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By profession I'm an advertising copywriter, not a chef. But I am professionally curious about food.
A few years ago, I asked my niece Christine, who was working on a study project in the Philippines, to kindly ship me a durian, reputedly the most godawful, stinky, yet edible fruit on the planet.
"Dead serious, Christine."
"I'm not sure you know how deadly the smell is, Uncle Mark. I can't imagine what you want with the durian."
The strange fruit had piqued my interest during a cooking show, when I watched the host bite into the yellowish flesh. His gagging expression compelled me to investigate this freak of the plant universe further. Knowing my niece lived in the durian part of the world, I contacted her, since she had mentioned her run-in with the fruit on her adventure blog.
"Whoa, tread carefully, Uncle," she said. "I tried durian. Trust me. It's a bizarre, acquired taste. The smell – rank."
"Bad, boy, bad. You can't bring it on-board buses – or planes."
Those tidbits tantalized me. "Appreciate your concern, Christine. I'll be wary. But please send me one. I'll wire you the costs."
My niece's words still haunt me. Especially the "whoa, tread carefully" part.
It surprised me how easily the durian sailed through customs and the postal system. Christine had covered the fruit in newspaper and bubble wrap, and I received the package in five weeks.
I planned to introduce the exotic, thorn-covered husk as a surprise gift at a dinner party my wife and I were hosting for family and friends just before Christmas. Certain attendees would appreciate the oddity, I thought.
"Mark, I want this dinner to be special. Work with me on this one. Good food. Nice wine. No funny stuff." My wife knew me well.
"Please don't call me Plumpkin in front of our guests."
"Yes, Plumpkin." I thought the term was endearing, but would abide by the rules.
Our holiday menu included a tenderloin carpaccio appetizer and six pounds of sockeye salmon sprinkled with dill, lemon slices and goat cheese, all oven-barbecued on two cedar planks.
My wife, a hygienist, was hoping to impress some invited colleagues from her dental office, who included Dr. Krista and her husband Rocky (he, it emerged, could belt out opera songs with the tenor of Pavarotti). We also invited the Halbmeiers, a couple of young veterinarians who had recently moved into the neighbourhood.
For amusement, we also asked over the Amazing Schwartz, a balloonist and bar magician whose routine utilized a small albino hamster. The Schwartz had become a friend years ago after we hired him to perform at our children's birthday parties.
Though my wife expressed reservations, I felt it necessary to invite a few of my long-time ad agency pals – Geoff, Mike and Bernard – and their spouses. They arrived by limousine, already in a party mood. They surprised my wife by bringing a bouquet of tulips and a two-pound bag of shelled macadamia nuts, her favourite, as hostess gifts.
I think that kind gesture helped my wife partially forgive their previous party behaviour at our home, which involved a donkey pinata, a hockey stick and two broken windows in the solarium. (To this day, I didn't see the reason for the fuss – it was an accident, the guys offered to pay for the replacement glass, no one was cut badly, and we got most of the blood out of the carpet before it had a chance to set.)
Our holiday dinner started well, except for my setting off the fire alarm three times while browning the bruschetta toasts. The Schwartz amused everyone with his reindeer balloons and magic tricks. All the guests appeared festive-happy, especially during Rocky's rendition of O Sole Mio. Even the stoic ad guys wiped away tears and joined in the rousing chorus.
I brought my bow-wrapped durian surprise to the dinner table just before dessert. On my urging, my wife excitedly unwrapped the package, not knowing its contents.
The real fun began. The durian most certainly lived up to its putrid reputation. Our dining room filled with gasps. I bolted to open all the windows and doors in spite of the marrow-chilling temperature. Mrs. Halbmeier fainted. The raw-sewage smell stopped Rocky's singing in mid-sentence. The Amazing Schwartz packed up his balloons and his nearly-comatose hamster.
According to my (now former) wife, that "truly embarrassing, idiotic and puerile stunt" ranks near the top of the many reasons for our divorce.
"Sorry, Plumpkin, my bad, it was a joke that went horribly wrong," I said. But she never forgave me.
Most of the guests left shortly after, with Kleenex stuffed up their noses. But the gang from the ad agency hung around, taking selfies, daring each other to eat a piece of the durian.
While the memories still linger, I never bought the fruit again.
Mark Fodchuk lives in London, Ont.