Tasting Day

This was the advice we went with for our son’s recent common application essay.  He speaks fluent sarcasm and movie quotes exclusively, so an essay on how his community service experiences changed his life just wouldn’t ring true.  The following is so him, I smile every time I read it!

Today is Thursday. Just those words cause my mouth to water because for the past nine months, Thursday has been Tasting Day. My parents are opening a café, and I am the “unofficial official” taster. They say that I am the former, but I contend I am the latter, and sometimes it is easier to agree to disagree. I represent the final vote for or against what makes the leap from kitchen laboratory onto the menu. With the grand opening just a few months away, the stakes are high.

When I hear “café,” I think of gorging on delicacies: whipped cream covered chocolate chip pancakes, batter-fried chicken, French fries drowning under an awning of gooey cheddar cheese, and home baked apple pie with a trans fat-laden crust. My family’s establishment is, to my dismay, the opposite of that. My parents’ focus is on calorie consciousness and cuisine that is more befitting a health resort rather than my beloved stadium concession stands. Each item begins with an ancient grain: chia seed oatmeal flax pancakes, wheat bran crusted baked chicken, and quinoa peach crumble. There is a bright pink dragon fruit smoothie bowl that I have been told tastes like ice cream, but since it contains neither ice nor cream, I don’t buy it.

I enjoy being a taster, but the truth of the matter is that I heartily dislike health food. Sicilian pizza, deep-fried Oreos—deep-fried anything, really —and chicken wings bathed in ranch are my true definition of fine cuisine; I am the target audience for Buffalo Wild Wings. The very reasons why I cannot stand eating birdseed and cardboard foods advertised as healthy dining options are ironically the same that make me perfectly suited to the task of taster. If I can give a thumbs up to an entrée that is free of preservatives, nitrates, sugars, and refined carbs – all those vices I hold near and dear – then we have ourselves a winner that even the healthy food-phobic customer will enjoy.

Honesty – both brutal and sincere – is another strength that suits my tasting role. Mother, father, Chef Steven: There are no loyalties when I am at the counter and a plate of something that smells like grains but looks like meat is before me. My parents helicopter over me with each bite, searching my face and body language for a reaction. Dad is tough and can handle my blunt truths with stony emotion. Mom cannot, especially if she’s kneading her hands and “smilacing”—that unique combination of smiling and grimacing. Those blatant tells that would make her easy prey at the poker table inform me that she either made what I am sampling or played a role in its composition. She is more sensitive, and if she whiffs my disappointment, she will turn away to hide being upset. Chef Steven? Well, he knows his preparations have to pass the “Matty Test” because it says so in his contract, but he takes my critique with a tablespoon of salt.

I sit to begin my critique. On today’s menu: Steven’s Killer Carrot Muffins (named because said muffins almost killed my highly nut-allergic father). Excluding, dad’s near death experience, I give the muffin a thumbs-up. Shepherd’s pie using cauliflower mash instead of mashed potatoes – I begrudgingly passed that one too, vegetables and all. The potato wedges were too soft and the vegetable soup simply had too many vegetables (I’d rather have a ham and cheese croissant—aren’t there vegetables in that?). Finally, chocolate chip peanut butter cookies earn a reluctant double thumbs-up. The reluctance merely an excuse to keep eating them in the name of surety.

Fortunately, my family shares meals most nights, not just on Tasting Thursdays. Although healthy food is not my first choice in dining, like any great comfort food, it brings my family together through a shared passion, whole grains and all.

Debra Feinstein