I WAS walking along a Bendigo street around dinner time the other evening when an unmistakable cooking smell filled me with long-forgotten terror.
A smell from my childhood that still makes me dry retch and run for the hills.
Smoked cod. My culinary nemesis. My kryptonite.
I’m sorry Mum. You know I love your cooking. Your baked chops are sublime. Your cheesecake, manna from heaven. It makes the smoked cod even more of an anomaly.
The pay-off for not eating dinner in our family was “nothing till breakfast”. I always gratefully accepted.
There’s an old Chinese saying that you can eat anything if you cut it up into small enough pieces. We’ve all heard the stories of plane crash victims eating fellow passengers to survive.
That rule never applied to smoked cod with white sauce. Its iridescent orange glow. You’d have had to give me a general anaesthetic and feed me through a tube. Even then I’m sure my body would’ve rejected it.
Maybe it’s a sign that we’re too fussy here in the West. My squeamishness over a smoked fish would be laughable in Asia; the “eat anything” culture of China for instance, where almost all animals are viewed in terms of food.
The Chinese don’t greet you with the standard “good afternoon” if they meet you in the street. You’re more likely to get “ni chifan le ma”, which translates to “have you eaten”. Not an invitation to be fed, but an acknowledgement that life is much better with a full stomach.
I read a story at the weekend about a man who took his five-year-old nephew and a visiting Chinese girl to the zoo. On seeing a gorilla, the boy was transfixed with fear. The girl merely asked what it tasted like.
Whether it’s a boiled sheep’s head, a tender fillet of dog or snake, or a sneaky pickled ox penis, it would take a lot more than a piece of orange fish to make a Chinese kid hide under the couch like I did on cod night.
But a full stomach means different things to different people. One of my childhood heroes was a Frenchman named Michel Lotito, also known as Monsieur Mangetout (Mr Eats Anything). Before the days of YouTube he was a regular in the Guinness Book of Records.
Lotito began his unusual diet at the age of 16 when he ate the first of 18 bicycles he would consume over his lifetime. He went on to consume 15 shopping trolleys, seven televisions, eight chandeliers, a 400-metre length of chain, and an entire Cessna aircraft. All washed down with mineral oil and water.
Apparently Mr Eats Anything couldn’t stomach bananas or eggs. “They don’t agree with me,” he said, in an outstanding example of irony.
There was no mention of smoked cod in his inventory. I can only assume the stuff made him sick to his stomach.