slime-dripping overcooked egg noodle with the accompanying chicken, which any normal person’s taste buds would register as extremely foul. These torturous experiences nurtured two distinct and intertwining paths.

As soon as I was able to move out of the house, while my peers were busy figuring out the physics of shotgunning beers and indulging in the culinary delights of top-ramen, I began cooking. I read cookbooks. I studied spices, which, prior to that time, I believed were only salt, pepper and MSG. I learned to cook well and to eat well. My curiosity is never satisfied, and curiosity leads to investigation and experimentation. I concede there is so much more to learn, but already in the kitchen I feel like an alchemist. Whenever possible I try to keep my menu tied to local and seasonal ingredients not for some hippie rationale of keeping it local, man, but instead out of the fact that fresher tastes better. Remember, I am a practicing glutton with standards. Summertime brings the best of the best. One of my all time spring and summer favorites is pesto. There are thousands of ways to make delicious delicious pesto. One such recipe I attempted last summer served to be nearly fatal. I’ll explain.

One great summer treat is the abundance at the local farmers’ market. Unfortunately on the day in question, I sleep in and miss the market. The previous night I stayed up all night and all morning with some friends. It was one of those beautiful warm summer nights. Armed with guitars, an accordion, a double bass, and some percussion we played song after song in between raising our glasses of wine to toast the night. When I wake up this morning at two in the afternoon I’m hungry. I survey the fridge. There’s not much there, as I’d been planning to go to the market this morning. Second choice, I go to the local grocer. I pick up some fresh organic spinach in a giant plastic tub and three-cheese tortellini.

Back home, I roast garlic and pine nuts. I add all the right spices in just the right amounts and toss it all into the blender with the blanched spinach. Today’s menu features the best spinach pesto I will ever cook or eat, if I may say so. I pour a glass of wine left over from last night’s soiree, and I sit down to dine. I don’t know how to explain just how fabulous this dish tastes. The simplest things are quite often the greatest. This pesto is rich yet delicate, and, modesty be damned, it is simply delicious.

I gorge myself. My stomach tells me it’s full, but this is just too good to stop eating. Upon devouring the last of the tortellini, I set my plate down on the coffee table, kick my feet up and take another swig of wine. Life is good. Rays of the setting sun enter the room and glisten on the remaining dark green delectable pesto remnants on the plate. This must be what the Romans felt like. This is heaven, I am thinking. Yet, my heaven would soon reveal itself a wolf in sheep’s clothing. My heaven, as is turns out, is closer to heaven than I could have imagined.

I reach out for the television remote control. Grasping it, I depress the power button. All the while, the pesto on my plate in the middle ground between me and the television beckons and keeps my eyes’ attention to the wonder just past. Then a voice emitting from the television says, “Don’t eat spinach or you’re going to die. There’s tainted spinach at all the local supermarkets. We’ll tell you which brands to avoid after this commercial break.”

I put down my glass of wine and take one long drink from the bottle. I look at the television screen. I look at my plate. I look back at the television. I look back again to my plate drenched in toxins, poisonous lecherous deliciousness. I do this a few more times. I hear the theme music from Curb Your Enthusiasm playing in my head. I begin to hallucinate. Whatever the commercial is on the television, in my mind all I can see is spinach. If it is a car commercial, Popeye is behind the wheel smoking his signature pipe, his over-sized forearms stretched out before him as he grasps the steering wheel. My life is not flashing before my eyes, so just to be safe, I begin re-living old memories. The commercial break ends.

I take a few deep breaths and regain some composure. The local news anchor advises that all spinach should be avoided as is most likely tainted by e-coli, anthrax, Black Death or some concoction thereof. Details are sketchy as to how this has come to be. Perhaps a terrorist organization has infiltrated our food supply chain. This is suggested. Whatever the case, the only confirmed fact is that the bulk of the tainted spinach is said to be, of course, organic spinach. The highest risk is with pre-packaged organic spinach. They advise consumers to return all suspect spinach to the grocer. I ponder for a moment whether I can induce vomiting and take it back for a refund. I do not entertain that thought long. I’m not vomitting. I am anti-puke. On the television now flash images of brand names confirmed to be the most at risk of causing certain death. I grab the polystyrene from out of the recycling bin and inspect the label. We have a match. I call my friend Dawn on the telephone. “Dawn, listen to me closely. I am going to call you tomorrow. If I don’t call you, that means I’ve died.” She asks just what in tar-nation I am talking about. I tell her the story. We laugh nervously. I offer to cook her dinner tomorrow night. She declines, but agrees to meet for glass of wine instead. We will toast to survival, or she’ll just pour some out onto the ground in my honor.

The following morning, I awake. On the news they are now confirming e-coli contamination of the spinach I so very much enjoyed last night. The outbreak is spreading. There will be no spinach for perhaps the next three months in all of the United States of America. I can live without spinach for a little while. Live, of course being the word in focus here. I wait a few hours to call Dawn back, just for dramatic effect. Today, as testament to my strong stomach, great metabolism, efficient immune system, and maybe some pure luck, I write this tale of my near death experience. On this nearly fateful day, I made the decision that on my tombstone, when I finally do pass away, there shall be written but two words: “Check, please.”

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