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Must've Been Something I Ate

Cartoon sketch of a man eating a banana under a tree, with a dog beside him. Illustration by Earle Levenstein.

"Your face is pretty red."

The guy was pointing at me.

Twice yearly business event with customers who were friends, as well. Informal; close relationships with people we've known for years. Husbands and wives, owners of family stores all across the country. Delightful company; happy to get together, share experiences, maybe even come up with some helpful ideas.

Clinking of dishes.

Dinner ready soon.

But first, appetizers: a carload of cold, fresh seafood to keep hunger at bay. Dozens upon dozens of clams, crabs, lobster claws, and love of my life: fresh, beautiful, incredibly edible shrimp.

No way I could stop.

"Your face is pretty red." Customer pointing at me and then a broad gesture across his own face to underscore what he saw.

I excused myself and with lots of backslapping and handshaking on my way, walked down the stairs to the restroom.

No question: my face was sort of red; not much, but most definitely pink; and I—not being as nimble-witted and alert to the life-threatening issues lying in wait along the way as I must acknowledge I've become in my later years—dismissed the reddish color on my cheeks as nothing.

So of course, I returned upstairs, went straight to the beckoning shrimp, popped a handful and, well, redness and puffiness followed and that ended me and shrimp; and a collection of other foods that were, as I wised up to the relationship between what I ate and the fate that awaited if I didn't wise up, just waiting to nail me along the way .

As you might suspect, my creative imagination—and, no doubt, a substantial amount of paranoia—has made some food discoveries that might raise eyebrows, but that to me are suspicious enough to act.

And the list does grow.

I mean, to be blunt: better safe, etc.

A surefire suspect to which there's little disagreement is MSG: monosodium glutamate, a special for me after a few slurps at the start of a lunch years ago with a business associate. Quite something. Drove me to my feet actually. Heart pounding out of my chest, certain I was finished. Sat down, had a gallon of water as my friend watched my performance, and within minutes, I felt it dissipate.

Surprisingly to me—I read the list of ingredients in everything I'm about to buy—there still are soups I see on market shelves that actually list MSG as an ingredient.

One other suspect for me is relatively recent: natural flavor. Popping up everywhere. Seems to be the new kid on the block. Really hard to figure.

I mean, something like fruit juice with natural flavor as an ingredient?

Doesn't the fruit have flavor?

Or grilled, breaded fish sticks with natural flavor. To remind your tastebuds that you're eating grilled, breaded fish sticks?

To say nothing about garlic-stuffed olive —that's an olive stuffed with garlic, right?—with natural flavor. Of olive? Of garlic?

Look up natural flavor and you'll see a very long string of possibles, that to me, in many cases, look like chemicals; unrelated to anything natural that I know.

Obviously, I spend a lot of time in the supermarket checking ingredients before I buy anything.

Now, I know all this sounds like a true compulsive neurotic, with eyes spinning in their sockets, a looney grin on his face, chuckling to himself as he scuttles up and down the aisles reading labels.

Really doesn't encourage eating.

Between what is known and what my hyperactive "What if?" imagination creates, I can see the time coming when my diet consists of fruit and nuts.

Even then there'll come a day—trust me—when I'll pick up a bunch of bananas and pasted on each one, a label: Natural banana flavor.

That'll pretty much be time to regroup and rethink the whole question of identity.

I mean, what's next? Personality tattoos?

Slight exaggeration maybe.

But mark my hyper-imaginative words:

Not by much.

Bon appetit.

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