I grew up in Minnesota during the last great wave of earnest and unhealthy casseroles, when 25-year-old mothers traded recipe cards at Welcome Wagon, and “salads” often contained no vegetables.

While not every household in my hometown defined “variety” by how many different dairy products could be worked into one hot dish, or had the audacity to name an admixture of marshmallows, dried coconut, and canned fruit cocktail a word meaning “food of the gods,” mine was, by these standards, the norm. My parents were college-educated, still bought music the day it came out, and even lived for years in Japan, but when it came to mealtime, they picked up where their own parents had left off.

I’m pretty sure that the spiciest thing my mom ever added to a dish was salted butter. When she served chips and salsa, the salsa was the absolute mildest she could find; a glass of milk would score higher on the Scoville scale. A common and acceptable meal was a boiled chicken breast served with plain white rice and green peas.

When my dad cooked, things only got weirder. He only made one of two things, “slumgullion” or “whiplash.” “Slumgullion” involved dumping a variety of the previous day’s leftovers—say, chicken breast, white rice, and peas—into a pot, and stirring in a can of chicken noodle soup, no water added. “Whiplash,” meanwhile, was like goulash, but made in under ten minutes. This was possible because he did not add onions, peppers, bay leaves, potatoes, paprika, or any of the other ingredients that I would one day learn were in commonly recognizable versions of goulash.

People from the Midwest who experience a kitchen like mine often effect an equal and opposite reaction when they come of age. Some spend their twenties putting Tabasco sauce and chili flakes on everything, some learn to make their own damn food, and some become a freegan after a failed attempt to start a permaculture collective. To me, it just seemed like there could be lot more to eat in the world than what I’d been exposed to, and I wanted to try as much of it as I could stand.

My parents’ kitchen did not introduce me to the varied and bounteous repasts awaiting me in the world’s dining rooms and cafes, but it did keep me alive so that I could someday experience them on my own. My parents were fine with this, and encouraged it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it.

So, as soon as I got a driver’s license, my high school girlfriend Stacy and I set out to eat all of the food we’d only read about in magazines. Together we ate North African shekshouka at the Barbary Fig, Ethiopian injera at the Red Sea in the West Bank, and even found authentic Mexican food being served from a truck parked in the lot of the Busy Bee Café on Robert Street.

For Stacy and myself, all of this was damn near consciousness-expanding. The food itself was gustatory shorthand for a world of possibilities outside of our stultifying hometown, and it abetted a wanderlust that would go on to cost thousands in out-of-state student loans.

Stacy, for her part, eventually attended graduate school at the University of Bologna, later lived in Florence, and now has a job in New York that enables her to travel the world. I made up for my own lost time in comparative stops and starts, but I always waited for an opportunity to follow Stacy’s lead in actually living somewhere overseas, and getting the kind of culinary experience that only comes with cultural immersion.

In fall 2006, my live-in girlfriend and I broke up. After mutually trying and failing at an ill-advised attempt to be friends immediately afterward, an indefinite move to another continent seemed to be the thing to do. I stored what little I kept in the crawl space of a friend’s house in Echo Park, gave my 17-year old car to a Merchant Marine, and flew south to a rent a loft in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires lined up by an old friend from Chicago named Karen.

I’d met Karen a decade before in college, under an umbrella in a rainstorm. My version is that I was walking past Allison Residence Hall in a total downpour and I saw a shrouded figure pelted by rain, so I went over with my umbrella and walked her to her class. Her version is that she was the one with the umbrella, and I was the shrouded figure. Whatever happened, we didn’t even get each other’s names that day and it was only by some accident of fate that we crossed paths much later and became friends. By the time I was in Buenos Aires, she’d been living there for several years, working as a trapeze artist and taking wu shu classes. She carried a large sword on her back everywhere we went.

Karen also introduced me to a Castellano teacher named Natalia who I hired as my private language tutor. After a couple of weeks, when it seemed like I was able to complete a sentence, Karen and Natalia suggested that why don’t we all go out to a parilla for a total immersion dinner, with me responsible for doing all of the ordering. This was exactly what I’d been waiting for my entire life.

