Confessions of a Chicken Man

Travel Stories: Doug Mack knows exactly what you think of him when he orders the blandest thing on a foreign menu. And he's okay with that.

02.03.05 | 7:01 PM ET

chickenPhoto by Jim Benning

When I order a meal in a foreign land, I instinctively brace for the inevitable groans from everyone else within earshot.

“I’ll have the chicken,” I say.

And then, always, the server nods, smirks, suppresses a roll of the eyes, and writes something on the pad of paper.  “Gringo Special” or “Typical Yank Meal #3,” I’d guess.  My traveling companions, also following the unwritten script, snicker and, after the server has left, make snide remarks.

When the food arrives, the others in my group will find themselves facing brimming towers of mystery meat and overcooked vegetables native to the region—these are the tourist restaurant versions of ostensibly authentic local cuisine.  One or two people in the group, generally young men intent on proving their masculinity, may have ordered something truly exotic—puffin with gooseberries or tongue on toast.  In front of me lies a chicken breast, grilled, fried or roasted, sprinkled with a benign assortment of spices.

I know what it will taste like. I know it will be bland.  I know everyone at the table will continue to ridicule me throughout the meal, some out loud, some silently.  I know, too, that I am missing out on an important part of the travel experience by ordering that most generic of meals.

But I feel no need to prove myself by eating whole the still-beating heart of a just-killed cobra, as author and chef Anthony Bourdain recounts doing in his book “A Cook’s Tour.” I have no interest in sampling raw oysters, garlic-drenched slugs, fried potato bugs, or, goodness, a cute, roasted guinea pig.  I don’t care how you pickle it, fry it, sauce it or disguise it in patty form, I do not want to eat puffin, or iguana, or bull’s testicles, no matter how tasty they may be.

To be sure, I do get a certain thrill from reading such accounts, from hearing friends who served in the Peace Corps rave about their favorite snack food, termites, or even from witnessing my traveling companions eat assorted animals, from the small and cute to the large and disgusting. But these are foods I will only ingest vicariously; when it comes time to order, it’s always the same: “I’ll have the chicken.”

It’s not so much that I’m the stereotypical ugly American unwilling to try new things. If I find myself in a village, eating a meal with a local family, I will, out of courtesy, eat nearly anything placed before me. As a tourist, though, I’ll savor the local culture through music, art, conversation and other aspects of the cross-cultural experience that won’t give me nausea or nightmares.

My culinary anxiety comes not from the unfamiliarity of strange foods but from their potential for causing me immense discomfort. I have a major aversion, and one that I think is highly logical, to getting sick.  My stomach is not an iron one; indeed, it is more likely formed of parchment paper, given its general fragility.  Even a few oddly prepared vegetables can, and have, set it rumbling and churning for days.  In a restaurant in Scotland’s Orkney Islands, I once ordered a seemingly wholesome and safe dish labeled “Carrot Loaf,” a congealed mass of grated carrots, crushed nuts and other ingredients that I believe were salvaged from the kitchen’s garbage. I spent the next day in agony, doing laps, in a high-speed shuffle, from toilet to bed and back again.  If a few carrots and nuts can cause that much misery, I don’t intend to explore the gastroenterological consequences of ingesting the more spicy, exotic and pungent items that my companions consume with glee.

And so I stick with the chicken.  This decision, I would like to point out, is not a complete cop-out; there are far worse culinary transgressions.  I will never go to McDonald’s in Moscow, T.G.I. Friday’s in Managua or, God forbid, Pizza Hut in Nice.

But I will, in that local restaurant in the middle of unfamiliar terrain, seek out that ordinary, gringo food, the chicken.  And it will usually have some sort of twist, not major, but at least perceptible: an accompanying salsa of rainforest fruits and vegetables in Costa Rica, or, in Scotland, chicken in curries and sandwiches, on beds of locally harvested greens and covered in assorted sauces.  Chefs understand that with chicken, you can always add a few things without freaking anyone out; it is an inherently mundane, soothing food, and a few spices or a simple sauce will not make it menacingly exotic; it will still appeal to unadventurous non-gourmands such as myself.  And so each dish is slightly different, and each chicken meal offers an opportunity to assess the chef’s effort to enliven the blank canvas of poultry.

Now I know how chefs across the world prepare chicken.  And how servers scoff in several languages.  It’s the silver lining of my gastronomic paranoia, the self-imposed affliction that I am what I eat: chicken.