We have lost the test of life, he informs me, handing my drycleaning over the counter. I am, in quick succession, startled, panicked and then indignant: who knew a test of life had even been scheduled? Some hand waving clarifies his meaning: we have lost, not the test, but the taste of life. A casual conversation a few years ago about my drycleaner’s Ramadan celebration and my Christmas readiness (Ramadan and Christmas roughly coinciding that year) had morphed unexpectedly into this primal wail about how there are no special days in our lives anymore: all our days seem the same.
Nodding and smiling, I edge out as he is still talking, trying to prevent my intended drive-by drycleaning pick-up from turning into a philosophical pit-stop. The next line on my task list beckons: groceries.
Drycleaning clutched under my arm, I survey the produce aisle. Brussels sprouts and apples jostle asparagus and blueberries for space, and no one under 40 would remember when that wasn’t so, or wonder why it jars. As I check out the organic offerings in ironically plastic containers, I reflect that the concept of seasonal fruits and vegetables is officially obsolete: I can now indulge in fresh raspberries year-round. With that realization, something clicks in the back of my brain and I travel back five years, to my first day of immersion Spanish classes.
My Guatemalan teacher is casting about for conversational gambits that suit my limited language capacity. He lands confidently on food: who doesn’t eat, after all? What special foods, he enquires innocently, do Canadians eat on festive occasions?
Thinking furiously, I quickly discard any conceit of speaking for my compatriots as a whole: with our multicultural make-up, Canadians’ eating habits are as varied as our notions of which days are festive. My teacher’s face falls into puzzled lines, wondering at my delay. I reach for something, anything, and remember a fruit salad that was my grandmother’s signature contribution to Christmas dinner, and a Danish dish whose preparation stained my mother’s hands purple and scattered grated bits of red cabbage from hell to breakfast. In my family, we have two special foods at Christmas, I announce perfectly accurately and almost correctly.
Just two? His mock sympathy is only half in fun: his underlying startlement is clearly as full in earnest as it is genuine. Two special foods! In his world, that seems pathetic.
I understand better after breaking corn tortillas in some Guatemalan homes. Noted for its food, my billet certainly serves enough, but one week’s menu is much like the rest. Monotony reigns until a student goes home. Then our house mother goes all out to produce a special meal, drawing from an array of allegedly typical Guatemalan dishes that have, nonetheless, never appeared on our table before. Invited for Sunday lunch by a friend of a friend, I encounter a new suite of typical foods. This time it is the combination that is special, a fat-free meal usually reserved for feast days.
In this nuanced environment of typical national dishes reserved for special occasions, and food combinations targeted for feast days, having just two special foods seems worse than pathetic: it seems impoverished. Yet my food world is much richer than theirs by many measures. At home I use better quality ingredients, from produce to meat. I eat protein every day, almost every meal, never seriously counting the cost. And above all, day after day, I enjoy more variety. Within a block of my downtown townhouse are one Greek and two Thai restaurants; a three-block radius offers pizza, sushi, shawarma, Cajun, Asian and tropical fusion, Vietnamese, Turkish, Italian, Indian, and nominally Irish pub fare. And the corner grocery store offers that season-free array of fruits and vegetables. It is, after all, always spring somewhere.
With everyday access to the best the world has to offer, we risk losing our ability to appreciate it. Eating special foods whenever we want, we may find we have no special foods left. Along with the fresh berries, I can buy red cabbage any time of the year, if I want to. Yet somehow, I don’t want to, and not just because the grated bits stain my kitchen ceiling purple. Indulging every day is self-defeating, destroying the very rarity that makes something a treat. Maybe I heard my drycleaner right the first time – maybe self-restraint is, indeed, the test of life.
I put the raspberries down, for today at least. I’ll be back when they taste like a treat again.