On the way back to the car after some lunchtime phở, we stepped into a bird store to say a quick what’s up to the caged canaries and parrots. In the middle of the store, I sneezed and my temporary front tooth flew onto the floor. I picked up the tooth, shrugged at the puzzled proprietors and parrots, and drove to my dentist to have it reattached.
The dentist said this might happen. Cautioned me not to eat anything sticky or chewy. I gazed longingly at caramel apples at Farmer’s Market last week, and had to eat my grilled cheese from Phil’s with a fork and knife. That’s the result of deciding to replace my cracked front tooth with a porcelain crown, and having this temporary plastic piece stand in while the crown’s manufactured. It’s no fun.
I’m used to eating anything I want. Cutlery is never a concern. And now, for three weeks, I’m relegated to eating only that which can be cut into small pieces. I feel like a toddler getting his pizza slice diced into manageable bites. Child’s play.
I learned how the front teeth are for shredding, the back teeth for grinding. The back and forth shredding motion would naturally loosen the temporary tooth. I knew that things like steak and sandwiches would be problematic. Could easily handle a hiatus from candy. But when my dentist told me even broth-softened noodles are a no-no, it was a sad day.
The upside of this experience is that it’s urging me to roast vegetables, pan fry fish, to cook my first homemade chicken soup; urging me toward proper, etiquette oriented sit-down meals. To work on my knife and fork technique. To eat slower. To eat with greater consideration as to what I can sensibly consume.
The downside of this experience is that there’s no sushi. There’s no sandwiches. There’s no supreme enjoyment of delving into a burrito. There’s no saltwater taffy (which I only indulge in a couple times a year on road trips, but of course am suddenly craving only because I can’t have it). And I’m forced to eat with greater consideration as to what I can sensibly consume.
Food, for me, is about exploration. It’s about spontaneity. It’s about saying, “That ----- looks enticing, I’ll try it.” Eating is about experimentation. It’s about enabling anatomy in order to appreciate culinary sensations.
And if any aspect of our anatomy is to malfunction or take leave, our entire approach to food shifts. I have friends who eat vegan, not because they think they’re helping save the planet, but because it’s easier on their sensitive stomachs. I have friends who had to give up onions, or hot sauce, and of course there’s the allergy addled folks to whom nuts, lactose, fish, or even mango are off limits.
I’ve been blessed with a stomach that can handle it all. Now, however, my mouth is getting in the way (though it’s not the first time).
Yesterday I was the privileged recipient of an extra turkey, swiss and slaw sandwich from Jerry’s Famous Deli. I couldn’t refuse it. I couldn’t resist it. But I had to deconstruct it. I tried cutting scaled down bites comprised of equal parts turkey, cheese, coleslaw and a bit of rye bread, all smothered in Russian dressing, and could only handle the painstaking process for half of the sandwich. It’s the first time I haven’t finished a sandwich.
The problem is I can only position bites on the back, right side of my mouth, so as to avoid engaging the temporary tooth altogether. Compounded by my impatience, I rarely achieved a perfectly composed miniature bite (for the same reasons I could never complete a model car or airplane when I was little). I want the real thing. I wanted desperately to pick up the sandwich and sink my teeth into it – to experience its various elements in harmonious concert with one another.
I hoped I would experience the Gestalt effect – that my brain would account for the whole sensation of the sandwich if only given disparate parts. That is to say, if I managed to get just a piece of turkey and slaw on the fork, I tried to imagine I had just chomped into everything I was looking longingly at on my plate.
But alas, it wasn’t like seeing S-N-D-W-C-H and knowing inherently that I’m looking at SANDWICH. It’s just not the same. And although I value how this trial of a temporary tooth is making me appreciate that which I can or cannot eat to a greater degree, I can’t wait for some permanence, and to be done with dainty, cautious bites.
Bring on the crown. Then bring on the burritos!
Louis Gropman hopes to write as well, as much and as often as he eats.
by Kitty Kaufman