By this point, I’d traveled some, and had a few experiences eating local specialties (kangaroo in Darwin, ossobuco in Umbria) and badly ill-advised non-local specialties (bruschetta in Chiang Mai, tacos in Prague) and I figured I could handle anything. Building a hearty appetite for days in advance, I entered the night of my immersion dinner ready to use as many new bovine-related vocabulary terms as possible.

Compared to, say, a Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse back up in the EE.UU, the Argentine parilla has a far more liberal notion of the percentage of a beef cow that’s considered edible; my estimates put that percentage in the mid 90s. They also assume that a customer is not disturbed by the idea of seeing their dinner before it hits their plate, or, quite often, before it’s completely butchered. Someone eating dinner extremely early, say around 8:00 pm, will see quartered cuts of cow paraded through the front door, and hung near a grill, usually also near the front door. Remember that skit from SNL’s first season, “Mel’s Char Palace?” The Argentines would not see the humor in it. They would ask where it is, and if they serve Malbec.

What attracts both tourists and locals, besides the quality of its grass-fed, hormone-free beef, is the price. At most parillas, a merely satisfying chunk of recently slaughtered bovine costs, in American prices, about as much as a used copy of Toby Keith’s “Shock’n Y’all” on CD. For the price of that CD new, you can get a steak that wouldn’t fit in your glove compartment.

Also, for whatever reason, you also get a massive amount of free bread with your meal. Not just Bimbo brand white dinner rolls either, but ludicrous quantities of a wide variety of grains and loaves, even those cool flavored sticks in plastic packaging. No idea where it’s baked. Maybe, as Ben Katchor wrote, “on the windswept shore of a vast inland sea.” I hope not anywhere less fascinating or less sanitary; there were nights where I’d cleaned out the breadbasket at least twice, and it was refilled even then. Taciturn young men bring clear plastic garbage bags full of the stuff in through the front door, all day and night, like a virtual Iguazu Falls of leavened bread delivery and consumption, so I knew even if my Castellano failed me during my immersion dinner, I would not starve.

As it turns out, I didn’t have to read and recite from a menu; at the parilla that Karen chose, I never even saw one. The three of us were sat at a table for six in the middle of a windowless restaurant whose walls were lined with mounted yellow wall lamps, making the place feel like an old school no-limit poker room, where everyone was a winner and winners were paid in beef. After two bottles of wine and the chimichurri were on the table, our waiter wasted no time becoming a warm conduit between the grill and my face, and all the bits and pieces that recently assembled a living cow flew at me with steam and alacrity.

Over three hours, the waiter assailed my table with semi-recognizable cuts of shank, rib, and loin. We ate black sausage. We ate kidneys. We ate an appetizer of something red, sliced and raw. We ate something called sweetbreads, which I learned is neither sweet nor bread. I didn’t eat more in quantity than I normally had in Argentina, but that night my alimentary canal made a dashing array of sundry acquaintances.

It was a simpler immersion experience than Natalia had hoped for me, but my basic Castellano still wasn’t up yet up for the job. I said “Yes” and “Delicious” and “I want more” again and again and again, but I hadn’t yet learned the phrases “That looks disgusting” or “Absolutely not under any circumstances” or even “No, I don’t want any” (which was one of the first phrases I learned in Thai, and the most frequently used). No, I just kept telling the server, Mas. Esta Bueno. Mas, Para Todos. Me Gusta. Mas, Por Favor.

Two days later I was still in bed, fully dressed, my bed sheets and multiple comforters wrapped around me like wet eels. By this point, a series of circumstances had forced Karen to move into the loft, and it was good to have her company in a time like this, even if she felt that I’d brought my fate on myself.

She was downstairs, moving her bed from the living room into the kitchen (a completely different story) when, wrapped in a mountain of blankets, I approached her.
“Karen,” I said, “I think I have something living inside of me.”
“Yeah, could be,” she said.
Not the answer I expected.
“I’m serious,” I said.
“So am I,” she said. “You might have a parasite.”
You Might Have A Parasite. “Parasite?” I asked her. “Where am I, Cambodia?” (Ever since seeing this made-for-TV Disney movie in the 80’s called “The Girl Who Spelled Freedom,” I’ve always associated intestinal parasites with Southeast Asia).
“Sure,” Karen said, not reassuringly. “It’s not unheard of. I got some Chinese herbs? Or you wanna see a doctor?”

