Image from The Wooden Monkey Restaurant in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Used without permission (but I’m sure they won’t mind…).
October’s monkey is “Dining Horror Stories.” Tell us about a bad or strange experience you had while dining at someone else’s home. Restaurants don’t count.
Was the cooking exceptionally bad? Did you have a gas attack? Did someone pour wine into your lap? Did the food explode? Tell us all about it.
Not long after I moved to Montreal, my then girlfriend and I were invited to dinner at the home of her master’s thesis advisor. The advisor was a classic English professor-adventurer type, equally comfortable on a barren mountain outcrop or in a lavish university faculty club full of ascot-wearing twits. His wife was a teacher, aspiring writer, and home gourmet from upper-crust (or at least a convincing faux-upper-crust) Ontario.
We arrived at their sturdy and heirloom-filled home in St. Lambert, chatted for a bit, and then sat down to dinner with out hosts and four other guests. The atmosphere was friendly but a bit constrained, as all guests were either students or spouses of students — clearly denizens of a somewhat different world. The hosts were relaxed and made every effort to be inclusive, but one had a sense that a single slip of etiquette could shatter the warmth and set a layer of icy crust upon the entire proceedings.
The first course was steamed artichokes. At the time, I knew virtually nothing about food — short of what hole to shovel it into. I had seen artichokes in the grocery stores, and had even managed to eat a few artichoke hearts in salads and antipasto plates, but I had never been confronted with a large green spiny artichoke on a plate. Fortunately, I was still rather clever in those days, and much better at misrepresenting myself, so I coo-ed and nodded a bit, and took some time to arrange my napkin and silverware while waiting for someone else to start eating so I could watch.
Fortunately, the chef — the professor’s wife — was the first to tuck in. She held the artichoke in her left hand, pinched a leaf with the fingers of her right hand, and rocked it back and forth until it came loose. Then she brought the leaf to her mouth, and popped it in.
I looked to the side and saw that other people were doing the same, so I followed suit. I rocked a leaf loose and brought it to my mouth, feeling a bit skeptical as the leaf felt pretty dense and woody. I stuck it in my mouth, tender end first, and started chewing. It was a long, hard chew, but eventually I managed to shred it enough to swallow it.
I wondered how I would get through it all as I popped the second leaf into my mouth. As I gnawed and gnashed away, someone at the table said “This is interesting — I’ve never had whole artichokes before.” The chef replied “Yes, they’re quite delicious once you figure out how to eat them.” I would have said something at that point, but all I could have managed was something like “Mrrrffff!”
Then someone at the table said “At first I thought you were supposed to eat the whole leaf, but then I saw that you were only eating the soft tip.” Everyone tittered, but I froze, instantly realizing that I had been too quick to look away during my research. I had not seen the critical second step, which is to draw the leaf back out of your mouth, using your teeth to scrape off the tender bit.
Having only eaten two leaves, I thought I would get away with it by simply switching to the proper method. That’s when my girlfriend pointed at me from across the table and let out a big guffaw followed by “THAT’S WHAT YOU’RE DOING! YOU’RE EATING THE WHOLE LEAF!”
That’s when I turned into a big green hulking beast and tore the house down. Fortunately, everyone laughed it off politely, but I could feel my stock plummet. I’m not sure it ever recovered. Not that it matters, as I haven’t seen any of those people in over ten years.