On the balcony, ten floors above Pratt Street, looking across at the World Trade Center and overlooking the harbor; the Chesapeake Bay gleaming a beautiful azure in the afternoon sun; paddle boats and sailing vessels aimlessly floating about… We gathered, drinks in hand, celebrating the end of the work week. It was Friday, Beer:30 – my first visit back to Baltimore since my wife and I had packed our boxer and our most cherished belongings into our Subaru and driven across the country to Seattle – and my coworkers and I were trying to wind down from a long, hard week.
One of them, a sturdy Baltimorean known to make his own Vititus and rock out in Zappa-esque bands, had a surprise in store. Dedicating the arrival of Spring and the hiring of a new employee, he had taken a trip to the Asian market off of Route 40 and picked up…
THE DREADED DURIAN!
On the balcony, now, he gave a speech, pulling the tropical fruit forth from a plastic bag. The thing must have been the size of a watermelon but looked like a mutant pineapple crossbred with a hedgehog. He hacked into it with a knife, and immediately two people shrank away. Those more daring grabbed a plastic spoon and scooped out a mouthful of the mushy goo that constituted the edible part of this beast’s innards. Others lingered, unsure.
I was not, could not, pass up this strange culinary experience. How could I continue to comment on food, call myself a foodie (in the positive sense of the word), pretend I knew how to cook, if I didn’t allow myself to experience this alien fruit that seemed transported in a time machine from an age when dinosaurs roamed the earth, brontosauruses munching them from trees, pterodactyls dropping them like bombs onto the heads of tyrannosauruses? Despite the warning alarms sounding in my head, remembering an episode of Bizarre Foods where Andrew Zimmern refused to eat the fruit, and he eats anything, everything…
There was nothing to it but to dig in like everyone else. Black plastic spoon in hand, I took up a biteful and plopped it into my mouth. It had the consistency of custard or, possibly, curdled yogurt, and tasted sweet-citrusy, in a semi-sickly, overripe way, with… Wait, what was that overtone? Something between a taste and a smell? Something like… toasted rubber, burning wires? I swallowed, trying not to gag.
This was, unequivocally, the worst thing I had ever eaten to date, even surpassing my horrid experience with nattō, those rotten slimy stinky soybeans that tastes like toe jam, smell like dirty sweat socks, and get stuck to your palate so that you can’t get the insidious flavor out of your mouth for hours, no matter how much hot sake you gargle with.
Given the choice between nattō and durian, I dare say I would eat the nattō again. Given the choice between nattō, durian, and thumb tacks, well, sorry Asian delicacies, but I’ll opt for the mouthful of puncturing steel.
This is not how I imagined my first (and, one hopes, last) experience with durian would play out. I had vaguely thought (although I truly hadn’t give it that much thought at all) that I’d be travelling somewhere in Asia, perhaps in Thailand, sweating from the heat and humidity, all my earthly possessions on my back, when an old white-haired grandmother would come sauntering up and offer me a bit, finally drawn in by my malarial madness.
But here, in Baltimore, on a Friday afternoon in April, about as far away from Asia as you could get (literally and culturally)? At least a bagful of nacho cheese Doritos and a beer managed to mask the taste, although later burping brought back the wretched overtone of burning plastic.
Durian, may this be my only encounter with you, either here or abroad. If I ever see your spiky husk lurking just around the corner again, I am going to run the other way.