I'll bet some of you remember The Jackie Gleason Show on TV during the late '50s and early '60s in which he and Art Carney — Ralph and Ed of The Honeymooners — created many more memorable characters: Reginald Van Gleason III among them.
There was one recurring pair I loved. Carney was a meek guy, the Timid Soul, sitting at a lunch counter eating something from a bowl. Gleason would sashay into the diner, slap Carney on the back, sit beside him and bellow, "What's that slop yer eatin'?"
Carney would cringe and stop eating. Mystery food.
Recently when a daughter and grandson were visiting, they insisted on taking us out for lunch at a fancy, famous resort restaurant with a multistar chef. We had never eaten there, and I really looked forward to a wonderful dining experience. It was a beautiful place with a spectacular view, attentive wait staff — and a completely indecipherable menu.
It was in English but that didn't help. Our daughter and grandson from California seemed entirely comfortable with the selections and chose quickly. Darling Husband never takes reading glasses when we go out, so it's up to me to report and translate menus for him. I do well in French and Italian, but this menu could have been in Martian from my perspective. Finally I spotted something I recognized: Caesar salad, my old friend. It seemed our California relatives were very familiar with what must be Asian cuisine. This wasn't your familiar General Tso's chicken or sweet and sour pork; this stuff was made of things I had never even heard of.
In Arizona, there are lots of places to get good Mexican food. Now many of the upscale eateries are serving "southwestern" tidbits more obscure to me than chicken enchiladas are, but it's usually a pretty safe bet that the words on the menu that baffle me will turn out to be chilies of one sort or another. I usually just ask how hot it is and avoid the ones that tend to exfoliate my entire digestive system starting with my lips and proceeding on a predictable course.
I have always enjoyed the food section of newspapers, looking at the pictures and reading the descriptions and/or recipes. Lately, however, I not only don't recognize anything in the pictures, but I'm totally mystified by the supposedly clarifying words. What is this stuff the restaurant critic is raving about? Why does it look like a flower arrangement rather than a meal?
I'm not a totally unadventurous eater and I do eat things that many think of as an "acquired taste" (meaning, generally, that children hate it). But please, Dear Foodies, give me a break! Give me a rough definition of the ingredients: Animal, vegetable or mineral at the very least.
Don't reduce me to a Timid Soul status, an utter ignoramus. The fact is I'm not familiar with the delicacies of Ulan Bator and I'm pretty sure I won't love poached yak kidney in a reduction of squid ink and wasabi.
Don't make me suppress an urge to ask, "What's that slop yer servin?" or to inquire meekly, "Can't I, pretty please, just have a club sandwich on your artisan ciabatta?"
Let me order something else with the same confidence I have when I say, "I'll have the Caesar salad."
Sheila Stoll is happy to hear from readers but cannot respond to individual queries. Write her at PMB No. 309, 7904 E Chaparral Road, No. 110, Scottsdale, AZ 85250.