Matthew was born a picky eater. His mother had blamed herself when he wouldn’t latch onto her breast, assuming the reason for his lack of appetite was due to the anesthesia she requested during a long and painful labor. After months of failed attempts and painful struggles, she gave up on breastfeeding all together and made the shame-filled decision to switch to formula.
His pickiness continued throughout his childhood. Plain white rice with a little bit of salt and butter was his meal of choice up to the age of five. Macaroni and cheese was added as part of his meal rotation a year later. When Matthew was seven, his father accidentally came home with a box of Velveeta Shells and Cheese instead of the preferred Kraft Mac and Cheese. The outcry was so great that his parents didn’t attempt to put macaroni and cheese on the menu again for another year.
Matthew’s grandmother was the most distressed by his pickiness. It was common knowledge within the family that she wanted to be the grandmother her grandchildren would run to and say, “Nana, you are the best cook in the world!” But Matthew didn’t seem to care about his grandmother’s grandmothering ambitions and refused to eat any of the special meals she prepared for him. Not even the meat pies she labored over, making sure the dough to meat ratio was just right so the bread would come out pillowy soft and the meat wouldn’t overcook. He also turned up his nose at her vegetarian options. A simple fattoush salad was deemed too weird looking and her baytinjan was deemed too smelly. He even refused to take a nibble of her potato chops — spiced ground meat enveloped in mashed potatoes and deep fried to a crisp, golden brown — the most beloved dish of all her other grandchildren.
“Habibi, please try it,” she begged the first time she tried to feed it to him. The oil from the freshly fried treat seeped through the paper towel as she held it up to his face, causing Matthew to run away in horror.
Every family gathering was centered around food. Long tables filled from corner to corner with a mishmash of Lebanese and Iraqi dishes, each platter more terrifying to young Matthew than the last. Matthew was the only one of his many cousins who was finicky with food but diet wasn’t the only thing that distinguished him. While they played video games, he wandered out to the yard and plucked dandelions, sometimes blowing on the white ones and watched their seeds float away. He imagined each seed floating to a different country, experiencing new cultures and making new friends.
While his cousins danced together in living rooms to Michael Jackson or Paula Abdul, he preferred listening to instrumental world music or, on the rare occasion when he was in a dancing mood, he twirled around in the privacy of his own bedroom to the soundtrack of Mary Martin’s Peter Pan, which he owned on cassette. While his cousins preferred the latest blockbuster films, Matthew preferred watching a calm, non-judgmental Bob Ross teach his audience how to paint happy little trees. Matthew never joined his cousins on their frequent trips to the arcade or the go-kart tracks. Once, his father forced him to go to his cousin Lisa’s laser tag birthday party. Matthew spent the entire hour and a half hiding behind a purple fluorescent cube in the corner, wondering why his cousins didn’t share his love of quiet evenings in bed reading The Chronicles of Narnia.
As the years went by, some staples were added to Matthew’s diet. A slice of cheese pizza here, plain spaghetti pasta with a scoop of Ragu marinara there. He even allowed his grandmother to make him toasted pita bread stuffed with white cheddar cheese slices every once in a while. It was a task she begrudgingly took on, though she almost lost the privilege the day she tried to swap out the cheddar with halloumi, hoping he wouldn’t notice.
In middle school, Matthew became intrigued with British food and culture. Shows like Masterpiece Theater and Are You Being Served?, which played on PBS, sparked the new fascination. They featured sophisticated people living in a sophisticated society, enjoying sophisticated things like a sophisticated afternoon tea. Most of the food they ate looked like they were made specifically for him, black pudding and haggis aside. Lavish spreads with finger sandwiches, scones, crumpets, hot cross buns and other fancy pastries actually looked appetizing to Matthew. He felt a connection to the British — they didn’t need spices or scary ingredients to survive! After a lifetime of feeling like an outsider, he discovered a real faraway place where he felt like he would belong.
Trying to find authentic British food in Nashville turned out to be almost impossible. Desperate, he tried asking his grandmother to make him scones with clotted cream or perhaps a Yorkshire pudding. The request caused her to break down into tears and ask him why he didn’t love her.
Matthew longed to escape the land of BBQ and familial guilt trips and go to the land of etiquette and waistcoats. He became obsessed with everything British. In his daydreams, he pictured himself wearing structured tweed suits with colorful pocket squares, tipping his bowler hat to passersby. At home, where he was greeted with raised eyebrows and side eyes, he would stroll around the living room with a long umbrella and rain boots. He wanted his family to join him in his delight of all things British, but that dream quickly fizzled when he asked his father if he would like to join him for a spot of tea. “You want chai?” his father asked and Matthew walked away, disappointed.
