Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Pass the MSG

As a kid I remember driving through a state park in West Florida with my father and seeing charred remains of forest. Behind the barb wire fence the earth was post-apocalyptic, mostly grey sand and ash. Small specks of green poked through the ground here and there, a stem with a leaf or two only. The pines displayed black scars along their trunks, evidence of what had happened, but their upper branches and green needles paid no attention and went on with life, for them, just another day hanging out in the woods.

"Was there a fire?" I asked my dad.

He told me it was called a controlled burn, the forest rangers start fires, they control them, when the brush and ground cover gets to thick they do it. It helps prevent wild fires that can start when lightening strikes and get out of control. It's good for the forest. Some of the trees even need it to help stimulate growth and so even though it seems like it destroys the forest it actually helps renew it. Soon everything will grow back new and green.

It seemed like a crazy idea, burning everything down to make everything better. I watched out the window as the burned area quickly transitioned to the thick unburned forest where the bright green palmettos surround the pines with their jazz-hand fronds and cover the forest floor making it nearly impenetrable except to the rodents and snakes that live beneath. The pine trunks are anorexic skinny, some trunks toppled, leaning at a thirty degree angle, supported only by the trunks of other survivors.

Two years ago when Anna and I performed a controlled burn on our lives and decided to leave the States to go sailing we sold our life on Craigslist. We thought we planned everything on the brown drawing pad Anna brought with her to the cafe where this all began with two stick figures representing us. Initially she'd written across the top "How to escape Tallahassee." After a few minutes we crossed through Tallahassee and replaced it with the USA. Buying a sailboat became the answer to the question. But when I left my job and she left her interior design business neither of us knew anything about umami or MSG. People asked us what are you going to do if you don't like it? "Do something else, we'd say." But the truth is we were George Bush in our thinking.

We did like it, for a while. We just wanted to have fun and be with each other and we did. We woke up on the ocean, speaking new languages, our life was infused with the beautiful flavors of doing whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted. The flavor of bird peppers, mahi, the Caribbean, curry and freedom. We had nothing to do, no responsibilities, no deadlines, conference calls, meetings, appointments or obligations. We didn't know the day of the week, the time or where we were going next.

At one point, about half way through a lifestyle that makes Charlie Sheen look wholesome Anna researched some yoga courses on what she'd need to get instructor certification. It sounded like a great idea but was soon forgotten. And more recently, she walked around Cartegena, just to walk and came back with a stack of interior design catalogs. But what neither of us fully put together was that this was all about the umami and that the palmettos had gotten too thick.

I never thought about MSG until a month ago when I was at dinner in Colombia with a guy we'd just met, Max. I knew nothing about it aside from a sign in the drive-thru of a Chinese restaurant we used to go to as a kid that read "MSG"  in a circle with a do-not-enter style line through it. I just assumed "MSG" was short for messages and for whatever reason their answering machine must be full. 

We'd gone to an Australian Fusion Cafe which sounds both repetitive (isn't all Australian food aside from bush meat fusion?) and an odd choice for Cartegena but the place was air-conditioned and just a block down the street. As we looked at the menu Anna mentioned the high abundance of cilantro on the menu, a concern because for Anna cilantro tastes like soap. In the beginning of our relationship I just thought Anna was being difficult about the cilantro but after some internet research discovered that her problem with cilantro had more to do with having an enhanced sense of taste. Scientists refer to people who have a heightened sense of taste as Supertasters. Supertasters often compare the flavor of cilantro to soap.

Anna was immediately in love with the idea that she had a superpower and I enjoyed transferring the idea to her reason for being with me and our relationship. She dealt with showering in the ocean because she was a Supertaster. She didn't need air-conditioning because she was a Supertaster. Because what we were experiencing had so much more flavor than a traditional American lifestyle and Anna was special because she could taste it with an intensity greater than the average individual where all the inconveniences of sailing weren't effecting her or us. But after two years on the boat, living what most people would call a dream we both still felt something missing.

As we waited for our meal Max revealed to us his in depth knowledge of all things related to taste. He knew about the amount and location of receptors on the tongue and why Heinz ketchup tastes so much better than regular ketchup. He didn't know why he knew so much about taste but he did. Most of all I remember what he said about MSG. Apparently MSG, which stands for Monosodiumumami. Umami is the hidden taste that we all want and love which is why foods with MSG taste so great. The Japanese word umami essentially translates as "meatiness." So add a little MSG to your vegetables, cereal, chocolate cake and it'll suddenly taste meaty. Add a little MSG to anything and it will be more meaty.

Once I got back to Florida and my sister is telling me about her new job which she doesn't really like but doesn't entirely hate. Being on an expressway is a sensory explosion after being at sea for two years. The stands of pine trees  near the overpass , the buildings of downtown Orlando appear to be zooming by even though were the ones zooming as we drive east along the expressway. She tells me about the unhappy millionaires she works for while I half listen and half think what went wrong with my relationship with my fiancee. As we drive east down Colonial towards Central where all the businesses are Asian owned and the restaurants are called Phun-Ho and Lin-Hun and have neon blue and red signs that hum against the window and read "Best Vietnamese" or "Real Chinese"  or just simply "Thai Cuisine."
Eventually, Emily says something like "It just isn't very gratifying I need to do something with a purpose." and I look at her and she can tell I'm looking at her and she'll laugh and say
"What?" and start laughing harder and say
"What is it Jeff?" and laugh even harder.
And even though I'm big brother and I'm supposed to be full of all types of advice the only thing I can suggest is grabbing some take-out.

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