Deborah Paul Has Food Fright

I can’t wrap my appetite around the trendy items today’s chefs offer.

As a woman of a certain age, I might be expected to have a bucket list, but I do not. Although there are adventures and destinations I’ve never experienced, having settled into my present lifestyle of home management, seasonal retreats, reading and writing, favorite TV series, and restaurant meals, I like things the way they are. The only item on my non-bucket list is more of the same, for as long as possible.

I admit with a lack of national pride that I’ve never visited Mount Rushmore or the Grand Canyon. My husband has seen both, which means any trip for me would be taken solo. Given my general impatience, it is likely I would stand at a lookout point by the gorge and, after a few seconds, say “Let’s go,” like Chevy Chase’s character Clark Griswold in the movie Vacation, only I wouldn’t have anybody to say it to. My lack of interest in walking the Great Wall of China or touring the Taj Mahal goes hand in hand with my aversion to trying most new things. I am a bore—set in my ways, satisfied with the status quo.

In an effort to counteract utter complacency, I resolve every January 1 to try different foods, something I could accomplish easily in my own kitchen, or, better yet, at the hands of a skilled and creative restaurant chef. But then I end up sticking to my safe regulars, at home or in the familiar restaurants we frequent. I have conquered renowned author and TV cook Ina Garten’s herb-crusted salmon recipe, but that’s about it. The masterful risotto Mario DiRosa features at the northside Indianapolis eatery Amalfi Ristorante Italiano tempts me, but I still order chicken piccata at every visit. DiRosa browns the tender breast in butter and olive oil, drizzles it with lemon juice and capers, and sets the flavorful delicacy atop al dente pasta. If something’s good, I say, why chance a change?

I have read a lot about what foodies eat these days, and I can’t wrap my appetite around the trendy items. Would you try a beet-and-white-chocolate lollipop? Or goat-cheese-and-tomato gelato? A Wagyu duck-fat burger? Really? Tell the truth.

A recent article I read glorified local chefs, one of whom covers her jumbo shrimp in a mole sauce of 65 percent dark chocolate. No offense, but I am just mundane enough to prefer my dark chocolate in a See’s lollipop or coated on a bite-size pretzel. Another chef serves mini espresso doughnuts alongside mocha braised pork cheeks, the latter about which I have always wondered: What kind of cheeks are we talking about here? Above-the-neck cheeks or, pardon my indelicacy, butt cheeks? Halibut cheeks are found on today’s menus as well, and since fish don’t have rumps, I assume the ones we’re invited to consume were part of some poor animal’s face. Most diehard vegetarians don’t eat anything with a face; even as one who does not subscribe to a plant-based diet, I nevertheless decline to eat any creature’s actual face.

Even salads have taken a weird turn. My husband is partial to grilled romaine, which, for the life of me, I do not understand. Lettuce is meant to be cold, and the softened leaves aren’t improved with Caesar dressing.

Perhaps our city’s most noted chef, Jonathan Brooks of the acclaimed Virginia Avenue restaurant Milktooth, last September teamed up with a well-reputed chef from the South, Brandon Baltzley, for a series of pop-up dinners. (I don’t know what those are, but sophisticated diners must.) The one I heard about featured dry-aged pork with pumpkin, tobacco, and rose. I was okay until I got to the tobacco. And the rose. Another of their creations was rabbit with marigold. I wouldn’t eat rabbit if I were lost in the woods with only a shotgun, a fire, and a stick, so I don’t think the addition of a lovely golden flower will help. But understand: I don’t fault the chefs, I fault me. I am a chicken, and not the kind rubbed with habanero-mango spice. 

Given that I am travel-averse, it is unlikely I would ever consider applying to appear on such remote shows as Survivor or The Amazing Race. Even if I were 30 years younger, no amount of fame or fortune is worth swallowing grasshoppers, beetle larvae, camel meat, or an ostrich egg. I still haven’t gotten over the runny fried eggs with which so many chefs today top everything from burgers to broiled kale. Call me dull, but I prefer mine tucked in a warm McMuffin with a side of fries.

Maybe it’s not so bad to like one’s life the way it is. When my time is up, I might not boast much of a résumé, but neither will I depart this earth wanting what I never had. Who on her deathbed wishes she’d tried hot lettuce with black grill marks, anyway? If my last supper consists of tomato soup and a grilled cheese sandwich, I’ll exit with a smile on my face. 

Editor emerita Deborah Paul’s personal reflections on culture, society, and family have graced the pages of IM since 1981.