“Can you do me a teensy-tiny favor?” my wife asked in that little girl voice she uses whenever she’s about to ask me a gigantic, humongous favor.
“Sure,” I said, knowing that ultimately I had no choice.
“Would you mind eating this blueberry-banana granola I bought by mistake?”
“What’s wrong with it?”
“I don’t like it. It’s terrible.”
I looked through the clear plastic bag that contained the offending cereal and was inclined to believe her, even without tasting it. The blueberries looked like victims of starvation by a centralized economic ministry, and the bananas bore no resemblance to the yellow things you buy in the produce section of a grocery store. Instead, they were microscopic whitish-yellow bits, like malnourished miniature marshmallows suffering from jaundice.
“What was your mistake?” I asked.
“I meant to buy the Chappaqua Crunch,” she said, a bit abashed.
As much as I’d like to take a hard line on her shopping errors, since my nose is so painfully and frequently rubbed into my grocery miscues, like Shakespeare’s Portia in “The Merchant of Venice” the quality of my mercy was not strained in this case.
“Completely understandable,” I said, putting my arm around her. “Blueberry-banana was probably right next to Chappaqua Crunch on the shelf.”
“I guess,” she said, stifling a sniffle and looking up into my eyes. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” I said, pursing my lips the way thoughtful husbands do in television commercials.
“That’s why I married you,” she said with a sheepish smile.
And so I was charged, once again, with a task that has been regularly assigned to me since I was a boy with a mother and two sisters: eating something a woman wouldn’t.
It all began, as so many such stories do, with a box of chocolates. Long before Forest Gump’s mother told him that life was like a box of chocolates because you never knew what you’re going to get, the women in my early life had made the same discovery. From an apparently harmless box of candy you were as likely to bite into something with coconut filling or a runny cherry center as you were to find orange crème or nougat.
Hence I, as the youngest member of the family, was designated as human garbage disposal for confections that the women in the house found disgusting. “Bleh,” a female member of my immediate family would say, then “You eat this” as she handed the rejected item to me. I was thus used as cruelly as those dumb animals who are sent to their deaths walking across minefields so that superior beings who are members of the human race may survive the same trek.
In an innovation that ranks just slightly below Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in terms of the progress of civilization, the Whitman chocolate company introduced a chart of the chocolates in their Sampler to guide unsuspecting sweet lovers’ selections; you could tell exactly what you were getting by referring to the map of candies on the inside of the box lid. Only a fiend in human form would deliberately re-arrange the chocolates to confuse her adversaries but, as Rudyard Kipling once said, the female is deadlier than the male.
I thought all that was behind once I left home, but it wasn’t. The initial broadcast of the gourmet cooking show “The French Chef” from Boston’s public television station in 1963 launched a gourmet cooking craze that, nearly a half-century later, shows no signs of abating. Unfortunately, it is an immutable law of gastronomy that there is a disconnect between the way things look on TV and in cookbooks and the way they look when you try to make them at home. I attended Catholic grammar school, and my wife knows that I am constitutionally incapable of leaving food uneaten once it is served to me, having faced the threat of corporal punishment by Sister Mary Joseph Arimathea if I tried to return my cafeteria tray with the remnants of fish sticks on it.
And so was born our forced feeding routine that, if it isn’t prohibited by international law, the Geneva Convention isn’t worth the fancy Swiss paper it’s written on.
“Taste this,” my wife will say midway through a recipe that includes monkfish, fennel, and cardamom, or some other spice that we will use once and then forever forget. “It smells terrible.”
“If it smells terrible, why would I want to eat it?” I’ll ask, the way a non-smoking prisoner facing a firing squad will accept a cigarette to delay the inevitable.
“I don’t want to try it, and I don’t want our dinner guests to be the guinea pigs.”
I’ll bite my tongue and the bullet, as they say, and slurp the stuff down.
“Well?” she’ll ask.
“It tastes fine,” I’ll say. “But you know me—I’ll eat anything.”
Con Chapman is a Boston writer whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Christian Science Monitor, and The Boston Globe among other publications. His biography of Johnny Hodges, Duke Ellington’s alto saxophonist, is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.