Monday, July 28, 2014

The Edontic Gourmet

Or, what to eat when you ain't got no teeth.

Actually, I used to have a corkboard above my desk in Berlin, on which were tacked a bunch of weird items, including the business card for a business called No Teeth Bar-B-Q, discovered by a friend of mine driving to Austin to visit me. He made me curious enough that we drove out there and sampled the man's wares. Yes, it was soft. Yes, it was tasty. We gorged ourselves and drove back to town, by which time I was sweating copiously and deeply in need of something to drink: the meat was just laden with MSG, to which I don't react real well. But I had his business card, and loved his motto: "You don't need teeth to eat my beef."

It's been a while since I ate barbeque, although I did go to Franklin's earlier this year and the brisket there was almost no-teeth soft. And I'm hoping to check out some of the so-called also-rans here in Austin when I have money and time to do it now that I do, sort of, have teeth. But let's start at the beginning, where we left off the last post.

I had to pick up some prescriptions after the extraction, and a friend of mine drove me to Costco, near my house. There's a Whole Foods in the same shopping center, so, still mopping the occasional drool of blood (and, I'm sure, terrifying the patrons) and still semi-stoned from the anaesthetic, I walked in while I waited for the pharmacist to fill my order. Right inside the entrance to the fruit and vegetable department was the juices and smoothies department. Aha! Something for when I got home! Then I drifted over to the soup aisle, which was pretty well stocked, and bought a small box of black bean soup, remembering that that was an item I liked cold. There was dinner.

Except...not. Whatever fruit juice-combo-drink I'd bought ($4) was just what the doctor ordered, but the black bean soup turned out to be, um, full of beans. Imagine a delicious puree of well-seasoned black beans with BBs floating in it. I swallowed the liquid. I couldn't do a damn thing with the rest, the lovely new teeth in my mouth notwithstanding.

For breakfast the next morning, I think I'd bought a Bolthouse Farms Breakfast Smoothie, strawberry flavor ($4, also available in peach). It was fantastic. Fortunately, Costco hadn't been able to fill my complete prescription the day before, and a friend offered to drive me back. So I did the same routine, with the previous day's experience in mind. First I got some more stuff from the cooler, and then I went to the soup aisle, where I paid more attention to the one-quart boxes of creamed soups. There was no difference in price, so I grabbed a couple made by a company called Imagine and tried not to think about John Lennon. As I stood in line waiting to pay for the bottled drinks ($4 each) and a couple of boxes of soup ($4.69 each), I thought back to the Monoprix I used to shop at in Montpellier, cruising its aisles and thinking about stuff I could probably eat there. One big item was brandade de morue, which is essentially whipped potatoes with onions and desalinated salt cod, a local specialty that's way better than it sounds, especially after it's been stuck in the oven briefly to brown the top. There were bunches of cold soups sold in glass, most of which I'd never tried. There was also a variety of puréed vegetables sold in plastic trays by Bonduelle, the French agribiz giant. I would think of them again.

It took a long time for me to get used to the new teeth. I had an appointment for a week after the extraction, and I was gratified that the blood was gone fairly quickly, but there were other pains. The dentures cut into my gums something fierce. Thursday night, I woke up with adrenaline coursing through my blood, my tongue working furiously at the lower denture. No biggie: it had just hit a sore place, but it had done so when I was asleep, hence the panic. It took me hours to get back to sleep. Of course, the dentist's office was closed on Friday, and all weekend, but I was back on Monday, and some adjustments were made.

Meanwhile, I wasn't enjoying dinner much. My routine was a Bolthouse product most days for breakfast, occasionally supplemented by another brand I can't remember that's not as good and costs $4.95 at Central Market, and a Thai-style iced coffee, brewed the night before so it would be room temp when I woke up. Because the nearest Chinese/Asian market is miles and miles from my house in North Austin, I didn't use authentic Longevity Brand condensed milk, but it was pretty tasty anyway, and experience showed that I wasn't ready for anything hot in my mouth yet. Downside was a sugar rush that I was afraid would kill me. Lunch was another fruit-juice combo ($4), and dinner another creamed soup. The good news was, there were lots of varieties of creamed soup, but the bad news was they weren't always good. The Imagine soups mentioned they were low sodium, which is good because as anybody who reads labels knows, most canned soups are MSG-rich. Having forgotten the very rudiments of chemistry, though, I was surprised that adding a touch of salt to the soups didn't work. No, stupid: they have to be heated or the salt will just sit there in discrete pieces instead of seasoning the liquid.

