Sunday, May 18, 2008

Le Bistrologue

My first foray into eating animals takes place at Le Bistrologue.  I am running late, and it’s pouring, as it’s been on and off for days now here, as I get out of the Métro at Gare de Lyon.  People look at me as I hurry down Boulevard Diderot in my coral-colored dress, umbrella-less, soaked.  They probably think I’m going to meet someone for a date.  I’m not, but my nerves are at comparable levels.

My friend Ann and her father Robert, who’s visiting from Houston, are sitting in wicker chairs and drinking lager on the covered terrace when I arrive.  Le Bistrologue is one of those Paris cafés straight out of a textbook:  1950s movie posters on the walls, Art Deco chandelier, chalkboard menu that I have to stand up and move to a different seat in order to read.  The youngish, middle-class people eating around us are mostly French, but our waiter, Cédric, is eager to practice his English with us.

Ann orders a bottle of red Martillac—the weather makes it seem more fitting than something white—and I start taking frequent sips as we discuss our menu choices.  Ann, who loves Le Bistrologue’s confit de canard, is in the mood for a steak tonight, and Cédric advises Robert, who’s wavering between lamb and duck, to go for the former.  I’m not quite ready for farm animals, so I order a steak d’espadon—“Swordfish,” says Cédric, gliding over the “w”, as he makes a gesture with his hand to indicate a long nose.   I suddenly wish I had something stronger than wine in my glass.

Ann also orders an appetizer of escargots for us to share.  I like this idea.  Invertebrates seem like a good place to start.  I’ll work my way up the evolutionary tree.  Robert, who grew up in China, tells me that the Chinese word for snail translates literally to “spiral cow,” because snails are slow like cows.

Cédric is slow like cows, too, and I'm hungry by the time the six fat escargots arrive, drenched in garlic-parsley butter, despite Cédric’s line—his modus operandi for charming tourists, I guess—that “some of them are still alive.”  I grasp a snail with one of those utensils that look as though they’re intended for eye-gouging, dig around a bit with my miniature fork, and pull out something that looks the way I imagine a globule of raw petroleum to look, only doused in green sauce. 

Ann snaps a picture of me as I consume my first escargot, and I have a look on my face as though I’m smiling politely at a crazy person.   It’s not as chewy as I expected.  The butter is nice.  The escargot tastes like something mildly foreign—not so wonderful as to make me want to stand up and exclaim, “What have I been missing all these years?”, but definitely not bad, and not particularly strong, really.  I forget the flavor as soon as it’s left my tongue.  I wonder if the part of my brain that ought to be devoted to parsing the flavor of meat has atrophied from years of disuse. 

I wait a few minutes, dabbing at the pool of butter on which the shells sit with strips of bread, then I eat my second snail.  This isn’t hard.

At only one point during the meal do I silently panic. I’m eating my swordfish, which arrives upon a small mound of smashed potatoes, smothered in diced peppers that have been sautéed with lemon and dill.  The fish has a pleasant texture—flaky is never a bad quality in food, I decide—and I like the  way it squeaks between my molars.  But suddenly there is a bit of soft bone on my tongue, like the indigestible husk of a popcorn kernel, and for a moment it hits me:  This is part of a skeleton.  Not long ago, this bone was helping this fish maneuver through water.  My stomach hurts.

The crisis passes, though.  It’s like that moment on an otherwise fine first date when the person sitting across from you says something you just can’t wrap your mind around.  If you think you might like the person enough, you let it go.  And maybe you pour yourself another glass of wine.

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