“Cheerio,” was how he greeted his classmates. His peers did not react the way he imagined they should, and he quickly lost the few friends he had. He felt completely alone. It was then he realized his world didn’t welcome those who were different.
Matthew fruitlessly begged his parents to send him to a boarding school in England. The people there would understand him, he just knew it. When he realized boarding school wasn’t going to happen, he fantasized ways to stow away on a plane and get to his promised land on his own. Money wasn’t important. Living on the streets of London like the singing orphans from Oliver! had to be better than his uncultured life in Tennessee. But Matthew never stowed away, he never escaped. Somehow, he survived his adolescence in the South. He learned to hide his true self from the people who wouldn’t understand. Life became a little more manageable that way. He never tried to fit in — he knew that would never happen — but learning how not to draw attention to himself became an art form. If an interest didn’t seem popular, he didn’t participate, no matter how much he longed to. Instead of joining the town’s ice skating league like he desperately wanted, he joined the more socially acceptable track team. Though he never understood how his peers could watch Kristi Yamaguchi glide angelically on the ice during the 1992 Olympic games and still consider track as the more popular school sport.
To his surprise, Matthew found he enjoyed track, a sport which involved no contact and hardly any teamwork. Running became an escape. The faster he ran, the further away he got from the people who didn’t understand him. On the track, he could breathe freely. Everywhere else, he held his breath. He knew the consequences of exhaling.
Matthew grew tall and slender. His hazel eyes, which he inherited from his mother, and his dark skin and curly hair, which he inherited from his father, made him stand out from the blonde-haired blue eyed boys in his Catholic school. His looks and mild mannered behavior brought him a whole new set of friends: female friends. While the boys in school had finally stopped teasing him, they never made the leap to accepting him. And Matthew didn’t care. He got along better with girls anyway.
Matthew’s obsession with England never went away, he just got better at hiding anything that would stand out and mark him as different. His desires were buried so deep inside, he eventually stopped thinking about them. But they were in there, waiting to burst out of him. It was his cousin Hannah’s announcement that she was taking a semester abroad in London that brought them back to the surface. His forgotten dreams were once again a possibility. Matthew began nagging his parents to send him to London to visit Hannah during spring break of his senior year of high school. His parents were confused by the request as it had been years since he’d expressed any interest in England and even more years since he’d expressed any interest in his cousin Hannah. But his father was so relieved he wanted to spend time with one of his cousins that he said yes right away. He even offered to go with him since Matthew had never left the country before. But Matthew rejected his father’s offer and insisted he wanted to go alone. It was under the guise of wanting to spend some quality time with his cousin, but the truth was that without the watchful eye of his father, Matthew would only have to spend a little bit of time with Hannah. After that, he could run free and be as posh as he wanted to be.
“They aren’t really friendly here,” Hannah said as the two strolled around St. James Park the day Matthew landed. She looked the same as she did when he saw her earlier that year. Olive skin, curly dark hair, thick black eyebrows, and wearing a black tank top with jeans. Matthew wasn’t sure what he expected exactly, but he figured she would have some sort of British transformation. A Sassoon haircut or a color-blocked shift dress. A hint of an accent, maybe.
“They’re not rude like the French, but Brits just hang out with other Brits. They’re not really welcoming to outsiders, you know? All my friends here are transfers from Vandy.”
Maybe they’re not welcoming to you, Matthew thought. He knew the British would welcome him with open biscuit-filled arms. They had to.
The London sky was overcast and gray, and the outfits he saw people wear weren’t vastly different from the outfits people wore in Nashville. It was a bit disappointing, but he knew he would feel the London magic soon enough.
“Have you had any good scones?” he nonchalantly asked Hannah. During the flight, Matthew decided the first item of food he would try in London would be a scone.
“Scones? No, I mean… I haven’t tried any yet,” Hannah said, her brows furrowed.
Matthew was flabbergasted. Hannah had been in London for four straight months and she had yet to try a scone?
“I’m not really a fan of the food here. It’s pretty bland, but Edgware Road has some amazing Middle Eastern food. Almost as good as Nana’s. We’re going tonight. Ooh! You know what else they have here? Curry flavored Pringles. Oh man, my mouth is watering just thinking about them. You have to try it.”
“I was really hoping to have a scone first,” Matthew said, unsure why his cousin would think he would enjoy curry flavored anything. “I’m actually pretty hungry. Can we get one now?”