I was cautious. I had just taken some strong medication from a local pharmacy and I didn’t want to mix meds. But I also didn’t want to rush to conclusions. Karen was busy that day with a cousin in town, and it was a Sunday and the doctor’s offices wouldn’t be open anyway, just the ERs.
“Let’s see how I am tomorrow morning,” I said.

In the meantime I decided to make peace with my intestinal parasite. I figured if there was a living thing inside of me, it was kind of like a pet, so I should give it a name. I decided on Mystery Lou.

At first the relationship between Mystery Lou and I was, like many parasitic relationships, decidedly ambiguous. After a while, I wasn’t sure where I stopped and he began; for my taste, it was a bit too much like that Gollum/Smeagol situation in the second Lord of the Rings film. Luckily, over time our relationship improved into something more nuanced, like the emotional but problematic bond between Truman Capote and Perry Smith, and I wondered if I would need to keep Mystery Lou alive so I could gain more material for a book about him.

All I’d learned to that point is that having a parasite, if that’s indeed what it was, is the most miserable physical experience this side of a kidney stone. Whatever it was I ate that gave birth to Mystery Lou I swore I’d never touch again, but I’d eaten so much weird shit that night I had no idea what part of the cow to blame.

Days passed, and either Mystery Lou died or went into hibernation, because I eventually regained an appetite and fully digested solid food again. After about a week without either, this was completely exciting. For me, it felt like graduating from high school, if high school had meant four years of vomiting and irregularity.

In the years since Mystery Lou, I’ve discovered the hard way that I’m lactose intolerant, that most pork products give me heartburn, and that almost all desserts and fried foods make me sick to my stomach. I still have the same inherent sense of adventure with cuisine, but my digestive tract has seemingly thrown in the serviette. Just like other phases some Midwestern guys experience—being into ska music, drinking Natty Ice, sleeping with girls from Wisconsin—the brazen pursuit of things like black sausage and sweetbreads may be something I’ve outgrown.

After I left Argentina in July of 2007, I immediately flew to Minnesota. My first night back in my hometown, my grandma Doris made me a splendid dinner of an iceberg lettuce salad, chicken breast, white rice, and peas. The meal did exactly what I needed it to do.

For that, I apologize to my mom and dad for my abandonment of their cuisine. I now see the point, and I’ll never doubt it again.






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J. RYAN STRADAL is from the second-oldest town in Minnesota. His writing has also appeared in Hobart, The Rumpus, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rattling Wall, Joyland, Trop, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, and NFL.com, among other places. He lives and writes in Los Angeles, where he volunteers with students at 826LA and sometimes works on TV shows.

24 responses to “A Man, a Plan, a Canal Alimentary”

  1. Lisa McGivern says:

    J – as always, spot on. Sadly, I still live in the land of jello molds and Western Dressing, but am always looking for that elusive paella or Ethiopian dish in our ever-changing Cities! Take Care….

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Thanks for reading Lisa! Do you know how hard it is to find Western dressing in Los Angeles? Revel in the bounty of your culinary coordinates — I happily do so when I return to Minnesota.

  2. Gloria says:

    We had the Welcome Wagon visit us once when I was a kid!

    “Slumgullion” involved dumping a variety of the previous day’s leftovers—say, chicken breast, white rice, and peas—into a pot… – I laughed out loud at this part. Very funny, bringing it back around like that. And ugh! I mean, kudos to your mom for trying, but ugh! …making the place feel like an old school no-limit poker room, where everyone was a winner and winners were paid in beef <—– This was also very, very funny.

    How interesting that food was what cultivated your wanderlust. I totally get this, actually. For me, it was culture of any kind – cinemas, operas, etc. But food makes just as much sense. I didn’t know I was missing anything. Then, I had Thai food and it felt so exotic. Now I’ve eaten Ethiopian food three times!

