Do we plant eggplant?

A few weeks ago this column introduced the two Foreign Exchange students who are spending the school year with us.

One student, Tookta, comes from Thailand; the other, Kitty, is from China.

Our main objective is to help them learn English as well as American ways, which they seem to be acquiring through their enrollment at Robertson High School.

I believe that part of their indoctrination is in providing food we think they’ll enjoy. And the counterpart involves our becoming more familiar with what people eat in China and Thailand.
I believe my wife, Bonnie, has tried hard to accommodate each one’s preferences. Accordingly, we’ve been having lots of helpings of rice and noodles — and eggs mixed into the various soups. The girls reciprocate by saying they enjoy eating food Bonnie prepares.

But no matter what, their tender palates don’t seem ready to try the spicy stuff, the Hatch, N.M., green and red chile, or “Christmas,” as we call it when we mix them. Kitty and Tookta seem pleased with our going out to local restaurants and ordering more common foods: hamburgers, chicken, soups, pizza and salads.

We had an eggplant dish at home on a recent night, and three us four seemed to like it. In our yard in Camp Luna, we own a dozen hens that provide enough eggs for us, but the “plant” part of tonight’s dish puzzles me.

Aren’t eggs simply laid but not planted? And nothing in the bit that I sampled even hinted of a hen’s help in the production.

Trying to reciprocate even more by tasting some of the girls’ Asian fare, Bonnie and I of course chose egg rolls and a Cantonese soup.

One day recently, the four of us went to Albuquerque’s Cottonwood Mall, and after some shopping, visited the food court. It took just a few seconds for our students to sniff out the Asian places, with varieties of sushi rolls, noodles and other Asian entrees.

Our Thai and our Chinese students appear to have grown accustomed to most of what my family puts on the table. We discovered their food-likeability index fluctuates. And it seems they’re becoming more accustomed to the meals at the Robertson High School cafeteria.

But yet, as we tried to introduce five-alarm tamales to our guests, we were reminded of the case when former President Gerald Ford joined a group for an ethnic meal. A tamale that appeared on his plate still contained the oja, the corn husk that surrounds the tamale. He started to slice the item with a sharp knife before a member of the wait staff suggested he unwrap the husk.

Sometimes people become confused by the “truth in packaging” policy we have here. In my mother’s case, she would wrap each end of the tamale with thin strips of the cornhusk. But she’d make a square knot that made the item difficult to unwrap without the use of tweezers. She never mastered the slip knot that we use on shoelaces.

But regardless, the joy of enjoying Mom’s tamales was in the eating, not the unwrapping.
The girls’ familiarity with cafeteria food is now on the upswing, as one of our students, a couple of weeks ago, even asked me to lend her money to buy a school lunch.

• • •

Sometimes I wonder whether anybody else on the planet has more provincial culinary tastes than me (or, as my sixth-grade homeroom teacher at Immaculate Conception School, Sister Mary Mucha Comida, would have said, “more provincial culinary tastes than I.”)

To begin with, I fear someone will reply, explaining that I should like all foods, that I need to experiment whenever I visit a fancy restaurant and that I need to be more broad-minded.

And my biggest fear is that without really listening to my lexicon of food preferences, someone at the table will provide a recipitation, a detailed instruction about how to prepare the stuff, which usually goes something like this: “First, you get six plump fish filets, then you chill them for seven days, glaze them with olive oil, then boil them until soggy . . .” Do you get the picture?

What I generally sit through on occasions like Thanksgiving is an account of how the cranberries were prepared, how long to steam the turkey, and what temperature to fry the mashed potatoes. And all that implies I’m taking notes.

For a long time, I’ve wondered why people I’m dining with perform these culinary soliloquies. Will their explanations of how the food is prepared and what it contains make the food instantly delicious?

The years have been unkind to my appetite. I find myself much more picky than before, when it seemed I could get through virtually any kind of food, even if I didn’t enjoy it very much.

Before the turn of the century, I taught a journalism class at Highlands University. We’d let out at noon, and at the end of class, I’d make up a recipe, ostensibly to whet their appetites.

I once told my students the lunch awaiting them was “Velveeta Cheese served over Cocoa Puffs, as much as you want.” Not too appetizing? That’s when some of my students took over, calling me a rank amateur and coming up with their own menus and entrees.

One student tried to entice us by listing boiled parsley flakes on a bed of steamed menudo, with a side of mayonnaise. Was that student so prescient that he hit on three things he knew I loathe?

When I repeated the menu to Bonnie, asking her how my student, a New Yorker, had hit precisely on items I detest, Bonnie reminded me that we’d invited the student over for dinner weeks earlier and we’d discussed food that’s favored and unfavored.

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