Monday, December 6, 2010

a guessing game

My friend Uri is a fan of guessing games, and he knows I enjoy a challenge, so after exhaustively describing a meal he'd recently enjoyed, he finished with a guessing game about the dessert course, a sumptuous duck-egg custard.
He painted in words a picture of the dessert, an eggshell filled with duck-egg custard, perched atop a pedestal. As he described the dessert he made a twisting motion with his fingers to visually echo the shape of the custard. The swirled custard was crowned with crème fraîche. He made a dolloping motion with his fingers, drawing our attention to the pinnacle of his imaginary dessert. Then he froze his hand dramatically in place, mid-dollop. His eyebrows curled into question marks. He said, "You'll never guess what it was topped with."

Someone shouted CAVIAR. Uri said the custard was not – as I suspected – topped with caviar. He said we’d never guess what it was topped with. CAVIAR is something we would guess. His statement regarding the guessability of the custard topping, while not a very strong one, was a clue nevertheless. The answer would be less obvious than CAVIAR. These are the clues I considered:

First Clue
The topping is an unguessable topping.

Second Clue
Caviar, but for its guessability, would be a good guess.

I put my dessert chef hat on and considered my more exotic culinary experiences. I thought of seafood. Caviar had sent me there. I remembered a meal in downtown SanDiego. Japanese. I remember the fresh sea urchin I tried. Try anything once, I always say, so I put the whole mustard-colored pudding-flesh in my mouth. It was the worst thing I ever ate. 

I’m still able to recall the revolting path the bowel-flavored creature traced across my mouth and down my throat. It tasted the way a beached seal carcass smells. Even after the sea urchin arrived at an area of my digestive tract blessedly beyond the reach of my taste buds, it sent back plumes of rottenness, searing its foul smell-bubble permanently into my mouth-memory. I'd pointed my mind's eye toward the land of caviar-like things, and it went instinctively to sea urchin.

Somehow, the picture Uri had painted with words (the elegant dessert, the swirl of custard, the eggshell cup, the dollop of crème fraîche) was so fully realized, all I had to do was look at it there, hanging in the air, and I could see that it was topped with sea urchin. Sea urchin. It's a lot like caviar, and it’s totally an unguessable topping. 

"Was it SEA URCHIN?"

Oddly enough, even as the words were coming out of my mouth, I felt confident my answer was correct.

"Oh my God," Uri said. "How did you know it was SEA URCHIN? I thought you'd never guess it."

I said, "I have no idea. But it was very clear to me. When you said I'd never guess it, it was like you gave the answer away."