You know what the worst food in the world is? Food trying desperately to be other food. Servility isn't a good taste.
The basket case of slavering self-erasure I have in mind is, of course, vegetarian food trying to be carnivorous. Specifically, vegetarian gravy. No, not gravy in the sense of hearty sauce, but actually the juices extracted from parts of dead animals. The brown stuff you pour over mashed potatoes. A certain excitement pervades those vegetarians who feel they have conjured meatiness. The pride with which this recipe was related to me, the ecstasy its consumption reportedly gave. It's recipe that can only be described as brute-force cookery. (Brute-force in the sense of hacking, wherein a massive number of passwords are sent to the target, until one of them, hopefully, turns out to be the right one. The problem in this case is that the sheer volume of data constitutes a denial-of-service attack in the mouth.) Here are the ingredients: garlic, onions, nutritional yeast, mushrooms, miso, vegetable bouillon, and white wine. Basically every possible non-dairy source of umami mixed together in a pot.
I might love the stuff on popcorn, but nutritional yeast is particularly offensive. I shiver (for several reasons) at the memory of the dinner pap I cooked up on the week-long solo segment of my bicycle trip back from the coast some years ago. I brought with me tons of tiny macaroni elbows, a kind of hippie instant pasta (I brought it in the bulk section of the local co-op). This I would boil in a tiny pot over a tiny stove just outside of or sometimes inside my tent, damning what I'd heard was a risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, because it was raining. Once cooked, I poured out most of the water, dropped a pat of butter on top of it, some salt, a pinch of an all-purpose spice mixture I had concocted for the trip, and a mountain of nutritional yeast. This was supposed to be protein. For the same reason I would sometimes chop cheese into it, too. It was wonderful, but then everything is when you've pedaled yourself to exhaustion the whole day.
The best part is, at the time, it wasn't just calories to assuage my gullet and cramping legs, it was decadence. I had hoarded these ingredients. The first half of the bicycle trip was with company from whom I hid such naughty items as pasta. "Company" isn't quite right--I wouldn't want to give the impression I was going on this trip anyway and these two guys wanted to tag along. I was one of the tag-alongs, and tag-alongs are never really in the company of others. It's just out of reach. I spent the month before we left agonizing over whether to go or not. It was crazy, I wasn't ready for the physical exertion or the socializing, my bike was in a state of disrepair. In the end, though, there was no use fighting it. He was irresistible. He knew everything, like which dumpsters were good, where the best abandoned fruit trees were, and that women's legs were just as hairy as men's. In the house where in the yard he currently had an arrangement to live, there was a photo of someone with his or her back to the camera, and I made some remark about "him". He laughed that laugh of his, the one I still steal, with the multiple joyous gasps for air at the end of it, and said "yeah, because a woman could never have legs that hairy." He was in good humor, but still I stammered, making some attempt at a defense, though perhaps that memory was only esprit de l'escalier. I can't remember if my face did, but I certainly burned with shame. That after all is the best glue, and I felt it just being in his presence. He knew how to live; I was just a pathetic bourgeois impostor. I had to go with him.
So it was he who determined what could be said and could not, what should be done and should not. For the trip he was the horizon, above which was reality, and below, the underworld. Without him just a jumble, no crust of potential happiness, and no heat and pressure below. Not that he wanted to determine anything. He was one of those people who tries draw others out, like pupils. And surely it was lonely, looking into our eyes and finding only a wall of subservience. If there was any resistance it was ultimately rescinded, tucked away. What to do instead?
He had a passion for water. Thus the coast, I suppose. The easiest way to the coast is to follow a river. The highway along the river is dangerous, more so for bicycles. Winding steeply down, on one side cliff, one side sheer drop to the water, precariously held by an intermittent guardrail. There's no shoulder, only a white line where we tried to place our wheels, the cars squeezing past us at fifty miles an hour. Caution was not possible; safety meant not hesitating.
Sometimes his passion for the water would take him (and us) where there was a convenient ramp to the river. His passion was infectious and the immune system could not quite identify it. He was impulsive, open, exuberant. We his companions were both pensive, quiet, found it difficult to jump. (Though it was less of a jump, I think, for the other one of us.) He jumped. He whooped. I stood with my shirt off, crumpled inward, staring at the ice-blue water rushing. While I thought the water roared. I could enter but I wouldn't. The water would chill me, and it did. I was in the water but I wasn't. I smiled. It was an action. I looked at him smiling, drying off, and I was envious. To me water was just water, to him, something more.
So with food. I always wanted more quantity. I wanted to gorge myself. One of my happiest moments on the trip was when he suggested we all get ice cream from a gas station. I say suggested; to us it meant we were allowed. Ice cream was an indulgence. I devoured mine looking at my bike saddle, exhaustion at the prospect of again mounting.
If the fact that he willingly was going to bicycle from Oregon to Alaska doesn't tell you, I'll tell you that he had a passion for punishment. We reached the mouth of the river. The land flattened. The road eased and quieted. He stopped. There was a patch of stinging nettles on the roadside. On his birthday he had run through a gauntlet of friends spanking him with brushes of stinging nettles. Standing in the nettle patch, gathering them for a meal, I discovered there is something undeniably tantalizing about them. In my shorts I daintily avoided their leaves, but I was drawn deeper and deeper into where they couldn't be avoided. I wanted to trick myself into being stung. Their threat a ticklish promise. He barreled into the thick of them, grabbing handfuls. I was disgusted.
That night we boiled the nettles in seawater. It's the only time I've ever eaten them, and I remember them as delicious. I wanted more, but that was the whole of dinner. The nettles were supposed to sustain us. He wanted to live his dream of gathering the food he ate. He did. I tried. My hunger bubbled up against the diaphragm.
It was with a mixture of fright and pleasurable anticipation that the third of us left. It was just him and I for the next few days, until we too parted. I had him all to myself, but then I lacked a buffer to hide behind. My anger and longing became more apparent. Glaring at him pedaling ahead of me with ease. Intimate talk was suddenly, frighteningly, possible. As we rode I would tell him things, and sometimes it seemed like he was lifting things out of me like a pickpocket, but they were things I wanted to let go. When I had released them, though, they were wrong. What could I do about the false things I had given him? Correction or silence? The latter only held so much.
At night we shared a tent. I had my own, but I didn't like what using it said. Then I wondered if he wondered why I didn't use mine. Enclosed on both sides. I remember his smile in the mornings, ever jovial. Such warmth there. I hate sleeping with others. Every sound I make redoubles in my imagination of their ears.
Sleeping alone is just as bad, in another way. When I began my trip home, I was elated. I was free and I could do whatever I liked. But nobody knew what I was doing. Miles and miles of the prison of the freedom of my mind. Talking to myself. When night fell there was nothing for my thoughts to bump up against, no other mind to speculate. I could eat all the macaroni-and-yeast I liked, filling my belly to sickness. I did have a book. One can only read oneself out of oneself so far.
In the shadow of a carnivorous cuisine, vegetarian has the same options: futile mimicry with an undercurrent of frustration, or empty, desperate freedom. The only way out is to find different company. The straining hurts and hurts to witness. Vegetarian gravy is this strain liquefied. It has the flavor of aspirational pain.