Fortunately, I discovered that there was a brand that was, compared to Campbell's, low in sodium, but actually contained enough salt to be tasty. I was already aware of Pacific because I discovered they sell chicken broth in a four-pack of 8 oz. boxes, close to the boxes of chicken broth I'd had to go all the way to Spain for when I lived in France. But it turned out that they had a whole range of boxed "creamy" soups, most of which worked cold. Especially good were the spicy black bean and curried red lentil soups. Then there was another stroke of good luck: I had to visit my GP to get some blood pressure meds refilled, and since he's quite near Trader Joe's I went over there to see what they had. What they had was the best soups I found during this whole episode. There's no question that Trader Joe's Latin-Style Black Bean Soup and Trader Joe's Creamy Corn and Red Pepper Soup lead the pack. They're also $2.95 each, which made me regret not picking up more: it's at least 20 minutes to and from that shopping center, depending on traffic.

But good or bad, I was getting tired of creamed soup, Bolthouse smoothies, and Thai iced coffee. Finally, I snapped. I poured a bowl of cornflakes, added some milk, and let it sit a while. If you would like to replicate what happened next, simply insert a wine glass into your mouth, bite down hard, and chew. Even soggy cornflakes were too much. Fortunately, there was a smoothie in the refrigerator. But that was beginning to piss me off, too: berries of every description were showing up in the markets. How much could it cost to make a smoothie? How hard could it be? I asked around to find out how to do it, and once I eliminated the recipes with kale (don't get me started), I had a formula. And, one trip to Target and $25 later (seven Bolthouse bottles, I figured), I had a blender with a special smoothie function. Then I went and bought some strawberries, some blueberries, some bananas (for texture), organic plain yogurt, and some wheat germ, figuring that was the "whole grain," or close enough, that I liked in the Bolthouse drinks. Thus:

1 part ice cubes
2 parts fruit (includes banana)
1 part orange juice or milk
1 part yogurt
1 tsp - 1 Tbsp wheat germ or protein powder or whatever

Put the ice cubes and the frozen banana in first, then the liquid, then the rest of the fruit, the yogurt, and the grains. Whiz until blended.

Chef's notes: The flavor of bananas is extremely pervasive. Half a banana is plenty. Don't forget the wheat germ or you'll have trouble later. Ignore that strange odor when the machine is working. All electric motors make it when they're getting broken in. Also when they die.

Taster's notes: It appears that all supermarket fruit is made out of cardboard except for Fredricksburg peaches, which are as local as they come. It is currently peach season.

But it's also five weeks since the operation, and I've been pushing solid food on myself bit by bit. Early on, I bought a tiny amount of pasta salad at Whole Foods. I knew it would taste awful -- their prepared food is horrendous, which is a new phenomenon -- but I had to try. First was a pasta salad. Not quite glass shards, but lots of pain. And a tiny cube of cucumber -- aiee! So that was out for a while. The gaspacho at the soup bar at Central Market, too, had those cuke cubes, but I got it a few days later, and managed to make my way through it. (Note to self: make some of that creamy God's Pacho before all the local tomatoes burn up). Then one day I was at Whole Foods and noticed a whole array of those Indian dishes that come in thick metal-foil envelopes and can be microwaved or heated in a pan, and I noticed that one of them was dal makhani, one of my favorites ever since I first had it at Gaylord's Restaurant in San Francisco 40 years ago. Surely I can do this, I thought. I took it home, zapped it in the microwave and was through it before I'd realized that this was the first solid food I'd had in a long, long time.

I'm quite sure I'd have gone to the local Indian supermarket for more (there are dozens of brands and dozens of dishes available, and they're good to have around the house for those days when you're utterly uninspired or haven't had time to shop), but this set off an overwhelming urge to cook my own food. First off was...let's see, what's not very chewy? Eggplant! So a portion of Fuchsia Dunlop's reliable Fish-Fragrant Eggplant (total cost: $2, with leftovers for a lunch) served on rice. I chewed oddly, but there was no other problem: I had conquered something at last. Since then, I've been gingerly easing back into action with Chinese and Indian dishes, pasta (which I overcook slightly), hot dogs and potato salad (Sabrett's, available at Central Market! A taste of home!), and my famous hamburger curry. I suffered through a loaf of bread for toast -- that's not quite ready -- and yet now I can deal with cornflakes. Coffee's been hot for some time. One lunchtime, I took a bag of Gaytan White Cheddar cheese puffs -- bigger, thicker, and airier than a Chee-to -- and carefully ate half of it. Verrry carefully.

It seems to me that the way to deal with this is to push the limits as often as I can (and go back to the dentist for adjustments, the next of which happens tomorrow) and accept defeat when it happens: this weekend a friend and I stopped into a place in Austin's Chinatown shopping center for some báhn mì, that irresistable Vietnamese sandwich that people love because it almost always is made with the best baguette in town (secret: if you don't like the local baguettes, see if there's a Vietnamese bakery nearby). I was defeated by half of mine, but I also realized this won't always be the case (at which point I'll go back and get one at Tâm Deli, where they're much better than at this place). Some day, I hope, I'll be eating like a normal human being again. And if I'm eating cold cream soup then, it'll be because I want to, dammit.

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