I’m a good eater.
That’s what my grandfather used to say when I was a kid and he watched me finish an entire steak and baked potato and then ask for seconds.
On one of our early dates with my husband, Jason, I ordered a three-stack of pancakes, a hard salami sandwich, and a chocolate malt. As I finished off the last bite, Jason told me he appreciated a woman who could “really eat.” I like to think it’s why he married me.
Growing up on a farm in North Dakota, I wasn’t exposed to many different varieties of food. Interesting spices and flavors were not our forte. I thought peanut butter Twix were too spicy. I’ve seen my grandma eat a Dorito and say, “Wow, they have a little kick.”
We were simple, straight-ahead folk and we liked simple, straight-ahead food. We ate steak from my grandfather’s cattle, deer sausage from the year’s hunt, and vegetables from my mom’s garden.
I grew up eating organic and I didn’t even know that was special until I moved to Los Angeles.
Here in LA, I’m exposed to every kind of flavor and food imaginable and slowly, slowly my palette has accepted it.
With that, I’ve started to cultivate a deep love for trying new food.
There’s a food critic here – Jonathan Gold – whom I read constantly. He eats everywhere, from high-end restaurants in Beverly Hills to the newest food-court in Little Japan, creating a map for devoted readers like myself to follow around the city.
There is nothing like trying a dish for the first time. It’s like a first kiss; you can never recapture that feeling. So I search and search, dragging Jason to basements in downtown and tiny kitchens in Korea Town, chasing the dragon of that food high.
On his birthday, I found the best place in LA for chilaquiles (his favorite breakfast food). As we drove past abandoned train tracks and empty warehouses, he was sure I was taking him out there to bury his body.
We once ate at a Chinese restaurant that was so legitimate there were no English menus. I loved the dish we shared – a crunchy mix of peanuts and tofu and noodles – but Jason’s face turned pale after the first few bites and for the next few days his tongue was numb and he could taste nothing but soap. That was the week we found out Jason’s allergic to Chinese Pine Nuts.
Despite these set backs, I keep searching out new food. It’s a way for me, a small town girl from rural North Dakota, to get to know and appreciate other cultures – a way to find common ground with people I assume I don’t have much in common with.
Like last year, I learned Nepalese yak chili tastes very similar to my favorite North Dakota venison.
In a time that feels so fractured, eating yak and chatting with the Nepalese server is a way to touch base with my diverse community, to see the world through their eyes. It’s half a culinary experience and half a way to connect.
I don’t have to look far to challenge my taste buds. Even in my own home, it’s a constant battle between flavors. When I first introduced Jason to lefse, he immediately suggested putting cheese in the middle and frying it like a quesadilla.
After I picked myself up off the floor, I told him where I’m from, that’s considered blasphemy.
But on New Years Eve, Jason, along with two of our friends who also had some kind of vendetta against my culture, filled a pan with butter, sprinkled lefse with cinnamon and sugar, and fried it up as I looked on in horror.
I wish I could say I hated it – that I had thrown it out and demanded an apology. But it was incredible.
Like a Norwegian churro.
I always thought our two culinary cultures would never find common ground.
But like so many other things, it turns out they’re not so different at all.
This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum. You can find them (and me) here.
Photo by Jason Elias