Every now and then, a novice prompts a breakthrough, discovers something previously unknown to a professional community, and provokes a significant leap in our knowledge of our universe. That’s me: an aged version of the bozo who could make neither heads nor tails of physics, and who barfed when trying dissect the fetal pig in high school biology class.
And now, I’m going down in the books as a groundbreaking researcher!
I discovered PTRD.
My laboratory? A rectangular commercial space located in a tacky shopette in southeast Denver. My lab assistant? My brother, Kurt.
PTRD? Post Traumatic Restaurant Disorder.
I am in Denver, having motored upstate, but downhill, from Siberia With a View, in search of supplies for studio and kitchen, eager to indulge as many eating experiences as I can cram into the little time I’ll spend in the Mile High City, the Queen City of the Plains, the Wall Street of the West — the city of my birth.
The leap forward in knowledge of our universe begins when I weaken my immune system on a Friday night. My wife, Kathy (let’s call her the “Internet Bargain Queen”), procures an “incredible discount” on fine dining from an Internet service. Her record with online vendors is not good to this point: through such services, she has managed to encamp us in windowless, basement hotel rooms with creaking beds and crackly blankets; in lodgings next to rump-sprung ice machines; in “suites” in the middle of a floor of rooms otherwise reserved for teams in the 8 and under state soccer championships. I am rightly suspicious of the restaurant deal.
I am correct. The best part of the evening is the superb job Kathy does parallel parking on a busy Denver street. She takes great pride in the fact, as always announcing that she once drove a city bus while making her way through graduate school, not failing to add, “I’m a professional driver!” Whenever she makes note of her prowess, I have the urge to remind her that her bus once made its way through the front of a donut shop but, after suffering many nasty reactions, I’ve adopted the virtue of silence.
Things degrade quickly once we exit the car. True, we pay only sixty dollars for a meal that would normally run us more than a hundred bucks. Also true: with the discount, we pay twice as much as the meal is worth. The joint is mundane, at best, and there are few things more disappointing than a mediocre restaurant excluding, of course, death, disease, and cataclysmic disaster, both natural and human in origin. I make a mental note reminding me to implement a program to monitor Kathy’s Internet activity, seeking filters that prevent her from entering any site that uses the words “deal” or “bargain” as part of a promotion.
So, much like someone who has spent ten hours in an ice bath, I am a prime candidate for an infection of some sort. I am ready, come Saturday, to suffer a terrible fate, one worse than an Internet deal at a crappy eatery: PTRD.
“I have an adventure planned,” says Kurt. When my brother says this, it portends a trip through the city that includes stops at a number of interesting, out-of-the-way shops, a fevered run through one of the city’s better liquor stores, and lunch. This is not the kind of lunch that includes a sandwich at a small café, and it is certainly not a fast food diversion. When the “adventure” includes lunch, the meal is the focus of the day.
First, we zip around Denver in search of salt cod. I need a hunk of salt cod so I can make brandade. Kathy has concerns about the odor in the car during the six-hour trip home to Siberia with a View, so I assure her salt cod is odorless. I figure I can deal with the deception later — say, three hours into the trip, when the truth is inescapable. I will refuse to pull over, preventing her from opening the trunk and tossing the long-preserved hunk of seafood to the barrow ditch where, three days later, it would poison a coyote.
Alas, Spinelli’s Market and Tony’s Market, two ordinarily sure Denver sources for the magical, desiccated fish flesh (a life source for how many mariners in times gone by?), produce no results. Both markets have sold out, much to the puzzlement and delight of the proprietors.
A check at H Mart, where we stop to purchase all manner of odd Asian condiments, turns up old, yellowish slabs of salt cod, far past their prime. Apparently the Koreans, Chinese, and Thais who frequent the place don’t make a lot of brandade.
We give up on the salt cod, and traipse to the liquor store where our spirits are revived. I snag a bottle of Buffalo Trace at a sale price, and add a couple bottles of Spanish red to the basket. On the way to the register, I spy a gigantic jug of Tanqueray. Who can resist?
On to the zenith of the adventure! And to the nadir as well — the first recorded case of PTRD.
See if you can identify the points in the process where, with a wise decision, I would have avoided the dilemma. To help, I will mark them with numbers.
“I know just the place,” says Kurt (1). We make our way out to the southeast suburbs, to a shopette (2) and we enter a Korean restaurant Kurt assures me is a “doozy” (3).
And, it is impressive: the long, rectangular space has several private rooms built on one side, each containing a large, low table with a big iron griddle in the center. It seems the patrons in these rooms can lock the doors from the inside. Is there a chance some meals include a happy ending?
On the opposite wall of the sleekly decorated space are located tables with iron griddles in the center, above which hang vent hoods. Down the middle of the restaurant are placed tables and booths for those wishing to order prepared menu items, rather than taking a grill table and cooking the foods themselves. We opt for a booth.
A waiter appears tableside. He is approximately five feet tall, thin as a wisp, and has a Peter Pan haircut with bangs cut just above his eyebrows (4). He is wearing black stirrup pants, and Mary Janes (5). A nametag tells us our waiter’s name is Kwang-Ho.
