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Eating with El Niño

[whitespace] ice cream
Robert Scheer

Cone Head: Whether it's dental work or a run-in with a towering tree that has you searching for foods that require little chewing or tearing, smooth and sinful ice cream is an obvious choice.

My recent encounter with a crashed 70-foot coastal cypress left me surgically challenged but not gastronomically unprepared

By Christina Waters

OK, SO YOU PROBABLY don't have to have your car smashed by a falling tree--like I did a few weeks ago--in order to think about comfort foods. We've all had those times when we couldn't chew easily, maybe following dental work or after Butch the Bully punched us out in the parking lot during recess.

Those are the times when we all crave something that is effortless to eat--soft, distinctly pampering and graced with earthy, uncomplicated flavor. Think of those times that Evander Holyfield probably had his jaws wired shut and had to come up with a way to consume enough calories to keep his buffed 220 pounds from melting away.

Well, that's what happened to me when I found myself with a dozen designer stitches in my cheek and another dozen inside my mouth--the stitching, by the way, done by the gifted Steven Garner, a local reconstructive surgeon who stopped by my gurney in the emergency ward looking like he'd just stepped off the cover of GQ. Oh, he was good. Very good. But he left me with a limited range of mandibular motion, and once the swelling had begun to subside, I started fantasizing about food.

Big problemo. Mouth could barely open. Even worse, when open, it couldn't exactly chew. In fact, the whole left side of the throbbing football that was my face was pretty much out of commission for more than a week. Sutures on the outside, sutures on the inside--getting food into the valley of sutures would be one mother of an operation. My mission was to find foods tiny, pliant and innocuous enough to gain entry into my battered bouche without a lot of additional pain.

So I began to take stock. Ice cream, always the choice of the inner child, became my new best friend. And let me quickly add, that not just any old tub-o-frozen-dessert would do. Au contraire. I called for Cascadian Farms Organic Double Chocolate Ice Cream (it's a good idea to have lots of willing go-fers to bring this stuff to your bedside). And, by the blessed baby Jesus, it sure did the trick. Creaminess that borders on pure sin was delivered in each spoonful.

And this brings me to another very crucial subset of "recovery dining": utensils.

The Right Tools

FORGET ABOUT BIG KNIVES, forks and spoons. This is the time to glom onto those favorite little teaspoons, those odd, child-sized spoons you always have and don't quite know what to do with. These tend to fit a lot more easily into the motion-challenged mouth. Milkshakes, served with straws, are another great way to deliver life-giving luxury calories without jostling Mr. Jaw.

While enjoying an aural retrospective of Bob Dylan's greatest hits, I initiated a new friendship with lime Jell-O. Sure it's pathetically simple food, but it's so beautiful. It also yields exactly where and when you want it to. And it delivers lots of zingy tart flavor, even if you can barely get a few quivering blobs into your noggin at a time.

After climbing the Mount Blanc of scrambled eggs and scarfing an abundance of ice cream, I started to think creatively.

First of all, let me say that every day of my convalescence began with a glass of orange juice into which a teaspoon of powdered Vitamin C and a dropper-full of Siberian ginseng extract was added. I attribute some of the speed of my recovery to this healthy habit. But dinner was the toughest obstacle. So I thought of favorite foods and how they might be modified.

Naturally, potatoes worked beautifully. Even an idiot can throw a potato into an oven, wait an hour and remove it. Then it can be mashed into a friendly froth, dotted with butter and a dash of salt, and--voila!--you have actual flavor. Pureed broccoli turned out to be a real winner. I'd steam the broccoli and then put the cooked florets into a blender with some chicken broth. It was great. Sometimes I'd add some mushroom stock to the puree for earthier emphasis. The mushroom stuff also worked wonderfully as a quickie gravy for the baked potato.

Another brilliant discovery was a root-veggie dish I put together. I threw beets and a garnet yam into the oven. When they were soft and roasted, I peeled off the skins and threw the flesh into the blender--a Cuisinart works just as well, but it's more hassle to clean. I'd splash in some chicken broth or half-and-half to get the puree going, but the effect was spectacular. Rich, thick and loaded with intense flavor, this dish was also colored a deep magenta. Gorgeous.

The Thrill of Texture

AS MY ORAL RECOVERY progressed, I graduated to sauteed salmon. After all the pureed stuff, it tasted like a night at the Ritz, with its plush, moist interior and rich flavor. Cooked just to the medium-rare stage, it was creamy and easy to eat without actually chewing. Yet it had actual texture.

By the second week, I was working my way through actual slices of bread. Slowly. And I confess that I would make up really gooey peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Then I'd cut off all the crusts and slice them into long "fingers." These I would mash into gooey bits with my fingers so that I could put them into my mouth easily. I'd sort of let them dissolve while I enjoyed the nostalgic flavors.

Now that I'm much improved, I find that there's something almost disappointing about being able to eat what I want. As every nun and soldier knows, there's something comforting about confinement, about being limited to a simple range of textures and flavors. The best part was that it made me appreciate real dining all over again.

Parenthetically, let me add that several glasses of good red wine kept me company each evening. The medicinal, as well as aesthetic, impact of the wine improved my cranky disposition. Besides, zinfandel is the perfect partner for pureed broccoli.

A special thank you to Lynn at Dominican's ER, and all the doctors there who helped get the glass out of my face with a minimum of stress. Dr. Garner, you're a genius. And to the ambulance team of Kevin, Ryan and Will--my heartfelt gratitude for swift care and great senses of humor. I'm sure you guys were cute, too, but I had too much blood in my eyes to notice.

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From the February 19-25, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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