I was nearly killed yesterday on assignment in Portland, Oregon—a city not generally known for an association between the practice of journalism and violent death. I’d come to town to report a story for Reader’s Digest on a local woman who took a bad fall while climbing an 1,800-foot rock face in the Grand Tetons, and lay on a narrow ledge with several broken bones—both ankles, her pelvis, two vertebrae—as a thunderstorm threatened and night closed in. After a few tense hours, a team of rangers managed to rappel down to the victim, strap her into a full-body harness, and fly her out by helicopter as she dangled from a rope.

Although the woman and her rescuers displayed extraordinary courage, none was required of me; I just had to sit in an armchair and take notes while she talked. My brush with mortality came after lunch, as I was driving from one of Portland’s famous food-cart “pods”—specifically, the cluster of vans, wagons, trailers, and fry-shacks known as Good Food Here, in the scruffy-boho Belmont section—to one of the city’s famous beer halls. Having consumed a greasy but soul-satisfying paper-plate special (salmon saté with Asian pesto, from the Fishbox truck) and some of the best damn sorbet I have eaten in North America (one scoop of coconut-saffron and one of passionfruit-Szechuan peppercorn, from the Fifty Licks truck), I was navigating westward by GPS in my tiny rented Kia. At an intersection where two roads branched off at ambiguous angles, the robotic voice commanded me to turn right. I complied, and found myself heading the wrong way—into heavy traffic—down a one-way street.

Horns blared and vile oaths flew. By some miracle, however, I’d rounded the corner just as the light was turning red, so the oncoming cars had stopped a nanosecond before mine blundered into their path. I shifted into reverse, pantomimed apologies, and slunk off with my exhaust pipe drooping in humiliation. A few blocks later, I was gobsmacked by the magnitude of the disaster I’d evaded—and not only me, but whoever I would have rammed into, and all the loved ones who would have had to carry on after our erasure or maiming. I parked the Kia in front of the Deschutes Brewery and Public House and worked my way slowly through the six-beer sampler (I recommend the powerfully hoppy but beautifully balanced Armory XPA, and the chocolatey-fruity Black Butte XXIV cask-conditioned porter). I then tottered a few blocks to the nearest Stumptown coffee outlet and downed a giant mug of Chemex-brewed Kenya Gatomboya, which the barista touted for its wine-and-citrus bouquet but I drank solely for the caffeine.

After a couple of hours at Powell’s palatial secondhand bookstore (where I picked up a couple of reference works for my novelist wife Julie), I had recovered sufficiently from the afternoon’s upset to drive back across the Belmont Bridge to Pok Pok, where I ate Thai catfish on buttery vermicelli noodles with mint, dill, and a golden-spiced dipping sauce, and drank a refreshing rhubarb-vinegar shrub. Thence to the hotel for e-mail trolling, CNN, and the usual night-before-the-flight-home indigestion, elation, self-doubt, and insomnia—punctuated this time by visions of the cataclysmic crash that almost was.

Coincidentally, my previous story for Reader’s Digest (http://tinyurl.com/8aub9lg) was about a carload of women who were lost for three blazing days in Death Valley, thanks to a GPS unit that sent them driving in circles along unmarked dirt tracks. Reporting the piece, I learned that this is a common problem: Nav systems can be unreliable on back-country roads, because the databases for remote areas are often based on obsolete maps. But even in major cities, I’m finding, a GPS machine is a treacherous servant.

I’m a late adopter, of course, as I’ve been with every digital device that’s come along since the CD player. I started ordering a GPS unit with my rental car on reporting trips a couple of years ago, after missing a highway exit outside Dallas and driving 100 miles in the wrong direction, thereby laying waste to half a day of scheduled interviews. When I just need to get from one place to another, the talking robots invariably do the trick. It’s when I want to wander that the trouble starts.

In Portland, for example, there were a number of gustatory landmarks that I felt compelled to visit, in widely separated neighborhoods. Instead of finding them on a map and plotting my course, as I once would have, I simply punched out the addresses on the GPS keyboard. And then, instead of looking for landmarks (and pulling over occasionally to check the map), I relinquished will and discernment and obeyed the robot. Rather than engage with the streetscape outside my car windows, I responded to the unit’s hypnotic voice. When the robot said, “Turn left,” I turned left. When it said, “turn right,” I turned right.

Only the sight of those cars rushing toward me broke the trance. I’m grateful that nothing else was broken, and that I lived to eat another day.

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On Foreign Meats

by on March 7, 2011

Once the guinea pig arrived, I confess, I regretted having ordered it. The cuy lay on its side on a white china plate, whole and ungarnished, its tiny teeth bared and its eye glaring at the Infinite with an affronted expression. Although the menu declared that the creature had been pressed beneath a hot brick in the traditional manner, it resembled nothing so much as a New York City rattus norvegicus that had lost a quarrel with a Q train.

Of course, there are no subways in Arequipa, Peru. There are Spanish colonial churches, and a looming volcano, and Quechua women wearing bright shawls and bowler hats; and there are hordes of Yankee tourists, the bulk of whom leave town without having sampled this particular delicacy. Americans, by and large, follow no formal code of kashrut, yet there are certain foods that strike us intuitively as taboo. The association with urban vermin (and kindergarten pets) is enough to make most of us say no, gracias to any species of roasted rodent—with the exception, on special occasions, of a respectably dressed rabbit. But I had said , and I was determined not to let the little beast defeat me.