He hands us our menus, brings us water and smiles broadly. I find him utterly delightful (6). He hovers, hands clasped below his waist, as we peruse our options. Kurt’s eye goes immediately to beef tendon jelly (7). I spy an appetizer I think might do the trick: a kimchi and scallion pancake with a zesty, sweet dipping sauce. I order it.
Kwang-ho asks me what I want as an entrée, his teeny eyes sparkling. He is so adorable I decide to put myself, in a manner of speaking, in his delicate hands.
“Well, tell me, Kwang-Ho,” I say, “what is your favorite thing on the menu? What do you eat?” (There is no number affixed here because this ploy worked wonders many times in the past; I had no reason to doubt it.)
Kwang-Ho puts the tip of his pinky in his mouth, and his eyes roll heavenward. He’s deep in thought and it takes him a few seconds to answer. He finally tells me: ”Spicy squid.”
When the Asian Peter Pan speaks, I follow. I love squid. “That is exactly what I’ll have” (7).
“But,” says Kwang-Hon, a frown crinkling his otherwise smooth, and well-moisturized forehead, ”it is very, very spicy.”
“Ha!” I say, “I have never met a food that’s too spicy. I’ve eaten the spiciest foods from the world’s major cuisines, and never had a problem (8).”
The most radiant smile I have seen in years lights the little tyke’s face (helped by the fact he has bleached his teeth), and he skitters back to the kitchen with our order.
“We need beer,” shouts Kurt, “plenty of beer.”
Kwang-Ho materializes tableside with our kimchi and scallion pancake, and the banchan — twelve small bowls, each containing a condiment, each an amuse bouche, if you will. Some are recognizable (squash, kimchi, beansprouts, cucumber in chili paste) and some are a mystery, but delicious. We order more beers, and we tuck into the pancake.
Several minutes later, Kwang-Ho wheels a cart around the end of an adjacent planter at breakneck speed. He puts Kurt’s entrée in front of him, then he unloads my spicy squid. The platter he places before me is a relatively long oval. On the platter is stacked a mound, four inches deep at its peak— a tangled mass of who-knows-what, all of it dark red in color. Closer inspection of the ingredients reveals large hunks of squid, many of them tubular in shape, a mass of tentacles here and there, unidentifiable vegetable matter, and an enormous amount of red chili pepper, and what appears to be hot bean paste far more potent than the regular gojuchang.
Kurt does not notice what is in front of me. He is attempting to eat a yellowish, gelatinous substance with chopsticks. It is not going well. I pick up my chopsticks. Kwang-Ho is still at the table, his hands clasped in prayer-like fashion in front of his chest. His eyes are wide, like a kid about to take his first roller coaster ride.
I take a bite (10). Dear lord. I am sure the expression on my face is similar to that of a man shot in the chest with a large caliber handgun following a dispute with a meth-addled neighbor and the tweaker’s pit bull.
Kurt is oblivious to my pain. A chunk of the gelatin has escaped his chopsticks and splashed in the mystery sauce in which a block of beef goo floats. He is getting frustrated, so he snatches a spoon from an adjacent table, and gets down to business.
Kwang-Ho is thrilled: the old, fat guy is actually eating the spicy squid! He scampers off to tend other diners.
“Here,” I say, once I catch my breath. “Try this.”
Kurt reaches over and grabs a wad of the spicy squid with his chopsticks. He puts the stuff in his mouth, his chin tucks in to his chest, his eyebrows shoot up, he chews … and chews … and chews … then, with some difficulty, he swallows. “Holy shit, that is hot!” His voice is an octave higher than normal. “And the squid is overcooked. It’s like eating surgical tubing. The hottest surgical tubing known to man.”
I look down the aisle. Kwang-Ho is peering around the edge of the planter, watching. I can’t let him down. This is a matter of pride (12). I determine to finish the spicy squid (13), and I do (14).
How, now, to sum up what follows in a way that minimizes the reader’s disgust? How to describe PTRD?
Have you ever been a passenger in a car, and had the driver ask: “What was that sound? Was your stomach making that noise?”
Have you ever sat in a living room with relatives, and had one turn to you and ask: “What was that? Was your stomach making that noise?”
Have you ever stood in line at a store and, with your fellow shoppers, listened to your gut make sounds like an injured circus animal?
Have you ever had to excuse yourself, and adjourn to the “facilities” on a 30-minute schedule?
For four days?
At a concert, during the slow movement of a Brahms symphony?
In the middle of a conversation with a friend?
During a phone call (“Can you hold, please? Because, I can’t.”).
Have you ever exuded an odor that knocks birds from the limbs of trees?
During a long (incredibly long) car trip through the Colorado Rockies?
If you answer “yes” to these questions, you probably had PTRD. The syndrome simply hadn’t been named yet.
It is easy to conclude that, if you avoid diminutive, sensitive Korean waiters, and their suggestions, there is little chance you will contract this disorder. But, this is a coward’s reaction. I am a scientist of sorts, and cowardice is not part of my playbook. If adding to the store of human medical knowledge is your goal, as it is mine, our task is to forge ahead.
So, I’m calling Kurt soon to tell him that the next time I am in town, and we are heading back to that shopette. Back to the lab.
This time I want to try one of those griddle tables. They have eel on the menu. I hope Kwang-Ho is there.
He’s absolutely precious (15).