Chinese menus, books, Harvey Wall-bangers and our lost sense of adventure
When I was growing up, Chinese food was considered really rather exotic and adventurous but these days, most people consider it almost a mainstream part of their diet. The small market town I grew up in had a single Chinese restaurant and it was an exciting occasion to go and eat there. Looking back, it was fairly westernised, but to the kid I was then it was utterly unfamiliar and a little bit scary. Now that same town has countless Chinese takeaways and many other food emporiums offering a vast range of food. Where I live now there are many, with long lists of dishes. One of our locals was surprised and delighted when I ordered a dish that they said hardly anyone ever ordered. I’d seen it, thought, hey I’ve never tried that and decided to order it. When I was a student in Liverpool I ate at various places in China Town, where authentic dishes were served, and attempted to try something new each time.
A few years ago, I saw a TV programme(it had the lads from Top Gear in so, perhaps not a terribly serious effort) that suggested that there are two kinds of people in the world: risk takers and consolidators. The acid test as I recall was whether you loved or loathed roller-coasters. Now I loathe them, which in theory makes me a consolidator, yet when confronted with choice between repeating an experience I enjoyed or trying something totally unknown, the chances are I will opt for the unknown one.
When I met up with my friend Andrew Meek, last October, in York, we spent a very agreeable few hours in The Evil Eye cocktail bar, and my husband, Andrew and I worked our way through a number of cocktails. I’ve tried a good number of them in my time; got hopelessly drunk on the utterly deceptive Harvey Wall-Banger and pina coladas. The bar has a booklet of all the cocktails it does, and the list is organised by various criteria, and colour coded for ease of exploration. We went through and picked ones we’d never heard of before but which appealed. The barman started grinning when we rolled up to the bar, because it turned out we were ordering things that people seldom did. The vast majority ordered what they’d already tried. My problem was twofold: expense and the fact that after a few, my legs and my head appeared to have become disconnected.
I’ve never been conservative when it comes to food and drink; I will try more or less anything (not snails, though. We used to have a Giant African land-snail as a pet and frankly, it would feel wrong) and have enjoyed a good 85% of what I have tried. Of the other 15%, I’d guess 10% evoked a meh response, 4% a dislike and 1% the sudden urge to vomit profusely and scrub my mouth out. I dislike shellfish and offal but virtually everything else, I will eat without protest. But when I travel with school groups, I am constantly amazed by the sheer number of school kids who refuse to even try what is on their plates. If it doesn’t look exactly like something they’ve eaten before, forks go down and nothing gets touched. Some can be coaxed to try before they reject the food, and of those some find that they like it. I’m sad to say that those who refuse to try at all are a fairly large group.
In my teaching job too, I find that there are groups who come back each year and insist on precisely the same excursions, the same everything and get very upset if for some reason it’s not possible to do it. I hear of people who go every single year to the precise same holiday destination and do the same things. I understand when this is because the place is so special and you always love it, but it worries me slightly when people don’t entertain the idea of once in a while trying something different.
When it comes to food or drink ordering something unfamiliar may result in an unpalatable meal and a waste of money, but is that such a terrible thing every so often? A holiday somewhere unknown is a bigger risk, because it might be a step down from the places you love and know, yet it might bring another fabulous destination to your experiences.
And then there’s books. I’ve spent a few hours recently reading reviews of books. Not often books I have read or intend to read, but a fairly random selection of books by many authors, both indie and traditional, even some real classics. And I noticed something interesting. There are people who preface a 4 or 5* review with the words, “This is not the sort of book I’d usually choose to read but…” and then go on to explain why they turned out to enjoy it. There are also people giving 1 and 2* reviews saying the same thing, and then saying they didn’t like it (or thought it was a terrible book) because it wasn’t what they’d usually choose to read, or because it turned out differently from how they thought it should. I’ve had some laugh out loud moments reading these. One 2 star review of an action adventure fantasy complained bitterly that there wasn’t enough sex in the book and went on at some length explaining how they’d been left high and dry by the premise that the hero was a dominant type but was actually a sub, and the heroine a dominatrix and how disappointed the reader was that the writer never wrote these S&M sex scenes she felt the novel needed to contain!! Other higher starred reviews of the same book mentioned how they felt there was slightly too much sex…..
I’ve begun to wonder if we choose books based entirely on them bearing a more than passing resemblance to books we’ve already read and enjoyed, and then feel cheated when they turn out not to be. At Christmas I was gifted with two classic books I am reading now, but which have no blurb or back matter to guide the reader into any expectations of what the books are about. It’s quite a disconcerting feeling because often I am used to knowing beforehand what the book is about and now I am having to work it out myself. I’ve got lazy. I’ve got used to expecting a book to follow certain templates and patterns and it’s not doing me any good. I need to simply focus on the narrative, not my expectations of the narrative.
When I turned forty, I made a decision to stop saying no to things that scared me, and apart from driving which still has me paralysed, I’ve mostly managed to do this. I’ve had a try-it-and-see mentality most of my life and I consider it has opened me to a host of experiences I’d otherwise have missed out on. But many don’t. Many don’t want to try anything different. When it comes to reading, especially in this time of incredibly cheap books (e-books for the price of a newspaper or less) it’s astonishing how few people are willing to take a chance on an unknown author and stick rigorously to their tried and tested genres and authors. Yes, I know money is tight and time too is a precious commodity, but why not once a month or so try something new, either a book or a cocktail or a dish or anything?
Step a little beyond the comfort zone; there may be dragons, but you know what? Where there are dragons, there’s also treasure, sure as eggs are eggs, my precious.