He had no intention of going to a Middle Eastern restaurant and was embarrassed to be related to someone who would go all the way to London to eat the same food she could get at her grandmother’s house. Hannah knew he didn’t eat Middle Eastern food. The whole family knew that he was slowly killing his grandmother because of his stubborn dedication to never try anything from her homeland.
“Yeah, sure. There’s a cafe right outside the park. I’m sure they have scones. But don’t fill up. I made us reservations at Meza at 7pm.”
Giddiness almost escaped Matthew when they left the cafe, tiny scone-filled paper bags in their hands. Like always, he showed no excitement and gave off his practiced blandly-interested-but-not-too-interested look. The two found a park bench and unwrapped their bags. The scone looked like a biscuit he would find in any barbecue restaurant in Nashville. But he knew it would taste different, better than anything he’d tasted before. He broke off a bit and carefully placed it in his mouth. Nothing. The joy he expected to feel didn’t pour out. The scone did little to excite him. His throat tightened up with sadness and disappointment. Maybe he wasn’t meant to enjoy things. To love things. Maybe he was meant to remain in purgatory.
“It’s dry,” Hannah said.
And that’s exactly how Matthew felt. Dry.
Hannah gave Matthew four hours of alone time to go rest up in his hotel room before picking him up for dinner. She wouldn’t take no for an answer and Matthew was too tired to argue. He figured he would do what he always did when forced to eat somewhere he didn’t want to eat: order white rice and hope the chef would agree to make him an unseasoned chicken breast to go along with it.
It quickly became apparent that a nap would not be an option. Every time he tried to close his eyes, a vision of the dry scone would appear, taunting him. Matthew told himself he was being dramatic. So what if the scone was dry? It wasn’t the end of the world. He was in London, the place he dreamed about for as long as he could remember dreaming. Maybe the scone didn’t live up to his expectations but there were other foods he wanted to try. And he was eighteen years old, which happened to be the legal drinking age outside the United States. A trip to a proper British pub seemed like a better idea than a nap.
Matthew was not a drinker. In fact, the only drink he had ever tried was a sip of his dad’s Arak. He was only eight at the time but when he saw the concoction turn from clear to milky white when his father added water to it, he became convinced the drink was made of magic, like something out of Alice in Wonderland, and knew he had to try it. He snuck a gulp when his father left the drink unattended. The strong licorice flavor instantly took hold of his throat and made him cough uncontrollably, causing him to drop the glass on the floor. His dad ran back into the room and yelled things at him in Arabic, which he didn’t understand, but he got the gist. The experience made him wary of alcohol from then on, but he wanted to try again. This time, he would order a gin and tonic with a splash of lime. It was the most sophisticated drink he could think of, other than a martini, which seemed too advanced for an alcohol novice. Excitement started bubbling up inside him once again when he imagined himself sipping the elegant cocktail while socializing with England’s elite. The dry scone wasn’t going to ruin his trip.
After taking a look through the “Things to Do in the Neighbourhood” guide, which was waiting for him on the bedside table of his hotel room, Matthew made his way across the street to The Badge and Crow. The guide touted the pub as “An Extremely British Experience.” He had changed into a pair of grey slacks and a sky blue polo — the most fashionable outfit he owned. Nashville wasn’t known for being fashion forward, so he hoped he didn’t look too casual. A shopping trip to Harrods was on his long to-do list.
Thrill pulsed through his fingertips as he reached for the pub’s large wooden door and pulled it open. A roar of cheering almost knocked him over. The bar was packed with men, all with their heads cranked upwards, facing one of the three television sets showing a soccer game. They weren’t wearing fashionable suits or sipping martinis while having intellectual conversations. Instead, they wore blue jersey tops over jeans, slugging pints of beers and swearing like a bunch of heathens. Matthew shut the door behind him and nervously made his way towards the bar, his shoes sticking to the floor with every step. He managed to squeeze in between a large bald man and an older lanky man, and tried to get the bartender’s attention.
“Fuck! Ferrer, you fucking cunt!” the larger man screamed at the television, spilling a large portion of his pint on Matthew’s polo. The man didn’t seem to notice though because his head was still cranked up towards the television.
Trying not to draw attention to himself, Matthew quietly made his way back towards the door, pushing through the chaos, and headed back to his hotel room for a long shower.
