The Terrifying Scent of Curry: Confessions of a Formerly Picky Eater
I am seven years old, clutching my shoes to my chest and crying hot tears as I try to escape the scent of curry emanating from every carpet fiber and fleck of paint in my friend Bharat's house.
Photo by Anushruti RK The quickest way to make a seven-year-old Texan kid cry.
In the doorway, my harried mother is apologizing profusely to Bharat's concerned and bewildered parents. Bharat's mother is wearing a bright gold sari that I would normally find fascinating, but it too is saturated with the unfamiliar scent of curry and is therefore terrifying. My mother is taking far too long to apologize; she's making up some bizarre half-truth about why her only child is having a nervous breakdown after being invited over by a classmate for dinner.
"I was in a car accident a few months ago and she's been nervous about being away from me ever since," my mother explains. I am now half-indignant through my terror: I am not scared to be alone. I am scared of this weird smell and I want to put my shoes back on and I want to go home. I can't get out of this house quickly enough.
Finally, after what seems like months spent in purgatory in the small threshold of an Indian family's door, I am sitting in the passenger seat of my mother's old Toyota with its comforting cream-colored seats and I have somewhat calmed down. My mother is eyeing me suspiciously. She is wearing a royal blue skirt suit with shoulder pads that give her a strikingly geometric aesthetic, a faceful of bright makeup, jangly earrings in a clash of colors and triumphantly large '80s hair that's been teased and hairsprayed in the "Dallas big hair" model of the day. I look at her in all her suburban Texanness and am calmed. It is very white in this car.
The crying that took place that night was far uglier than the Dawson cry.
The snot is drying on my face. My eyes are puffy and swollen, but at least I'm not crying any more. My mother is still staring hard at me.
"What in the hell was all that about?" she finally asks. Although as an adult I am one of the most adventurous diners I know, and am -- as the food critic at the Houston Press -- paid to eat, I have a confession to make: I was once a picky eater. I was terrified, in particular, of ethnic food and all the confusingly unfamiliar sights and smells and unknown rituals that accompanied it. While we all think of Houston as a wonderful melting pot of cultures and cuisines, it was considerably less integrated 30 years ago -- especially in the suburbs, where I was raised.
I'd been invited by Bharat and her parents to have dinner after school earlier that week. My mother, who always had to work late, was thrilled to have me occupied for an evening that didn't involve hiring a babysitter. And an evening where I would learn something, experience a new culture and a new cuisine -- even better. Off to Bharat's I went one Tuesday afternoon, not fully comprehending that my friend and her family didn't eat tuna mac every night as I did.
At Bharat's house, I was presented with the first of many unfamiliar requests that completely knocked the wind out of my tiny chest.
"Take off your shoes and place them here," said Bharat's mother as we entered the house. Everyone else was allowed to leave their shoes on except me.
At seven years old, I was already a weird little kid fully on my way to becoming a weird, neurotic adult, and I was thoroughly offended by the idea of taking off my shoes. I was raised to leave your shoes on when you visit, not to get too comfortable or make yourself too at home in another person's house. I didn't even take my shoes off when we visited cousins, making awkward small talk over casseroles and canned meat.
This one thing was already almost too much for my conservative countenance to bear. I was always a serious child, a nervous child. I couldn't bear to be looked at when I was answering a question in class, when I was racing down a lane in a swim meet, when I was carefully eating one type of food off my plate at a time. You didn't take your shoes off when you were company in someone's home -- especially at the dinner table. My tiny brain was misfiring, overloaded with conflicting ideals.
I finally, begrudgingly agreed, and as I slipped my jelly sandals off, I began to notice the scent of curry.
I didn't know at the time that the smell was curry, just that it was something I'd never smelled before. It had a resonant odor to it; I could already tell that I would smell like it for the rest of the evening. It was pungent and strong and composed of so many unfamiliar notes, layer upon layer of confusion and unfamiliarity washing up on the shore of my mind.
As I sat stiffly on one jewel-toned couch, watching cartoons I'd never seen before, the panic deepened.
I don't know these people. I barely know Bharat. She just moved here this year. What will they serve for dinner? What is that weird smell? What will I be forced to talk about over dinner? Will I have to talk about myself? Why is her mother wearing a gold curtain as a dress? What is that weird red dot on her forehead? Why are there so many decorative columns and vases in this house? Why can't I put my shoes back on? WHERE DID THESE CARTOONS COME FROM?
I sat silent as a stone while I contemplated all of these questions, throwing occasional nervous glances at Bharat. She sat comfortably on another couch and watched her strange, foreign cartoons. Her relative comfort in this situation was pushing me closer and closer to the edge.
Then, dinner was served and I snapped.