I’d never been partial to any foods other than ham. Perhaps a slice of toast occasionally, but my discriminating and fairly restrictive palette would never settle for anything other than the full-bodied saltiness of processed goods. For the ripe age of six, I understood this was not unusual as such although rather backward for someone who adores eating. There was not a family Christmas that went by without my Nanna having to prepare a separate meal merely because of my overdemanding preferences, or a Primary school disco, in which I’d hand out any Pom Bears or Party Rings the teachers tried to enchant me with.
Decidedly, I was a picky eater. And no encouragement of change would waver my ways. As I grew older, I grew as more of an obstacle to our family breakfasts, lunches and dinners. Until a dreaded morning.
“I just spoke on the phone to Auntie,” my mum begun to announce to the household. Her voice was singing, and her hands were placed on her chest as she let out a blissful sound. I knew immediately whatever the news was, I would be forced into the insufferable eloquence of the middle-class activities my auntie normally plans.
“She’s invited us all to a very expensive meal tonight! And we don’t have to pay a thing!” she squealed. My dad the same, and I just fell into complete denial. No way was I going to plain sail through this evening.
Upon arrival, men in resplendent outfits directed our decade old Skoda towards the door. It felt awfully out of place, as the entrance was profoundly French, and had these handsome lofty pillars scaling the perimeters of the door. Sunken gardens fell alongside the building, and even a fountain was there on show cascading down into the courtyard. All but me leapt out the car in high spirits, ushering words out to the doormen about the restaurant’s architectural genius. I continued to act obstinately maintained. And happily, so.
Over in the distance, my Auntie spotted us. Running over like a superfan, she greeted us with the earnest smile she was famous for. She wore a matching pink two piece, that was simply quite horrible, and hugged us all encouraging us to come inside to join the rest of them. I sighed. How excitedness can foster inside someone about fancy food was beyond my capability of understanding as a six-year-old.
Inside, it was perhaps furnished by someone who had never considered the value of money. It had a warm, well-appointed feel, and charmed everyone into a reverential hush. Stairs lay across the room, ascending to the ceiling, and each table was lovingly set with the same rich red table cloth, and sat upon it, flutes of pre-poured champagne sat patiently for the fingers of adults to grasp. The chairs were dark mahogany wood and had aged in the beautiful way as good leather does, and candles let out a dim emit of natural light, accompanied by the ornate chandelier that hung centrally above our table. It was quite magical.
“Sit, sit, sit!” sung My aunt, “let us not gawp, just appreciate! We have a whole meal to eat first!”
My hear dropped at these words. With such an elaborate interior surely, they’d be as equally elaborate in food options. Sat in anticipatory fear, I took the menu from the middle. However, to my sudden surprise, the entire thing was in French. Every single food. I had no means of deciphering this and certainly no way of knowing the French for Tesco pack of ham.
Mouclade charentaise? Fondue Savoyarde? Gratin Dauphinois?! What were all these things!?
And just at that very moment verging on a picky eater’s tantrum, a woman in all black with her hair scraped into a bun came over and asked the question that turned my stomach.
“Ready to order?” she calmly asked, and my auntie took no moment to consider, and replied with a yes and a smile.
We went round the table uncomfortably swiftly, everyone saying what they wanted without a stutter in their decision making. It was nearly me next. I knew in myself there was only one thing and one thing only that I could do. Be brave, and trust that it’ll be ok.
“Miss? What would you like?” I noticed the waitress was staring at me with unpleasantly impatient eyes and held her pen in such a decided preparatory position I knew I could only stick with my plan.
“Auntie. Will you choose for me please?”
Everyone stared at me, my mother’s fingers even splayed on her breastbone as she drew in a quiet gasp. I full well expected the disbelief I was silently receiving in that moment. It’s like if a pilot suddenly asked a random passenger to take over.
“V… very well then.” My Aunt begun “Escargots au Beurre Persillé…”
“Excellent choice miss.” Sounded the waitress almost commending me and my aunties choice.
For the coming hour or so whilst everyone spoke singingly, I sat incessantly and obsessively thinking over the words that would end up on my plate very shortly. Escargots au Beurre Persillé. There was no way I was to know.
When the woman came over for the second time, expertly holding large platters of food. They were laid out in front of each of us. And what was put in front of me, nothing could’ve prepared me for. My heart sank. The thing in front of me could only be one thing; snails.
The plate stared back at me, watching me, as I sat unable to formulate any rational words. It was that moment that I could only be brave, an emotion I had never once associated with food. But here I was, with a snail on my fork, thinking to myself the uncommonness of this situation warrants my bravery. And then with a breath inwards, I took the first bite.
Everyone around the table fell silent, as all eyes were on me, fixed with beliefs in suspensions. I went quiet for a mere few seconds after eating.
“It’s… truly disgusting.” I grimaced.