Rob O’Hara: A Mouthful of Eel

Southern Legitimacy Statement:

I was born and raised in Oklahoma. I spent the first half of my life trying to get out of this state and, after moving to the northwest for a couple of years, hightailed it back as fast as I could. I like to think that most of the stereotypes about Oklahoma aren’t true (I’ve never owned a pair of cowboy boots or ridden a horse), but the truth of the matter is, I drive a pickup and have spent more than one night hiding in a closet, waiting for the tornado sirens to stop. Say what you will about Oklahoma, but there’s a reason they call it the Heartland. I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Mouthful of Eel

My throat and stomach agree; the slimy eel in my mouth will be leaving the way it came.

I was born and raised in the Midwest. When it comes to food Iím a little more adventurous than your average “meat and potatoes” guy, but I tend to leave the most weird and exotic foods for weird and exotic people. Each time I see celebrities eating crickets and maggots on faux-reality television programs, I wonder if the world has run out of beef. The easiest way to avoid eating weird and exotic foods is to avoid the places that serve them, but there are occasions when patronizing them is unavoidable. When I find myself in such an establishment, I do my best to steer clear of dishes and ingredients I cannot pronounce and gravitate toward the known.

I’ve never lowered myself to ordering from a children’s menu in a restaurant, but I came extremely close once. My niece celebrated her graduation at an Indian restaurant, and when our waiter suggested I try the vermicelli, I borrowed a joke from Young Frankenstein and asked if he was referring to the worm or the noodle. When he replied, “Yes?” I came dangerously close to ordering a corn dog before settling for a bowl of soup.

As a child I didnít love every type of food my parents put in front of me at the dinner table, but at least they stuck to things I recognized. Corn looked like corn, carrots looked like carrots, and potatoes looked like potatoes. My parents taught me at a young age not to put things in my mouth I didnít recognize; as an adult, I see no reason to stop now.

One of my first jobs was as a cook at a chicken restaurant, and it was there I discovered people other than maniacs and cannibals ate livers and gizzards. I thought my boss was pulling a prank on the new guy the first time he sent me to the back of the restaurant to fetch a bag of livers. Moments later, alone and shivering inside a walk-in freezer the size of my bedroom, I discovered he was not. I plunged my arm into a waist-high metal tub filled with freezing water and pulled out a plastic bag filled with raw livers and blood. I was barely able to keep myself from throwing up into the tub of ice water and chicken guts, and I returned to the kitchen holding the bag of slimy organs as far away from my body as possible. When my manager saw me, he laughed.

“What makes livers so disgusting and ribs okay to eat?” he asked.

If he didnít know, I thought, I hoped he never wasted money on ribs again.

“Just be glad we donít serve cow tongue,î he said. I laughed, only because I didnít know people actually ate cow tongue. Twenty years later while ordering lunch from a taco truck, I learned the horrible truth. I hoped  prayed  that “beef tongue tacos” was slang for something else. While standing in the hot summer sun next to a rusty food truck, I discovered what the swarm of flies buzzing around me already knew.

For lunch, I drank a bottle of orange pop.

Iíve never nibbled on cow tongue, livers, gizzards, or vermicelli. Even at the most exotic of restaurants, I get by. Most seafood restaurants serve fried catfish. Most Polish restaurants that serve blood sausage also serve potato pancakes.

None of that helped me tonight.

Tonight, thanks to a co-worker’s promotion, I find myself at a sushi restaurant. There is no sweet and sour chicken or egg rolls to be found for the less adventurous. The menu consists of sushi and sashimi, which my friends are quick to point out are not the same thing; sushi consists of raw fish and other things served inside rice, while sashimi is raw fish served on a plate without rice. It sounds at best like a hazy line in the ocean to me.

I skim the menu and am reminded of the time my third grade class visited a local aquarium. Eel, octopus, sea urchin and prawn were all there at the zoo, and tonight, on the menu, theyíve been reunited.

Through the process of elimination I have selected the least offensive item I can find on the menu, something called Unagi. I do my best to convince myself that eel sauce is made for eels and not from them, and hope that my sashimi will arrive with it lightly drizzled atop rather than drenched in the stuff.

