Learning to Like It

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“Are you bringing the nuts?” my wife asks.

I hear the bowl ring as she pours out her granola. She’s sitting at the kitchen table. 

It’s a mix we buy, part of our new health regimen, along with intermittent fasting. Our holistic doc has said, repeatedly,  you can break the rules, you can abuse your body, until you’re sixty. After that, to be in it for the long haul, you have to think about nutrition. So, some supplements. So, the nut mix that I’m sure we pay way too much for down at the farmer’s market.  “But they’re fresh,” my wife says. “But they’re nuts,” I say. We’re on the Eight Plan. Loosely, on it. “Eat eight vegetables a day,” the doc says. “Eat within an eight hour time period. Then fast.”  

I set the nut vat down in front of her, tell her no one has ever said that to me.    

“You’re having lunch with Jordan today?”

“Yes.”

Jordan’s a waiter friend of ours, a foodist, a winehead. Thirty years younger. “Don’t drink too much,” my wife says. 

“I’ll stop at just enough.”

“You could stop before that.” She tosses a handful of nuts on top of her granola.  “No one’s ever said what?”

“Are you bringing the nuts.” 

She looks at her bowl, stirring. I can tell she’s waiting. I could make a joke. But I don’t go there. I’m not totally predictable. 

“We’re going to Joe’s,” I say. “That bistro they have upstairs?” 

“Was that Jordan’s idea?”

“Mine. I don’t know about the food, but we ought to find good parking.” 

“Get some crackers while you’re there,” she says.  “Sweet potato and beet crackers.”  

“Both in the same bag?”

“No, two bags. Sweet potato crackers, orange; beet crackers, red.”

Virtuous crackers, I think.  How far we’ve traveled from Saltines. I drop a handful of nuts on top of my Icelandic yogurt. 

#

I drink a zucchini for breakfast. Get a head start on the Eight Plan.

Actually it’s a vegetable cocktail. How do you ingest eight servings of vegetables a day? Here’s how we do it. Our new gadget is the Nutribullet, a motorized mixer. Zucchini, broccoli florets, spinach, a celery stalk, a handful of fresh parsley. Whatever’s green we have in the fridge, in it goes. And half a banana. Or a cup of blueberries. Add some organic water, and given a long spin and chop, you get a healthy greenish muck that goes down okay. Before 7:00 a.m. we’re six vegetables to the good.

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Pond scum, one of my friends calls it. “How’s it taste?” 

Not great. It can be bitter. But good bitter. I read somewhere as you age, your tastebuds begin to dull and die. Bitter becomes okay, the taste of spinach, acceptable. Still, in the smoothie, fruit helps.

Easy on the fruit, health doc says. Lots of sugar. 

#

“Enjoy your parking,” my wife tells me later that morning. 

I’ve called ahead to find out what time Upstairs Bistro opens. 

Of all the Joes we have to choose from–Trader Joes, Vince and Joe’s, Joe’s Produce, Joe’s Gourmet, Joe’s Liquour, Eat at Joe’s–this Joe’s is my least favorite. They’ve got the goods. But except for the vegetable man, there’s a pervasive attitude problem. The guy who owns it, you can see him a hundred times, he walks by and looks right through you. The meat guys range from grouchy to misanthropic. How about an anger burger today? The cashiers, I’m pretty sure they speak English, but beyond paper or plastic? they tend not to engage.

I get Laura on the phone. “We open at 11:00,” she says.  “Shall I hold a table?”  

#

These days I get my sugar from Beaujolais. It’s not on the Eight Plan.   

In the beginning, when I was learning to like wine, I couldn’t like anything French. Probably because of price, probably because I couldn’t make sense of the labels, when I decided to buy something French, I usually found myself standing at checkout holding a bottle of bargain basement, under-$10 Beaujolais. I paid no attention to dates. Later, when I tasted the wine at home, with the first sip I thought, Why don’t I like this? What am I missing?

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Then in the 80’s, accompanied by an aggressive ad campaign, the Beaujolais Nouveau became a much ballyhooed thing. This was pre-Internet. I read the Thursday New York Times wine column. One day, in an article that painted a colorful picture of wine harvest in France, of villages celebrating the new wine, I learned about Nouveau. Now I too could celebrate the harvest with these young, vivacious wines. 

