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I would rather eat a rock

by Thomas Dillon

A pleasant day in the park with a caressing sun and the flirtatious glow of spring! To top our day of Tokyo touring, I treat my U.S. guest to a food-stall serving of takoyaki — small balls of breaded octopus.

Which — if you have never partaken — are thoroughly yummy. A fact I now impress upon my guest. Who is less than enthused to try anything unusual.

“What’s this?” he asks. He boasts square eyewear, behind which blink guarded eyes. His posture is equally protective: straight back, stiff shoulders and forearms poised to snap in self defense.

I pause over what to call takoyaki in English. Then deliver . . . “Octopus balls.”

He looks at me. “You’re kidding.”

“That’s a poor translation. Really it’s . . .”

“I don’t care what it is. I’m not hungry.”

“But . . . weren’t you the one who suggested we eat?”

“The only way this gets inside my stomach is if you anesthetize me and have it surgically implanted.”

“Oh c’mon. Try.”

“I would rather eat a rock.”

“But . . . look!” I use two skewers to split apart one of the takoyaki. “See! It’s just some fried batter with a slice of octopus inside. Harmless. And delicious too.”

He sniffs it. “How do I know that’s octopus? And not a hunk of painted rubber? Rubber that will plug me up so tight that I’ll end up with a colostomy bag as a souvenir.”

“Because it’s not rubber!” I remove the octopus and swallow it down. “It’s 100 percent octopus, I guarantee.”

“And you’re 100 percent nuts, I guarantee. Because raw fish is swarming with parasites. After living here so long, you might be immune. But me . . . one bite and I’ll release an entire tsunami of diarrhea. It won’t be pretty, I’m sure.”

“Look.” I open one more and point to the octopus. “It’s not raw. It’s been boiled.”

He peeks at it. “Nice color. What’d they use? Red Dye No. 3? That causes tumors in rats.”

“You’re not a rat.”

“Yes, but my mother says my father was. It might be genetic.”

“And,” I go on, “it’s not red. It’s purple.”

“Which is worse. That means the color’s bleached out, befouling the batter as well. Which is probably made from enriched flour. Therefore, it’s nothing but nutrition-free carbohydrates. Each bite making a direct contribution to my total body fat and a future heart attack.”

“The color is absolutely natural. Boiled octopi all look this way.”

“And so . . . was it a pot-trapped octopus? Or one caught from a bottom-trawler? Maybe the latter. So by eating this we encourage fishing boats to scrape the ocean floors. To overturn the lives of millions of harmless creatures — mermaids, sea serpents, card sharks — just so we can munch on octopus balls in the park.”

I pick the tray and pass it by his nose. “Mmm! Smells good!”

He winces. “Ugh. Smells more like murder in the third degree. And we are accessories.”

“Oh c’mon. Just try!”

“And octopi are intelligent,” he tells me. “Remember that one that predicted the winner of the World Cup? Who’s to say this octopus wasn’t even smarter? Who’s to say it wasn’t an octopus genius? Perhaps on the verge of a critical breakthrough? And soon would have been appointed to the Supreme Court? Or judging on ‘American Idol’? But no. We had to go and eat it.”

“Please! One bite!”

“And look at that guy at the food stall. He’s a complete Neanderthal. One that seemingly just woke up after a million years. I bet he hasn’t washed his hands in all that time.”

“Do you want me to ask?”

“He probably doesn’t comprehend speech. You’ll have to grunt. Or maybe crack a whip.”

“But I just spoke to him. He told me, ‘Thank you,’ when I paid.”

“Sure. I’ve read that all these food stall guys are linked to organized crime. Your money is probably going straight to the syndicate. Tomorrow some hitman will be loading his .22 handgun with a bullet you virtually paid for. So he has to thank you. You’ve made the planet a better place for mayhem.”

“OK. Watch me then. You dip in the sauce and eat. See? The sauce alone is scrumptious.”

“And, no doubt, overflowing with salt. You won’t pee now for a month, your water retention is so high. Not to mention your blood pressure.”

At which point I give up. “Fine. I’ll eat them all then. As for you . . .” I motion to the ground. “There are rocks everywhere. Help yourself.”

“Now don’t over-react. All I want is a safe, nutritious meal.”

“Such as?”

“Such as a double-cheeseburger and a shake.”

I almost choke on my takoyaki.

“This sightseeing is hard business,” he tells me. “I need something my body understands on a cellular level. Beef, cheese, ice cream — the basic building blocks of life.”

OK. I tell him we’ll go get burgers and he nods with relief. But first I have to finish what I ordered.

He motions and smiles, saying, predictably . . .

“Oh but of course. Have a ball.”