Food poisoning takes what, an hour to kick in? Maybe 30 minutes? Ten?
But what happened to me this summer wasn’t food poisoning. It was food paralysis. What happened to me was too sinister to be food poisoning, which is unfriendly but also uncomplicated. With one lick of the last ingredient (the recipe for my undoing is a three-part formula), it took an instant to black out and a prolonged period of rest and my own bizarre lemon-sucking therapy to wake up.
The blackout happened during a summer of otherwise revelatory eating. I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days in Paris, using the recommended restaurant and patissier lists of The New York Times and Patricia Wells as my itinerary. At home, I waited patiently for Calimyrna figs to secrete stickiness through their seats. During New York City’s Restaurant Week, I escaped work to eat at a hip yet hearty French bistro, a generous Nuevo Latino restaurant, and a narrow eatery serving continental fare under what seemed to be an upside-down pirate ship.
But the incident happened in a slice of red, white, and blue Americana, in a place called Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
Woods Hole is on the southern tip of Cape Cod, that perennial retreat for East Coast families. It is also a very academic town. Since the late 19th century, the tiny village has become a pulse point for oceanic research. It is home to research facilities for the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Marine Biological Laboratory and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, among others. The National Academy of Sciences — the 150-year-old institution that advises the government on scientific concerns — is situated on a pin drop of a perfect hill.
But while Woods Hole is lofty and charming and darling, there was something cheerfully ominous about it, a vacation spot that felt a bit out of sync. For those who frequent the more popular parts of Cape Cod, Woods Hole is out of the way. Most of the people who pass through Woods Hole leave again by its ferries to Martha’s Vineyard.
The off-ness of the place occurred to me most acutely when I was at a restaurant called Phusion. For his main course, my dining companion ordered prawns stuffed with scallops, lobster and crab. I ordered the seared tuna salad (Toxin One). I don’t remember what we had for first courses, but it was most definitely seafood. We shared a bottle of cabernet sauvignon (Toxin Two).
It was a perfect night to kill someone. We sat on the patio watching the marina’s resident boats bob in and out of the fog. The moon was full, and it was blue as well. The lethargy of the night was thick and still. Even our waitress was born and raised in Cape Cod. What the kitchen was actually ‘phusing,’ we did not know.
For dessert, we shared a chocolate mousse. It came piped in a champagne flute, and the thing was slim and heavy. I dipped the tip of my spoon in, past the mint leaf and whipped cream, and scooped just a little (Toxin Three).
I skimmed my mouth over the fudginess, as you would an ice cream cone, and conked out. My eyes were blinking open and shut, but all I could see was black.
Well, it didn’t start right away. Everything went gray and then black. I rested my head down, but every time I pulled it back up, the fog seemed to get thicker and thicker around me until I could only see darkness I heard sounds normally, but my body was tingling and panicking and I felt that something was going very, very wrong. My head splintered with thoughts of death and destruction — How could I do this to myself? But then, how could I have known?
Perhaps it was a mistake to eat raw fish, red wine and raw egg (in the mousse) while dehydrated, tired and stressed. Perhaps, after a hot day eating buttery, sandy steamers, creamy lobster salad and more than a forkful of deep-fried scrod, I should have had a garden salad.
I might have anticipated my nearly debilitating reaction to the combination of tuna, wine and chocolate mousse. I had blacked out before — then, a seemingly freak reaction — with the Toxic Three at a signless French restaurant on the Upper East Side. But that time, it took me about an hour to descend into darkness.
In any case, there won’t be a next time. I’m not allergic to an ingredient, like peanuts or MSG. I’m not allergic to ingredient mixtures in one dish, like fluffer-nutters, or Ben & Jerry’s now-defunct exercise in having-it-all, Concession Obsession.
I’m allergic to a meal. The first time I was out in an hour, the next, half a second. What will happen the third time? Frightening, isn’t it?
So I will stay away from tuna, wine and mousse — and probably Woods Hole, just in case — for as long as I live. It’s the only sensible thing to do, although it probably doesn’t make much sense at all. The incident was probably partly my fault and also partly something I couldn’t control, some miscalculation in my digestive system. But with any luck and some choices strengthened by experience, this one meal gone terribly, terribly wrong will be a tiny nick on a collection of otherwise healthy, nourishing, and delicious meals.
Jessica Tom sweats Per Se reservations very, very hard.