I’m guessing you weren’t a big fan of “Eigo Kaiwa Ichi” (“English for Today, Level One”), but it was pretty popular in Tokyo back in the late ’80s. I was an unemployed actor in L.A. in those days, and when the chance for a job — any job — came up, I took it. I played an American buffoon, which wasn’t much of a stretch.
I’d learned to like California rolls back in L.A., and I boasted of my familiarity with Japanese food to my fellow cast members, who finally decided it was time to take me down a peg or two. They invited me out for a dinner in the hippest part of Tokyo, the Ginza.
We went to a robatayaki, a restaurant in which you sit around a low table and the waiter brings you a tiny offering of food about every 10 minutes. The plan that Yuriko, my co-star, and the half dozen other cast members had cooked up was that they would choose the weirdest possible food on the menu. I would have to eat it without knowing what it was. But first, whiskey.
I was already pretty buzzed by the time I chomped down the first course, a bowl of what seemed to be little bits of fried potatoes. Oishii desu, ne? asked Yuriko. Delicious, aren’t they? Yes, I had to agree. Best french fries I’d ever had. Hysterical laughter from cast. You eat grasshoppers!
Another glass of whiskey. Next entrée. Tiny balls of chocolate, about the size of peas. Not bad, really. Crunchy.
Ha ha ha! You eat ants!
Did these people have no respect for me? Did they not realize they were dealing with one of the biggest stars in the history of “English for Today, Level One”?
No. Next entrée. A bowl of rice topped with rich yellow sauce. Creamy and slightly tart, it went down easy. Ha ha ha! You eat squid bile!
But the joke, so far, was on them. Because I hadn’t turned green yet. I hadn’t vomited my guts out on the nice tatami mats.
But just as I began to congratulate myself, another entrée appeared. Chunks of dense meat, heavy and black. Oh, it was foul. Like chewing a lump of broiled Vaseline. But I had a duty to maintain the pride of my nation. I swallowed it. Ha ha ha! You eat whale!
Time for my friends to play hardball. The kitchen doors banged open and the waiter appeared, pushing a huge, rolling aquarium. It contained half a dozen full-grown mackerel. The waiter snatched a doomed fish from the water with astonishing skill, slapped it down on the table, and deftly hacked it into a dozen pieces — but it was still alive! Its eyes were rolling, the jaw on its bodiless head was working frantically. Yuriko shoved a pair of chopsticks into my hands and said, You must eat! But don’t chew! Fish must swim down your throat!
The fragment of mackerel writhed with galvanic energy. I stuck it in my craw and it went flopping back into my throat like a salmon swimming upstream. Just as I was about to pass out a couple of my friends took me back to the bathroom for an apocalyptic voiding of my stomach. They had won. |!|
George Bilgere is the author of several books of poetry, including, most recently, “The Good Kiss” and “Haywire.” He’s also the host of a weekly radio poetry show, “Wordplay” (Wednesdays at 12:30 p.m., WJCU 88.7). He teaches at John Carroll University, and never eats squid bile.