When I was 9-years-old, my dad took me to Disney World. We drove straight down to Florida from his home on Long Island, stopping only to stretch our legs and to spend the night in a rest-stop parking lot. The ambient sounds of late night traffic on the nearby highway lulled me to sleep that night as I lay curled up in the back seat, the striated upholstery softly imprinting itself on my skin. Back then I could fall asleep anywhere.
The next day, we arrived at the outskirts of Orlando. It was the peak of summertime, but the cheerless motel we checked into must not have gotten the memo; the in-ground pool sat neglected in the courtyard, covered over by a ripped-up tarp. I didn’t care. To me, the dismal place might as well have been Cinderella's castle.
It was my first time at Disney World and, like any good rite of passage, the trip was shrouded in a great deal of mysticism that colored everything I experienced. But even the excitement of Disney couldn’t compare to being with my dad. That vacation was the longest period of time we’d spent together since my parents divorced two years prior.
Our week at Disney was a blast. We visited all seven theme parks, rode every roller coaster twice, and returned each night to the motel more exhausted than the night before. It was everything a 9-year-old could hope for. One experience at Disney, however, stood out among all the rest. It wasn’t riding Expedition Everest, the world’s most expensive roller coaster. It wasn’t even repelling an imaginary pirate assault on Tom Sawyer Island. In fact, it wasn’t a ride or an attraction at all; it was a meal.We were in Epcot, and it was our second-to-last day at Disney before the long drive back home. As night was rapidly approaching, we began to wander through the country-themed pavilions of Epcot’s World Showcase looking for a place to eat. While perusing the out-door menu of a French restaurant, I stumbled upon something altogether strange and alluring: a platter of snails and frog legs.
My eyes widened at the prospect of undertaking such a daring adventure. I dragged my father into the establishment with all of the strength a 9-year-old boy with a newly established, singular purpose in life could muster. We went right up to the maître d', whom I purposely misremember as being a crude amalgamation of every French stereotype I’ve ever heard, and asked for a table.
“Monsieur, I am sorry,” he said, pausing to take a puff of his cigarette and brush the baguette crumbs off his striped shirt. “We can not seat you in ze restaurant because you ‘ave on zat, euh—‘ow do you say—tank-top, no?”
Well that might not be exactly how it went down, but that’s how I choose to remember it. Either way, I was devastated. As our search for dinner continued, my dad tried to cheer me up. He even found a restaurant that served wild boar, but I was in no mood for a consolation prize. The snails and frog legs had a black magic hold on me. I was enchanted.
Somehow I managed to convince my steadfast father into returning to Epcot the next night, so that I might claim my prize. This change in our plans, however, was entirely predicated on my returning to the maître d' in order to parlay over the restaurant’s dress code. Undaunted by this task, 9-year-old me marched right back in there and interrogated the man about what specifically I had to wear in order to achieve my life’s dream of eating snails and frog legs—because goddammit, I would not be turned away again. Being French, he surrendered this information immediately.
Returning the following night in the correct attire, I triumphantly charged into the restaurant like I was storming the beaches of Normandy. This sent whispers rippling through the astonished waitstaff.
“Eet iz ze little boy! ‘Ee ‘as returned for ze escargot and ze cuisses de grenouille!” The word of my determination had clearly made the rounds.
My father and I were seated and our orders taken, the maître d' himself brought over my desired entrée with the entire kitchen staff trailing in his wake. The snails, served in their shells, were oozing greenish herb-butter. The frog legs were vaguely sexual-looking. My father, who was raised strictly on a diet of tuna fish sandwiches, looked on in horror.
As I clasped a snail shell with tongs and pried the tasty morsel out of his home using a thin fork, the atmosphere suddenly grew tense. The entire gallery of scarved and bereted onlookers held their breath. I closed my eyes and popped the mollusk into my mouth; it was warm and chewy and tasted heavily of garlic and butter. I was in rapture.
The edges of my lips curled into a great big smile as I turned to the staff and gave them a thumbs-up. The entire room erupted in applause. Women cried, berets were ripped off and thrown to the ceiling, and some children were likely conceived later on that night. I felt like I had just liberated Vichy France.
I didn’t know it, but something awakened inside of me that night. Ever since then, I have always had the peculiar passion for eating adventurous foods. Because food culture is relative to a number of different factors, I should specify that I mean “adventurous” in the context of the typical, corn-fed American palate. Over the years, I’ve tried everything from lamb eye tacos, to antelope burger, to alligator hot dog.
Every time I go out to eat, I am compelled to order the most unusual item on the menu, even if I had my eye on something else. I find that this works out in my favor roughly eighty percent of the time. Sometimes, however, it leads me horribly astray.
On one such occasion, I found myself drawn to a particular kiosk in Montreal’s vibrant Jean-Talon Market. A sign reading “Huitres,” French for oysters, beckoned me from across the crowded marketplace, and—powerless but to heed the call—I floated down aisles of vividly colorful produce like a cartoon character who’d just caught the vaporous whiffs of a pie. As I neared my destination, I realized that the oyster booth had sea urchin on special. I hadn’t eaten sea urchin in some time; my curious nature, I thought, had been duly rewarded.
I knew that something was wrong when the cashier and oyster shucker began to whisper to each other after I had placed my order, but I just shrugged it off and figured that they knew what they were doing. I received the spiny creature in its shell on a tray of ice, the dark, inedible bits mixed in with the tasty golden roe. I knew that this was not how it was supposed to be prepared, but like a chump I tried it anyway. Immediately I was overpowered with the taste of iron and seawater.
I quickly fled the scene and stumbled around the market in a stupor, frantically looking for anything to relieve the acrid aftertaste that had built up in my mouth. I came upon a sample tray containing tiny paper cups of liquid, and I took two great big shots of what turned out to be vinegar. My throat burned for half an hour, but at least I had gotten rid of that rotten taste.
Fortunately, the mild eccentricity that I possess leads me to ambrosia more often than not—but my knack for adventurous eating has never been about the taste of the food at all. It’s about putting yourself out there and trying something new—something strange and exciting—and leaving your comfort zone behind to push the boundaries of your own personal horizons.
It’s about embracing the shudders of your companions as you chow down on exotic animals, internal organs, and writhing clumps of tentacles. It’s about recapturing the feeling of being a child, when even the simplest of undertakings was the greatest of adventures. With every food adventure, I become again that little kid on a trip to Disney World with his father.