This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in September 2015.
I will never give you a five-star review. In fact, I will probably never review your restaurant. But it's not because I don't like you or because I don't want to. I'm a freelance writer, so it takes a lot for me to turn down a paid assignment. It's the whole "I can't swallow solid food in public" thing that really gets in the way here.
When one of the editors at City Paper in Baltimore recently asked me if I wanted to write a food review, I regretfully explained that I couldn't. At this point in my career, there are few things that I won't write about. I've worked undercover in a seedy strip club, I've been threatened to be sued more than once (by a pastor, no less), and I've even covered a group sex party in detail.
But I have to draw a line at food. I've been trying to figure out a way around this.
The whole thing started when I choked. Twice, actually. Both times, it was in public with coworkers. Both times, everyone froze while I saw imminent death approaching. Both times, the food eventually went down on its own.
But something else stuck: It's called dysphagia, and it means I have difficulty swallowing.
The first time, I choked on a grilled cheese sandwich. Somehow I wound up sitting at the head of three tables pushed together in a dive bar in Baltimore. The other 11 people at the table were old, white, important men—my bosses. At the time, I'd been working in sales and marketing for a brewery for nine years.
Sitting at the head of the table wasn't remarkable. I would nod and occasionally laugh and that would be my totally appropriate, sole contribution to these lunch meetings. The trouble is that, because of my silence, no one noticed when I started choking on a grilled cheese sandwich.
No one looks pretty when they're choking. It hit them all like dominoes, but nobody did anything about it.
Something just got stuck. A bit of cheese or bread or something. It got caught right in the middle of my throat, mid-swallow. I'd never choked before, so it was pretty confusing at first.
Choking is a quiet ordeal, but it doesn't feel slow. It's pretty fast, in fact—that is, the dying part is always ready for you when you're in the middle of it.
SLAM, SLAM, SLAM. I put my fist to the table so hard, it made the beer bottles dance. THUMP, THUMP, THUMP. I looked like a caveman, pounding my chest like crazy. I finally resorted to smacking my coworker. He pointed at my performance and laughed harder. What a bully.
The color eventually left his face, though, when he realized what was happening. No one looks pretty when they're choking. It hit them all like dominoes, but nobody did anything about it. Not a hero among them, and now everybody knew it.
As I started to stand up, my throat suddenly opened up and dislodged the stuff. The food went down—I didn't.
I stood up and staggered around, left and right, waddling like a pregnant gorilla with a problem, hoping to jostle the little bit out of place. Eventually, it went down, but not without a fight.
About a year later, a few days after my biological father died, I decided to overhaul my life. I impulsively left the brewery job and the crazy hours and the old white men to work for a publisher in a 9-to-5 setup.
And then, when I was out to lunch with my new coworkers on my second day, it happened again.
This time, I choked on a soft ham-and-egg concoction. Once again, nobody realized what was happening. I stood up and staggered around, left and right, waddling like a pregnant gorilla with a problem, hoping to jostle the little bit out of place. Eventually, it went down, but not without a fight.
For the next three months, I only ate soup, oatmeal, and things I could chew up well, like raisins. I never ate out. I realized that although some of this is certainly psychosomatic, my throat just has this tendency to seize on solid food. Especially when I'm nervous. Especially in public.
I got to the place early, hoping to sneak off into a corner booth for the daunting food portion of the operation before the interview, without being discovered. Just like a big-shot food critic, but for all the wrong reasons.
Over time, I started adding more solid items to my diet, but I still chew a lot. I'm always the last one at the table with a plate full of food that I desperately want to get down.
Like many people with dysphagia, I assist my swallowing by putting my hand to my neck to help it along. Some of this is symbolic; some of it physically works. Another trick I learned is to always eat with a beverage. I swirl it all around and am able to get the food down easier with some lube. Booze especially helps.
I hate explaining my weirdo trait to people I don't know because talking about it makes it worse. I hate when a friend cooks me a titillating meal and I have to labor to get it down with grand gestures, with my soundtrack of apologies between harrowing spoonfuls. I hate that I can't take myself out to dinner and that nobody else can either. And I hate, as a writer, that I can't give you a five-star review.
So far, the closest I've come to writing about food was more of a profile piece about a Baltimore Nepalese restaurateur, who also happens to be an international musical superstar. I got to the place early, hoping to sneak off into a corner booth for the daunting food portion of the operation before the interview, without being discovered. Just like a big-shot food critic, but for all the wrong reasons.
Acting somewhat undercover, I filled my plate with a little bit of everything the boundless buffet had to offer. I deeply wished it had been one of those places that barely gives you half a serving of a thing to agonize over.
Over the course of about an hour, I privately took little bites, at least one of each dish. I chewed thoroughly and guzzled it down with water. I hurriedly jotted down a few tasting notes in my book, which was hiding on the bench beside me. Miraculously, I didn't die.
My relationship with food is strong. I get to know every slight detail of every tiny bite I take—more intimately, perhaps, than even the most famous food critics.
Maybe I can write about food after all.