Another day, another dinner at the university dining hall. Only this time we’ve perverted mealtime with a couple rounds of Prussian Roulette— the fun, new, adolescent lifegame of derring-do. Today, we are six. In preparation for the game, a goodly helping of nearly every foodstuff in the cafeteria is collected and brought back to our table. One person (Paul, for starters) starts by mixing any number of these items together (say Bacon Bits, relish, onions, cottage cheese, yogurt, and ketchup) and serving the resulting mélange to the lucky player of their choice (Brandon, let’s say). Then, that player, after two loving-spoonfuls, takes their turn as master chef and mad scientist, and the cycle continues. If you refuse, you lose. Passing means forfeiture, no matter how noxious the compound. However, one must remember that what comes around goes around. If you burn another player, you’ll be heaving blue cheese faster than you can say “ipecac.” The last one seated is crowned Prussian Princess. If a player vomits and continues, they receive a Bonus-Turn and the undying admiration of their peers. The only cardinal rule is that your concoction must be more-or-less homogenous. We found long ago that, while trying to suck down a cocktail of tabasco sauce, vinegar, Elmer’s glue, and mayonnaise, any clumps of solid food, such as dog treats or chocolate, would unfairly trigger the gag mechanism, making throwing up an inevitability.
We kept exact records of the ingredients, charting brave new inroads into the transformation of food and drink. For example, we empirically verified the old wisdom about peanut butter being the Great Neutralizer among food stuffs— going smashingly with anything in the cupboard. I mixed up a stew of peanut butter, hot sauce, onions, and mayo for Willie, only to wind up with a rough approximation of the scintillating peanut sauces of Thai cuisine. But despite such disappointments, many memorably emetic combos highlighted our menu that evening. Amy whipped up a tantalizing ambrosia of beef minestrone, grapefruit juice, Bacon Bits, cucumbers, and “banana juice” that left us choking on our own vomit. Brava, Amy. In the French tradition, David insisted that Willie scoop his chocolatey-sprinkled “Devil’s casserole” into his mouth from a specially-carved “cucumber boat,” to the audible delight of the critics. Paul, drawing upon the savors of his Greek ancestry, created a meaty medley of cheddar, beef stroganoff, Italian dressing, chicken salad, squash, and topped it off with an old breath mint that he found in his pocket. As a sumptuous counterpoint, Paul challenged Willie’s palate with a rich mousse of smushed bananas, sprouts, cream cheese, mustard, ketchup, yogurt, jelly, and Torani syrups. “Like a concentrated pudding” observed Willie, who then skillfully prepared a sensational Western dish consisting almost entirely of butter. Deeeelish. For my final entrée, everyone was kind enough to spit into my glass, moving the level of disgust from physiology to concept to insult. Overall, an astounding success, even though Newcomb Dining Hall closed before a winner was chosen. On the dishes, opinions ranged:
“It tastes like sweet throw-up”
“Pretty much like any rotten Spanish dish”
“Like a cold hot dog with relish and a mint.”
But, in the end the judges were unanimous— progress had been made.
Earlier in the week, I completed a two-variable table of “suicides,” all the combinations among seven types of drink—Dr Pepper, Coke, root beer, grape juice, orange juice, ginger ale, and Sprite. There were some modest results, including the discovery of a wonderful imitation Cheerwine, composed of Dr. Pepper and grape juice (and not cherry flavoring, as I had previously assumed). For the sake of thoroughness, I intend to augment the list with coffee, milk, and apple juice, as well as charts upon charts of other vanguard flavor-combinations. I am compiling a cookbook for the counter-intuitive gourmand, a cultivated anti-aesthetic of anti-eats and anti-drinks. “The number of savours is infinite,” extending far into the darker regions of non-toxic substances— urine, cardboard, and black acrylic paint. The usual rapport between good taste and edibility is merely customary, and the university dining hall makes the perfect laboratory for proving such an assertion.
Call it “experimental gastronomy,” picking up where J.-A. Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste left off. “The material subject of gastronomy is everything which can be eaten; its immediate object, the preservation of the individual; and its methods of attaining that object, cultivation which produces foodstuffs, commerce which exchanges them, and experience which devises the means of turning them to the best possible account.” We certainly have our work cut out for us— “everything that can be eaten.” Every detail of every ritual of human nourishment must be scrutinized, turned inside-out, and promoted to the level of veritable experience… Coffee-makers, lambfries, coupon-clipping, gummy worms, toothpicks, free refills, napkin origami, holiday turkeys, and pretty much everything else this side of Liquid Plumber. In the final analysis, an experiment proves successful if it produces an instance of the marvelous. And what do we mean by the marvelous? I will draw an anecdote from the case studies…
Last spring, Wil and I transposed the rituals and ambiance of restaurant-life onto a cozy corner of Newcomb Dining Hall. We printed up menus, rolled silverware, draped tables, provided candlelight and classical guitar music, and then gussied ourselves up like posh upscale waitstaff (black pants, white collared shirts, aprons, brow-sweat, hip inattentiveness). As friends and invites came through the door, we seated them, scrawled their orders, and served them their selections, even bussing their tables after their tummies were full. Everyone was delighted with the histrionics, including the waiters themselves, who had by then become totally engrossed in their own illusions. A few dining hall workers even wondered aloud “Damn, honey, you hungry ain’t you, this your tenth Beef Wellington!”— as we returned for dish after dish. No red tape, no budget, no social engineering, simply an easily executed act of hypermeaning, made from scratch.
And as with all scientific frontiers, things occasionally take a turn for the worse. From time to time, some poison or dumpster fare will rudely remind us of the treacherous roads we travel. Once upon a time, we were running a series of experiments with the high-octane, multivitamin Argentine beverage mate, as a possible replacement for the buzz-and-crash of the coffee bean. We were brewing pot after pot— noting the effects of strength and energy— when one sizeable teaball broke open and spilled herbs all over the kitchen floor. We just swept it all back into the teaball and brewed it, oblivious to the fact that my roommate had just finished springcleaning the kitchen with a nasty assortment of cleansers and dangerous chemicals. We boiled the ball with all the residues and swallowed the pot without noticing a difference— at least not until later that night, when I awoke just in time to make a panicked dash for the bathroom, and spent the next six hours purging myself from both ends. Once my diaphragm had exhausted itself from incessant dry-heaving, Annelies drove me— culinary pioneer that I am— to the emergency room, for anti-emetics and medically supervised re-hydration.
“Brandon, what did they say?” Responding groggily— “that either it’s food poisoning… or the doctors don’t understand me.” And it was true: they would never, ever understand why and how I had actually enjoyed and savored that ordeal. In my mind, I was enduring some bent form of Amazonian ayahuasca ritual— purging, gasping, and curling up into a miserable little ball as I came to grips with the forces of Chaos in the Universe. I could smell and feel the presence of the angry spirit of mate, hovering over me and the porcelain, dragging me through this confrontation with my own biology— “heave and breath, Brandon…wait… where am I?” It was an experiment that would be difficult and perhaps unwise to stage, so it was welcome with open arms, a bleeding stomach, and my usual masochistic zeal. Sure to become another highlight in the chronicles of experimental gastronomy…
Minutes after arriving home from the hospital, Tyree and his digestive system began to feel the wrath of the same mate daimon— severe shits and green spittle— and the cycle continued. As he endured this rite-of-passage, I could see, by the look in his eye, that he was taking notes…