    I’m sorry about Mystery Lou – sounds miserable. Did you lose a ton of weight?

    This was a fun essay, J. (J. Ryan?) Cheers.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Gloria,

      I had totally forgotten about Welcome Wagon until my brain dislodged the memory while writing the third draft of this essay. Are you also from the Midwest, or was WW everywhere?

      I agree that a lot of different cultural experiences can inspire wanderlust … Music was as much of a message in the bottle from the outside world, particularly live music, and I went to a ton of shows at First Ave and the 7st St Entry growing up. Books were everywhere in our house and the ones I connected to at that age were invariably set in far-flung locales. There was just something so immediate and emotional and awesomely mind-blowing about the *first time* I ate something new; it was like edible postcards from the future.

      Re: Mystery Lou — Not sure if I had a lot of weight to lose, but I was probably at my all-time adult low. Wildly grim.

      Thanks for reading, Gloria — I appreciate it.

      J. R.

      • Gloria says:

        No. I’m from very far southeast New Mexico. I think it was just a *thing* in the early 80s. Leg warmers, shoulder pads, plain white rice, and the Welcome Wagon.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Ha! I love the sometimes complicated relationship we have with food.

    I know many people who can recite their childhood menus by the day. Monday – Macaroni. Tuesday – Beef Stew. Etc Etc.

    I personally have a horror of boiled meat of any kind, white sauce and boiled potato. Ugh.

    The other night, after a particularly stressful week, I had a craving for comfort food. When I was child, every so often, my mother would take me to a child friendly restaurant which served, among other things, pork steaks with pineapple rings, overcooked roast dinners, and large chocolate sundaes. So. at the end of this stressful week, I decided to go there. It was exactly as I remembered it: barely any wine list, no spice, no surprises on the menu, traffic light drinks for children – and it was perfect. I felt so much better after eating my ridiculously large and over cooked roast turkey with cranberry sauce from a jar.

    Sometimes bland is best.
    Nice, nice piece.

    • Gloria says:

      What is a traffic light drink, Zara?

      • Zara Potts says:

        It’s a drink that is red, yellow and green – like a traffic light. But I’ve never known how they actually manage to layer the colours!

        • J. Ryan Stradal says:

          Thanks for reading, Zara. I love the sound of that comfort food restaurant. I would have been intrigued by traffic light drinks as a kid … I’m kind of intrigued by them now.

          I like that you mentioned that the place you mention barely has a wine list. As someone who loves the hell out of wine, and has become inured to voluminous wine lists over the years, it’s kind of a sweet relief to roll into a joint and just say “gimme the red.”

          Ground zero for public comfort food for me was a place in the Cities called Bishops — it was the kind of joint that gave customers their choice of multiple colors of Jell-O. I don’t think it exists anymore, but if it did, I’d be tempted to go. Now, it’d be as exotic to me as anything else.

        • Matt says:

          The wine list came up because she’s a Down Under, and they’re all a bunch of bloody pissheads.

          (They’ll deny this. Vehemently. They are lying.)

  4. Matt says:

    Man, this made me hungry. Seriously.

    I was a ridiculously picky eater as a child. Hated veggies, anything that was too spicy, and food with names I couldn’t recognize/pronounce. Then, my first year of college, someone twiested my arm and took me to a Lebanese restaurant. It was a transformative experience…I started going out of my way to find more exotic cuisine, and learning how to make it at home. Most American cuisine (what there is of it) just seems so bland to me now, though pepperoni pizza remains my comfort food.

    Ya know…if you DID have a parasite, it’s entirely possible that your immune system just became acclimated to it. So Mystery Lou may still be with you….

    Oh, and you might want to check out our fellow contributor Matthew Gavin Frank’s essay. He’s quite the traveling foodie. Even published a book about it and everything.

  5. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Matt,

    I believe you that Mystery Lou may still be with me, like a vestigial twin. My ability to digest certain foods has diminished greatly since that event. It may have made me a healthier eater, but what a dear cost.