The restaurant Hannah dragged him to was located in a part of town that was nothing like the London Matthew had dreamt about. Instead of dapper men who tipped their hats and courteous ladies who tossed polite greetings, Matthew and Hannah were surrounded by men wearing dishdashas and women in headscarves yell-speaking and trying to get them to go eat in their restaurants. Scattered between the endless restaurants were specialty grocery stores filled with items that Matthew had no interest in. Music his grandparents listened to streamed out of the open shop doors and mixed in with the overwhelming aroma of various spices. There was also an unpleasant smell he couldn’t place, which he later discovered was hookah smoke. He couldn’t believe Hannah. Here she was in the epicenter of sophisticated culture, and she drags him to what could have been a family reunion. All that was missing was his uncle, Mansour, dancing with a glass of cognac balanced on top of his head — a parlor trick he pulled out at every family gathering.
The two entered through the door of what looked like a run-down apartment building and climbed up a narrow flight of stairs before entering the restaurant. Red and gold patterned curtains hung over the windows, blocking any light from getting in. Gold lamps with geometric shaped cutouts dangled throughout the crowded space. Instead of tablecloths, white paper was used to cover the tables and burnt orange pillows with red tassels were used as chair seats. Tacky was the only way Matthew could think to describe it. Where were the elegant silk drapes, the grand windows overlooking a delightful garden, the tastefully fringed lamp shades or the flowery chintz wallpaper? He felt PBS had misled him. It was yet another let-down.
After they were seated, Matthew adjusted the pillow under him and sighed.
“Everything okay?” Hannah asked. “Probably just jet-lag, huh? Didn’t you take a nap at the hotel?
“Couldn’t sleep. Too much excitement, I guess.”
An older Middle Eastern man with a sauce-stained apron wordlessly placed two large laminated menus in front of them. He then tossed a basket of puffed up pita bread onto the table and placed a small bowl of mixed olives next to it. He moved to the next table without glancing at either of them, which was another mark against the restaurant. If PBS had taught Matthew anything, it was that polite greetings and formal salutations were extremely important in British culture.
Hannah quickly popped a green olive in her mouth and a satisfied grin appeared on her face as she chewed. Matthew was jealous of the grin and the lack of awareness which came along with it.
“I’m probably going to finish the entire bowl in about five minutes,” she said after pulling the pit out of her mouth with her fingers and placing it on her plate.
Matthew studied the bowl on the center of the table. Multi-colored olives drowning in a pool of peppered olive oil. It was an image he’d seen thousands of times before, covered in plastic wrap — a permanent fixture on his grandmother’s table. Nothing about the bowl looked even the least bit appetizing. But, despite that, his hand reached out and grabbed a large purplish one. Hannah’s eyebrows raised as she watched him scrutinize the slimy olive in his hand. Defeated, tired, hungry, and with nothing to lose, Matthew popped the olive in his mouth the same way one would jump into a cold pool or rip off a band-aid. Immediately, his taste buds were penetrated by the smoky-rich flavor and his mouth began to flood with saliva. It was a sensation he had never experienced before. It was as if his mouth came to life.
As he chewed, the flavor intensified. And to Matthew’s genuine surprise, he enjoyed it very much.
“There’s no pit,” he said as he chewed.
“Not all of them have pits,” Hannah said, studying his face. “Is that your first olive?”
“Do… you like it?”
Matthew felt a grin begin to form on his face and for once, he didn’t feel the need to control it. He plucked a green olive out of the bowl and popped it into his mouth. The flesh was slightly firmer than the purple one and a bit milder in flavor, though still more flavorful than anything he had ever tasted before. Certainly more flavorful than the scone.
He took pleasure in the boldness of the olive. The olive didn’t put on a mild facade to try and go unnoticed. Instead, it shouted, “This is me! Love me or leave me, but this is who I am.”
“Nana would fall over if she could see you now,” Hannah said.
Matthew thought about his grandmother. All those years chasing him around the kitchen, trying to get him to try her cooking. “Just try it, habibi,” she would beg over and over. A laugh began to bubble inside him, ready to burst out. He didn’t contain it, he just let it roam free and fill the air with happiness. Of course Matthew had laughed plenty of times before. But never an uninhibited, carefree laugh from his belly. At least, not since his childhood. He laughed so hard, tears escaped his eyes — another new sensation. Everything he kept in, everything he prevented himself from feeling came shooting out of him and he felt as free as he did when he used to twirl around to Mary Martin in the privacy of his bedroom.
“Geez,” Hannah said, with a look of amusement and confusion spreading across her face. She laughed along with him as if it was impossible not to. “You must be really jet-lagged.”
“Yeah, probably,” he said, impressed that his laughter was so powerful, it was contagious.
When all the pent up laughter finally emptied out of him, Matthew picked up the menu. It was full of possibilities and new experiences. He had no idea what he was going to order, but he couldn’t wait to try it.
Image: Mezze in the souk at Sidon by Heather Cowper, licensed under CC 2.0.