Outside grocery stores you saw, on flowery, viney Chateau-y signage, “Le nouveau est arrivé!” I was a D+ French student, but I could read that. So maybe I could also drink it. Maybe I could like it. But the below bargain-basement, under-$9 Nouveau tasted bad; not bad like other Beaujolais I had drunk. Those were just bad. This was young bad, a cloying sweetish fruit juice with an alcohol zing. 

Was I also a D+ wine drinker?

#

At the top of the stairs at Bistro is a podium and a thin young woman with straight brown hair. She smiles and nods when she sees me. “Are you Laura?” I ask.

“Yes,” she says brightly. “Are you Howard?”

How far I’ve traveled from Chris Cooper’s house.

One summer day after sixth grade my friend Dan Leman and I rode our bikes out to Cooper’s. In a cupboard above the kitchen sink, his father kept a fifth of vodka on the top shelf. I had never tasted anything alcoholic. My parents were teetotalers. Total. Chris poured out a sip into the vodka bottle cap and handed it to Dan, who was very alcohol curious. He tasted it, winced, and said, “It tastes like rotten toothpaste.” 

I too was curious. But not quite ready. 

On one hand, I have to think no one likes alcohol initially. You have to be motivated. My first taste of beer I was in ninth grade. My brother and two of his pals brought me along on a ski trip. They also brought along a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon. We spent the night at our family cottage. I had seen men with giant beer bellies lift longneck bottles to their mouths and upend them. I had heard my father talk warnfully about the dangers of drink. That night they handed me my own longneck. I couldn’t finish even one bottle. It tasted terrible. Around 2:00 in the morning,  the guy who had brought the beer threw up in my parents’ bed. 

Years later, newly married, we were out to dinner in Italy with my wife’s friends. After the pasta and the grilled meats and the table wine, Fiorenzo said he would like some grappa. A digestivo. Sure, I’d have one too, I said. I liked the word.  What came to the table was clear and fine, in a taller glass than I expected. I had never tasted anything so foul. Eventually, after a decade of tasting and trying, I learned to like it, but not a lot. It took some work.  

On the other hand, scientists think that humans must have a natural inclination, that they must be hard wired to drink alcohol. The desire to consume spirits is nearly universal across cultures. To explain that, there’s the drunk-monkey hypothesis. Millions of years ago, when our ancestors climbed down from the trees, they prowled the jungles and savannahs where, attracted by the scent of fruit droppage fermenting on the ground, they gained both a blast of calories by way of sugars and a buzz from the ethanol content of what they ate. Robert Dudley, science writer for the Atlantic, refers to the “downwind vapor trail that reliably indicates the presence of fruits and sugars.” We detect that.

I recall a scent like that: a moldy, yeasty vapor trail, wafting from the dark, and frightening, interior of the Log Cabin, one of our hometown bars. And then again later, there was the vapor trail in the Village Idiot, a bar that Dan and I, along with a few other drunk monkeys, made our home in Breckenridge, Colorado. In time I became beer friendly.

Now, when I’ve made sure no one is looking, I raise a glass of wine to my nose, swirl and sniff. Vapor trail.  Bouquet.

#

Laura hands me off to Michelle, who sets down two menus and wine list.  There’s no Beaujolais, which is okay with me. When Jordan sits down, he scans the list and suggests a Syrah or Rioja. Michelle brings a small glass of each for us to taste. 

We go with the Rioja. Bottle. 

Our Mediterranean grilled octopus comes with a generous handful of arugula. The brussel sprout dish is served with white balsamic, red onion, truffle, and parmesan. When did I learn to like this stuff? 

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To Joe’s credit, it’s really good.  And: two more vegetables. 

I tell Jordan about the Eight Plan.

He asks: “Eight glasses of water too?”

No. I lift my glass, tell him we hydrate as needed. 

Mid-lunch, Michelle brings bread. We ask for more Rioja.

I’m a little buzzed when we finally ask for the check. I figure I’ll go downstairs to the market area of the store, look for the vegetable guy I like. He calls me “man.” I call him “hey.” At Christmas time he phones one of his suppliers, Enzo Ferrari (his real name), to find out when the baby artichokes will come in. “Hey,” I say today, “got chard? Got cardone?” He answers: “Right over here, man. Look how beautiful.” 

We talk about the relative benefits of organic. Does he recommend organic bananas, for example? Does he actually like kale?

He smiles and shakes his head no.  

Me neither, I say. Another item for the Eight Plan, if I can learn to like it.

On the way out I make my way to the cracker section. Sweet potato crackers, orange; beet crackers, red. One of each.

To our health–

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