While my co-workers laugh and celebrate I quietly down several shots of liquid courage. All I can think about is the inevitable. Soon something strange will be placed on the table before me, and I will be forced to deal with it.

It is not until my dinner arrives that I realize the error in translation. A comma has been dropped from the menu, and when the waiter sets my plate down, I realize that Unagi does not contain eel sauce, but instead is eel, with sauce. Lined up straighter than a military marching band are six blocks of rice, each one adorned with a long slice of eel covered in a light stripe of sauce.

I am taken back to the summer of first grade. In the dirt under the playgroundís biggest slide, Sally Grone told me me that earthworms tasted like licorice. She convinced me by digging one out of the ground and pulling it apart with her bare hands. Sally popped one half into her mouth, chewing and smiling the entire time. After swallowing, she patted her stomach with dirty black fingernails and let out a sigh of satisfaction, as if she had downed a glass of ice water after crossing the desert.

Then, it was my turn. Convinced I was about to sample a delicious treat, I stuck the other half of the earthworm in my mouth and began to chew. The worm did not taste like licorice. It tasted like juicy, chewy, fatty, dirt. It popped when I bit down, and whatever had been inside the worm came out.

My gag reflex ejected the worm back into the dirt. As my stomach continued to heave, Sally Grone clapped and cackled with delight.

“That was gross!” I cried, tears swelling.

Sally smiled, revealing tiny bits of worm stuck between her teeth.

I can’t help but wonder if everyone working in the restaurant knows slices of dead eel covered in what looks like dried blood is disgusting. Is everyone here in on the joke? Is Sally Grone somewhere back in the kitchen, still cackling as she slices up denizens of the sea and sends them out to customers?

All my friends are devouring their fish and rice, and it will soon be obvious Iím not eating if I donít do something quick. Our waiter is moving toward us, replacing bottles of saki and refilling water along the way. When he arrives, he will ask me if everything is okay.

The eels look like tapered tongues; smaller than a cow’s and pointed on the ends, like the Devilís.

The waiter glides closer and I time my opening. Someone at the table makes a joke. When everyone throws their heads back in laughter, I pick up a disgusting pile of rice and eel and shove it into my mouth.

At first the eel feels like chicken in my mouth, and I try to convince my brain that it is. But Unagi is much too large to swallow without chewing, and when my teeth press into it, I realize that the eel is chewy. Just like an earthworm.

Somewhere, Sally Grone is cackling.

When the sweet and salty flavor hits the back of my throat, it closes. Neither the sauce nor anything itís slathered on is going down.

The laughter at the table stops when someone notices my odd behavior and becomes convinced that I am choking. All eyes are on me now, even the waiter’s.

“Is everything okay?” the waiter says with a thick accent. Everything is certainly not okay, for neither me nor the eel. My chest spasms from the inside-out. I cover my mouth with my hand, but tiny bits of food begin to spray out. More is coming.

I leap from the table and, unsure where the bathroom is, run toward the light coming from the front door instead. My left hand remains pressed hard against my mouth in an attempt to keep the eel from escaping while my right arm is extended in front of me like a running back, ready to spear anyone between me and the door. My legs kick on autopilot, mostly, but not completely, working together to propel me toward the door.

Standing between me and the exit is a busboy. In his hands he holds a black plastic tub, full of dishes and glasses and chopsticks and whatever the last group of customers didn’t finish eating. As they were in the ocean, there in the plastic tub, the fish are reunited. As I prepare for impact, the busboy whisks the tub to one side like a matadorís cape. He spins around, successfully avoiding contact with the charging American bull.

Separating the lobby from the restaurant is a large aquarium. It stretches all the way to the ceiling, and the bluish-white lights make the crystal clear water glow like a television. Most of the same fish in the aquarium are also available on the menu.

Slithering around the bottom of the aquarium is an eel. The eel stares at me with its unblinking yellow eyes as I run by.

And he is smiling.

I hit the doors with my shoulder and burst into the light. From the sidewalk, I send the eel in my mouth off to join the earthworm in the dirt.

Inside, my friends are doing a round of saki bombs on the house with our waiter.

The busboy has already forgotten our near miss and is in the kitchen, dumping fish into the garbage disposal.

The eel in the aquarium is still smiling.