Even as world travellers by trade, our gastronomic bravery still has limits.
Our new apartment sits directly behind an entire shopping center filled with Vietnamese restaurants. There have been Vietnamese restaurants sprinkled in various towns we have lived, but this is not only one entire shopping center, but, in fact, an entire corner of town filled with Vietnamese grocers, Vietnamese delis, Vietnamese restaurants and Vietnamese convenience stores.
Ever since we've moved in, I've wanted to try what I think is the staple of Vietnamese food... phở. Which I have since learned is pronounced "fe" and not "foe" as one (including myself) might think.
Sometimes, when you take three children under five grocery shopping in the afternoon, then run various errands that have been piling up for weeks, though you have recently purchased groceries, you don't have the time to prepare dinner before all three of them start completely freaking out, so rather than have Clementine nipping at my heels like a starving chihuahua while Elise tried to get dinner on the table, we decided to do something we had long been wanting to do and walked to the Eden Shopping Center to try one of the Vietnamese restaurants that had been recommended to us.
By the time we left, the place was completely packed with Vietnamese, which we took to be a promising sign of not only the quality of the food, but the food's authenticity. We quickly ordered cellophane noodles and grilled chicken for the kids. Elise and I ordered rice paper rolls and two bowls of pho. I ordered a Saigon, a Vietnamese beer. One prerequisite to considering any future job is whether or not they have palatable beer. Saigon passed this test. Barely.
When the pho came, Elise and I regarded it skeptically.
Then, she dipped a tentative chopstick into the broth and what emerged tested the limits of above-stated gastronomic courage...tripe. The rubbery lining of a cow's stomach.
I should have prefaced the story by stating that Elise had had an especially traumatic morning in which, through no fault of anyone's, Clemetine took a particularly harrowing tumble. None of us, least of all Elise, had the stomach (no pun intended) for adventure. What we were probably really looking for was greasy, Americanized Chinese...chicken fried rice, lo mein, orange chicken. Something to that effect, and not the Falls Church version of an episode of Anthony Bourdain.
We both readily acknowledged that we could have seen past the tripe if there was any flavor, or any good flavor, to the dish. There wasn't. The broth tasted like dirty dish water or like someone had been soaking their feet in it.
We exchanged glances. We couldn't do it. We weren't going to do it. But how did we extricate ourselves from the restaurant, obviously not having touched our meals? I mean, we didn't want to offend anyone. So we not-so-cooly and not-so-calmly asked for the check. Elise tried spooning some of her cellophane noodles onto the boys' plate to at least give the appearance that she had eaten something. This is not as easy to do with chopsticks as it may sound.
We quickly scooped up our children. Again, not easy to do quickly and quietly when one is buckled into a high chair, and a giant double stroller keeps wedging itself in between tables. We didn't even bother putting coats on the boys until we were outside and well out of sight of the restaurant's front window and our waiter.
I think the difference between lacking gastronomic courage in the above-described situation and having gastronomic courage while travelling abroad can best be described as necessity. See, we didn't need to eat the pho for our survival. We knew, on a very conscious level, that other options existed. We could order a pizza, go to McDonald's, Chipotle, Red Robin, or Taco Bell. We had literally dozens of other options at our disposal. Sometimes, the abundance of options is part of the problem. But, I posit, that if we were in Hanoi or Hoi Chi Minh City, we would either have eaten the pho, or had enough Saigons to not only eat the pho, but also like the pho.