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Spices can either enhance or change food

April 13, 2011

Variety is the Spice of Life.  This could be one of the most over-used sayings in the history of the English language.  That could be because it turns out so often to be true.  
Just as spices can either enhance a food or change the flavor altogether, variety has done the same to the foodways of my life.
When I met my wife Melissa, she introduced me to Mexican food. That’s not to say it was new to me, but it was not a default setting in my restaurant selection until then.  In fact, I had a buddy – we’ll call him Harry – who introduced me to his favorite Mexican restaurant just a few blocks down the road from the condos where we shared a back wall.  The odd thing about this Mexican experience was what Harry always ordered: a cheeseburger.  In fact, wherever I ended up eating with Harry he inevitably ordered a cheeseburger any time it was on the menu.  Thankfully, The Olive Garden didn’t offer cheeseburgers.  Variety did not spice up Harry’s life very much.
In the interest of full disclosure I have to state that eating Mexican with Melissa did not change the scenario too much, aside from the view across the table.  That was a DEFINITE improvement over Harry.  Melissa did make one culinary improvement, and in the right direction– she consistently orders fajitas.  At least it’s not a burger.  I’ve never seen someone so infatuated with fajitas.  Even if she’s in the ladies loo when the server comes around to take orders, I could order chicken fajitas on her behalf and be right 95% of the time.   I’ve given her much grief over the years but have yet to convince her how boring this is for her underprivileged taste buds. 
Part of my frustration with the Harrys and Melissas of the world is my infinite need for variety in what I eat. Since we started this discussion in a Mexican place, we’ll stay there.  I have nothing against fajitas – I don’t want any letters from PETF (People for the Ethical Treatment of Fajitas).  But if I order them, I look for the plate that has the most variety.  I don’t want just chicken.  I want a mix of chicken, steak, even pork.  And I want unique veggies - I want something more interesting mingling with my onions and peppers, like carrots, squash, calabacitas and Portobello mushrooms.  Fret not, PETOP activists - I have nothing against onions and peppers.  I just don’t want them to be lonely.  And give me a skewer of grilled bacon-wrapped shrimp on the side, too, please.  Now that’s a sizzling fajita plate. 
No matter where I am, I tend to order the most unique item on the menu, or at least something I’ve never tried before.  With most Mexican restaurant menus, that can take a long time to figure out – by the time I’m reading the third page, around plate number 77 and still going, we’ve already been through two baskets of chips, my children are signing up as participants in the Feed the Children Fund and the queso dip has congealed.  I will admit that sometimes that method can backfire – I’ve ended up with a soggy mass of corn chips, cheese and ground beef and found myself jealous of Melissa’s fajitas.  That is, until I met … the fish taco.
More full disclosure: when it comes to fish tacos, I’ve begun ordering the same thing wherever I go, too.  A few years ago I would have turned up my nose at the notion of fish inside my tortilla.  It just didn’t jive.  Then I began to read Calvin Trillin – one of my favorite food and travel writers – and was intrigued by his search for the best fish taco.  He went all the way to San Diego, California to try as many as he could.  I decided I’d give it a whirl (without traveling as far), and I was soon hooked.  Nowadays, if I am in a Mexican restaurant – really any restaurant - I skip directly to the seafood page and seek the fish taco. This in no way means that I have abandoned my quest for variety.  Nay, nay.  The tortillas might be flour or corn, crispy or soft.   Infinite varieties of fish may be grilled, fried, or blackened.   Some are topped with slaw, some with fruit salsa (my favorite), and many are sauced.   Thus while it may be true that I’m stuck on fish tacos, it is also true that I’ve never had the same fish taco twice.  I still have standards.

Jay Reed is a local foodie and pharmacist.  The culinary tastes expressed here are his and do not necessarily reflect the appetites of the Starkville Daily News or individual members of its staff.  He  welcomes your comments at eatsoneate@gmail.com.

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