When I was six or seven years old, growing up in Norwalk, CT, I used to take a precious Twizzler from my dad and savor each bite. It was a curious compulsion; sadly, I’ve never been able to cherish them since. For some reason I always bit the ends off first so I could peak through the small inner hole. Then I would try to use the Twizzler as a straw in my ginger ale or tear it apart in strips, unaware of the difference between regular Twizzlers, which were my dad’s favorite, and the “Pull ’n’ Peel” kind that I had seen on television. After I learned I was allergic to Red #40 I could only savor Twizzlers at the houses of friends whose mothers didn’t know about my allergies. But I never craved them. I would go straight home after a play date and not give the matter another thought, until, some months later, I would see a Twizzler and be gripped again by the impulse to eat another one.
It is the week before Halloween, and I’ve got great plans. I’ve been thinking about tasting. There are lots of things to taste, unwrapped candy and fun fall treats. The world is fairly studded and strewn with Twizzlers cast broadside from a generous hand. But — and this is the point — who gets excited by a mere Twizzler? If you slip a simple Twizzler from the pack of a friend and are rewarded by the sweet taste of Red #40 and sugar, will you count that single piece of candy a bit of treat only, and go your rueful way? It is dreadful gluttony indeed when a man is so greedy and hoggish that he won’t find pleasure in a single Twizzler. But if you cultivate a healthy poverty and simplicity, so that eating a single Twizzler will literally make your day, then, since the world is in fact planted in candy, you have with your poverty bought a lifetime of days. It is that simple. What you see is what you get.
I used to be able to eat blue raspberry ice cream with the grandest pleasure of a child. I’d go to Baskin Robbins and see, not the thirty other flavors, but the vibrant blue one. My eyes would focus along that column of ice cream, picking out the color so bright it was almost glowing. But I lost the ability to eat artificial colors. Now I can see lactose intolerance. Probably some people look at the colorful ice cream and discover all the new flavors. I would like to know cotton candy and cookies and cream — and care. Then my least babysitting excursion into an ice cream parlor would be a field trip, a series of happy recognitions. I cherish the mental images I have of three perfectly happy people on a photograph at Baskin Robbins. One holds rainbow sherbet. Another — in a pink shirt, say — licks mint chip. The third has round glasses and smiles over a large cone of chocolate ice cream that he can hardly wait to devour. But I don’t see what the dairy-consumer sees and so I cut myself off, not only from the total picture, but from the various forms of food happiness.
Unfortunately the food industry is very much a dairy and artificial colors affair. A grilled cheese sizzles on the grill in the dining hall then gets consumed by my friend before my eyes. Fruit Loops, Apple Jacks, and Lucky Charms apparently taste divine with whole milk but I must bravely pass by the cereal section with my eyes fixated on the steaming pot of plain oatmeal. It’s all a matter of keeping my eyes focused. There are all kinds of food that can be found throughout the world and I need to be willing to be adventurous about tasting, but the responsibility weighs like a burden upon my lone shoulders. So for now, I’ll stick with my usual, knowing that I can tolerate it but not truly tasting the ingredients that I consume while watching reality television in the common room.
I had been taking every bite for granted. Then one day I was sitting in the warm sunlight bursting through the front window at the Circle W General Store, thinking of nothing at all as I bit into my regular bacon, egg, and cheese breakfast sandwich and I tasted its essence. I experienced locally grown flavor of the sweet, loamy soil in Palenville, NY. The eggs had been laid that morning. The sharp yet creamy cheddar was made from the milk of a happy cow just down the street, brightly flavorful but minimal enough to go unnoticed by my lactose intolerance. The bacon was thick, baked in an oven, never frozen. It went straight from the pig to the refrigerator in the Circle W. The bread was fluffy and soft. It needed neither salt nor pepper because each ingredient dazzled in my mouth. Gradually I finished the sandwich, every mouthful a brand new experience. Some bites had more cheese, some more bacon, but each one was delectable in a way I had never known food could be. I have since only very rarely tasted a bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich comparable to the one from the Circle W. The sandwich comes and goes, mostly goes, but I live for it, for the moment when my jaws open and a new light roars in spate through my mouth, and then my teeth slam as I chew.
*inspired by Annie Dillard’s “Seeing” from Pilgrim at Tinker Creek