I think I might get a bit philosophical in this week’s post, so be forewarned. I’m working on a theory of mine, and I’m going to test it out. Here it is:
I think flavor can be a matter of perspective.
I think generally we are inclined to believe that whether or not we like a particular food is only a matter of how our taste buds respond to that dish. Now, I am no biologist or psychologist, so forgive my ignorance in these matters, but it seems to me that my state of mind can have a rather large influence on predetermining whether or not I will enjoy a meal.
Consider sitting in a nice restaurant across from a beautiful girl, still unable to grasp the fact that she actually agreed to this. Naturally, you decided to take her to one of her favorite spots, but honestly, it would not have been your first choice. The menu boasts many foods that you have never heard of. When the food arrives, you mentally note that never in a million years would you have voluntarily ordered this food. But she is a time machine, making a million years span only a few hours, bringing you to this moment. Under different circumstances, you would almost certainly not have enjoyed the meal, but with her sitting across from you, affecting your breathing in that way only she can do, you are determined to not only finish the meal but also to enjoy it. Biting into the dish and analyzing its dubious texture and spices, you override the initial impulse to be repulsed and find yourself actually appreciating the exotic and novel blend of flavors.
Now, did your taste buds change? Of course not. But you have torn down whatever mental barriers previously existed that would have prevented a positive culinary experience.
So that is my theory. And I began to ponder this at the Gondres Bakery, the next spot on my journey down Centre Street. I almost missed this small shop, as it sits inconspicuously on a street corner. But when I spotted it, I immediately got excited. I love bakeries. I wasn’t sure what to expect, though. Would I be getting an actual meal, or just asking for a recommendation on some sweet pastries?
Entering the tiny little bakery, I notice that, unlike the famous bakeries of Boston’s North End, there is not a wide assortment of baked goods in the display cases. But there is a menu that has breakfast sandwiches and bakery sandwiches, as well as fruit juices and smoothies. The selection is small. I approach the counter and address a kindly looking man, asking him what he would recommend in terms of sandwiches. He then begins listing all of the sandwich options. Another customer enters who appears to know what he wants, so I let him go ahead of me.
The man behind the counter afterward tells me that they have empanadas as well: pork, ham and cheese, etc. I begin to try again for a recommendation, but another customer senses my hesitation and jumps in to order. The man passes me off to a woman who has just stepped out from the kitchen. I ask her what she recommends for sandwiches. She hesitantly says, “Ham and cheese…” More of a question than a suggestion.
“Is that good?” She hesitates again, not willing to give it her stamp of approval. I do my best to give a charming smile and ask, “What is your personal favorite?”
“My favorite is the pork.” I guess the smile worked.
“Okay, excellent,” I reply. “I’ll take the pork sandwich. Also, what are those?” I point to a display of soft squares that do not look particularly tasty, but another customer has just ordered one.
“That is kind of like corn-bread, but it’s Dominican style. It’s more moist, but it’s really good.” She seems enthusiastic. I am not the biggest fan of corn bread, but I have had something in El Salvador called a quesadilla (nothing like what you’re probably imagining) that is like a sweeter version of cornbread. I agree to try it. She goes back to the kitchen to make my sandwich. The kindly man I spoke to earlier, I would guess he runs the place, but perhaps I’m wrong, tells me I can take a seat if I want to. A voice calls in Spanish from the kitchen, which is then translated to me: “Do you want lettuce and tomato?” No tomato, please. My answer is returned to the kitchen in Spanish: “Everything but tomato.”
As I sit, I look at the smoothie menu. Papaya, strawberry, zapote. Hmm. I don’t know what that last one is. So I ask a young man who has stepped out from the back and is taking orders. His name is Lorenzo, I learn later.
He tells me that it doesn’t really have an english translation. He looked it up once, and the english word is just sapote. He tells me it’s good, though. Kind of like papaya. I don’t really like papaya, but I order the zapote smoothie anyway.
“Do you like raisins?” he asks me. I say yes, in a bit of a bemused voice. Lorenzo then proceeds to give me a square of that cornbread-like stuff for me to try. I’m a bit confused because I was already going to order it, but I accept the offer. He clarifies that it has raisins in it, and that’s why he was asking.
The corn bread, I don’t know what else to call it, is quite good. The flavor is subtle, but moist and slightly sweet. It reminds me of budín de pan (bread pudding) that I had tried, and loved, in El Salvador. This cornbread is rather dense, and the square is a decent size, so it’s actually a good portion.
The owner comes out with my smoothie and begins telling me that back in his country, the Dominican Republic, zapote is very popular, but no one knows about it here, and you can’t find it everywhere. He hands me the smoothie and tells me that he didn’t put too much sugar in, but he can put more in if I want. I try it. It is delicious! It’s a different flavor from anything I’ve had before, not familiar at all. I think I detect some vanilla, but maybe that’s just an ingredient of the smoothie. Actually, it’s more like a milkshake than a smoothie, but I do not mind that at all. There seems to be a melon-esque flavor buried in there somewhere. In any event, I’m a fan. It’s not too sweet, but neither does it lack flavor in any way.
At some point, the owner asks me if I want the sandwich for here or to-go. I say to-go. But he tells me that he recommends eating here because the sandwich will be better while it’s still warm. I can’t argue with that. My sandwich comes out, probably only taking about 5 minutes.
I open up the to-go container and am immediately surprised by how good this sandwich looks. A couple slices of ham, topped with pieces of pulled pork, lettuce, ketchup and mayo. I bite in. Now here is where my theory comes in. In all reality, while the sandwich is unequivocally good, I don’t know that it is spectacular, when I step back and think about it. But my experience with the people in this bakery has been spectacular. They are so kind and willing to converse and give suggestions. These people seem so genuinely friendly that I really want the sandwich to be spectacular. And as a result, I pay more attention to it, and notice that the pulled pork has really impressive flavor. It does not seem particularly seasoned; there is no sauce on it (other than the sandwich condiments already described); and yet it is very flavorful and rich. And the sandwich is very big. I am extremely full by the time I finish my sandwich, and I still have half the smoothie and half the cornbread to eat.
The sandwich runs me $6 and the smoothie $3. I try to pay for the cornbread, but Lorenzo doesn’t let me. He tells me that he was surprised that I ordered the zapote smoothie even though I didn’t know what it was. “People don’t really do that. They don’t like to try new things.” I agree, sadly. I fear that we miss out on delicious foods and great experiences by choosing not to be adventurous in our culinary choices. I have more to say on this, but I’ve been too philosophical already. I talk with Lorenzo for a couple minutes, telling him a bit about my blog. I hope he reads it.
This has been one of my favorite stops so far, and even though the food really was delicious, it is the people who made this a truly impressive experience.
I’ll be back here for sure. There are many more items on that menu that I’ve never tried before, and I’m excited to try them. Plus, I like this place. And I like these people.