    Zara’s lucky! If I lived in New Zealand, I’d probably drink even more wine than I do in California — and definitely more whites, at least. I spent two days touring wineries in the Nelson / Blenheim area last year and had some of the best Sauv Blancs and Chardonnays I’ve ever had; much preferable to the Napa Chardonnays (in my opinion).

    And I’ll check out Matthew Frank! Thanks for the rec, and thanks for reading!

    • Zara Potts says:

      Yes! Yay!
      How nice to see Nelson/Marlborough make an appearance on TNB!
      If you ever get the chance to sample a Canterbury wine called Crater Rim – make sure you do. It’s a riesling, so not as dry as NZ’s traditional Sauvs or Chardonnays – but definitely worth a sip!

  6. Judy Prince says:

    You’re making me riff-laff again, JR, with this:

    “After two bottles of wine and the chimichurri were on the table, our waiter wasted no time becoming a warm conduit between the grill and my face, and all the bits and pieces that recently assembled a living cow flew at me with steam and alacrity.”

    And this:

    “I still have the same inherent sense of adventure with cuisine, but my digestive tract has seemingly thrown in the serviette.”

    And a fitting end (so to speak):

    “After I left Argentina in July of 2007, I immediately flew to Minnesota. My first night back in my hometown, my grandma Doris made me a splendid dinner of an iceberg lettuce salad, chicken breast, white rice, and peas.”

    Ah, yes, HAHAHA! Bland is back! Yet you have managed to make Mystery Lou a kind of endearing, if not enduring, mascot.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Thank you, Judy, for reading and for the kind comments.

      In regards to Mystery Lou, I think there’s some truth to the idea that your mascot chooses you. I had kind of hoped for a marmot.

      • Judy Prince says:

        “I had kind of hoped for a marmot”—-yes, JR, yes!

        I just married a marmot, and indeed he did choose me.

        (BTW, I love the title of your post.)

        Judy….. A Woman, A Plan, and A Furry Marmot

  7. Erika Rae says:

    I’m so sorry Mystery Lou did such a number on you.

    I am completely hung up on the idea of an “earnest casserole”. It keeps playing over and over in my mind. It just seems so…right. It’s a keeper.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Erika,

      “Earnest” was the first word that came to mind when writing about the casseroles of the Upper Midwest in the late 1970s. I mean, where I live now, we make casseroles, but they’re often either unrecognizably healthy (I’ve seen vegan variations) or ironic, and it breaks my heart to consider that a casserole dinner could be the ugly sweater party of the culinary realm. Back when I grew up, the kitchen was an irony-free zone.

      I co-host a literary event here in L.A. called Hot Dish and while my co-host carries the mantle of the actual cuisine (we serve actual hot dishes at this event) she and the other chefs we commission make a point of pleasing both the purists and the dietary-restricted.

      Thank you very much for reading and for the kind comments. Hope your next meal is irony-free.

  8. D.R. Haney says:

    I envy that you lived in Buenos Aires, J. Ryan. I’ve never been, but I’ve always had the idea that I would get on there. Perhaps it’s just part of being a Nazi.

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Duke — You’d love it. People say it’s a cross between Paris and Mexico City, populated by people from Rome, and while there’s an element of truth to that, it’s really like nowhere else on earth.

      Thank you for reading …

  9. Summer Block says:

    Nice work! sadly it hit a little close to home, as I had a parasite in China. And oh, the things you eat in China…

    • J. Ryan Stradal says:

      Summer, thank you for the note! I can’t imagine what’s considered edible in China. This “everything from a cow” bit in Argentina has to seem like child’s play by comparison.

  10. angela says:

    this is great. i laughed aloud at so many parts. sweetbreads, neither sweet nor bread. Mystery Lou. and i remember The Girl Who Spelled Freedom! i think i first read it in Reader’s Digest and also saw the movie.

    and slumgullion? best. . .word. . .ever. apparently it comes from combining “slum,” muddy deposit in a mining sluice and “gullion,” mud. sounds delish!

  11. J. Ryan Stradal says:

    Thanks for reading Angela! I looked up “slumgullion” myself while writing this and it’s an actual dish … nothing like what my dad made but still … not the most appetizing portmanteau word, agreed.

    Thank you again …

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