It was putting up a good fight. The carcass resisted my laborious sawing, and the scraps I pried away were almost impossible to chew. Bits of hair clung to the singed hide, pricking my tongue in an unpleasant way. My wife looked on helplessly, her face cycling between sympathy and nausea. A trio of uniformed waiters stood at attention against the sunlit wall of the restaurant’s patio, beneath a spray of bougainvillea; I could feel their furtive glances as I struggled with my opponent. The youngest one kept coming by to refill my glass of gaseosa. Finally I sought his counsel. “No se come el piel, señor,” he murmured, emptying the bottle.

Don’t eat the skin! How could I have been so dense? I cut a long slit and peeled away the casing. The dark meat underneath was stringy but tender, a tad gamy, and pungent with wood smoke. Belying the old joke, it tasted nothing like chicken; it was closer to rabbit. But above all, the cuy smacked of Peru and its ancient culture. For 5,000 years, guinea pig had been the principal non-marine animal protein of Andean civilization. It lent strength to the Incas and nourished their descendants, who still trudged down the mountains with llama-loads of preindustrial commodities to sell in Arequipa’s markets. Each morsel of slightly overcooked flesh was a synecdoche, a concentrated metaphor for something vast and ageless. It was a medium for communion with a radically foreign people. It offered a form of carnal knowledge—a way of transcending otherness by eating it. I was flooded with a sense of Edenic oneness, as free of national boundaries as an infant at the breast. Seeing my bleary smile, Julie sighed with relief and tucked into her ceviche.

I have pursued such difficult ecstasies throughout my adult life. Like any other perversion, my fetish for un-American meat began with a childhood trauma. My father was a junior high school French teacher, and in 1964 he took his sabbatical in Switzerland. At the age of 7, I was transplanted with my two smaller brothers from Los Angeles to Lausanne. Our adopted city was beautiful but cold, in every sense of the word, and baffling in its Alpine insularity. Strangers corrected my parents’ pronunciation and the entire family’s table manners. We lived outside the medieval downtown in a Stalinoid apartment block, where the hall lights were on a 30-second timer and the super barked at us for building a snowman. The kids at my blue-collar école primaire enjoyed spattering non-Swiss classmates with ink from their quill pens.

And then there was the food. My senses, weaned on Velveeta and fish sticks, were barraged daily with disconcerting tastes and smells: the mushroomy stink of ripe Camembert at a lakeside picnic; the ammoniac tang of unrefrigerated cakes brought home from the boulangerie; the too-intimate odor of unpasteurized milk issuing from the delivery man’s pail; the brawny aroma of ground espresso beans wafting from the corner grocery.

All of it repelled me, except for the coffee. After a few months, though, some instinct hinted that mastering the local comestibles—as much as the local languagewould help me feel less lost. I began to grapple with the strongest cheeses and the fiercest charcuterie, and to relish each victory over the apparently inedible. In reality, the inedible was winning me over. By the time I turned 8, I had learned to lust after toothsome mold and bacterial funk and the flavor of the barnyard, to covet foods redolent of life and death in a strange and specific place.

Such an appreciation has become commonplace in the United States over the past couple of decades, but when I returned home in ’65, my peers were going gaga over Fluffernutters and Space Food Sticks. My mother, who had never found her emotional or culinary footing in Europe, was happy to revert to the routines of tuna casserole and store-brand wieners. It was not until I left for college that I could begin chasing that old, transcendent thrill—that food-borne feeling of being at home in the world.

It was possible, I discovered, to score a portion of such joy by eating the easy stuff. For a boy raised on Stop & Shop apple pie, a first encounter with tarte tatin can reveal more about the mysteries of Frenchness than hours spent reading the Larousse Gastronomique. But the sharpest epiphanies came from the most challenging dishes, and there was nothing more daunting than certain deeply indigenous meats. In Iceland, I have dined upon tough and liverish puffin doused in blueberry sauce. In Spain, I have eaten larval eels. In a Dijon brasserie, my first wife burst into tears after tasting an andouillette bursting with offal; I gallantly passed her my omelet and wolfed down the fecal-scented sausage. I have crunched fried crickets at a Oaxacan dive in East L.A., and sucked on cartilaginous duck’s tongues at a Szechuan palace in Manhattan.

I have not enjoyed all of those meals. The crickets were particularly vile—musty-tasting mouthfuls of chitin and grit, like shrimp shells stuffed with burnt toast crumbs. I could eat only two before my gag reflex kicked in. To be bested by an insect was mortifying, especially in the presence of my father-in-law, who had goaded me into trying it. “Clean your plate or no dessert,” he scolded, smirking, as my stomach churned with peristalsis and shame. Yet such failures are instructive. To learn the limits of one’s intrepidity, whether in mountaineering or gourmandizing, is an essential form of self-knowledge.

And when the quest succeeds, when the inedible proves to be delectable (those eels! that cuy!), the reward is more than sensory. I leave the table in a state of heightened consciousness, neurons crackling, pores opened as though by a cosmic sauna. In part, no doubt, this is the high generated by broken taboos. The Greek root of the word “ecstasy” means to go out of oneself—an effect that can be achieved, among other means, by the shedding of a gustatory skin.

The buzz comes from a hotwired connection as well. In cultures that practice cannibalism, the point is not to assuage hunger, but to absorb the mana, the ineffable power, of the person consumed. Catholic communion, as has often been observed, is a way of sublimating that impulse; in a pure white wafer, the worshipper swallows the very body of God. Eating alien meat is a similar, if secular, exercise. The aim is to take a bite of another nation’s soul. This, paradoxically, is an act of submission on the biter’s part, in that it requires a lowering of defenses, a stifling of revulsion, an opening of the mouth to the unknown. It is an act of love. But it is also an act of violence.

Fortunately, no one is harmed but the poor guinea pig. And some Peruvian would have eaten it anyway.

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