Sunday, November 26, 2006


Life can sure be bizarrely interesting all of a sudden smack in the middle of your own existence, as it was for me on a recent evening.

Echo had just gotten home and I had arrived from work earlier than usual, so she was in the midst of cooking a quick dinner of okonomiyaki, at which I sat down to begin eating while she cooked the last of them (it's like making pancakes at home, you cook them all in one go).

I was hungry and the food was very tasty, a perfect pre-winter evening quick meal, so in the gusto of my savory enthusiasm it took me a while to pay much attention to an increasingly gnawing reality, i. e., my tongue and its general environs, including me generally.

At first I thought that that wonderful organ was just reacting a bit sensitively for some reason (e. g., I'd had some excellent but strong cherry gumdrops a few hours earlier), and that it would settle down, as tongues do. This was a minor level of discomfort in any case, and the okonomiyaki was delicious, so I persisted, thinking that the discomfort would either remain at this acceptable level or taper off. But it didn't: it got worse. I went and looked in the mirror to see if I had what felt like an accelerating number of microcanker sores, or maybe a thousand nanoswords sticking out of my tongue. Nope: normal-looking tongue, no cankers, no swords, no nothing.

Nevertheless I went back and continued eating because hunger has little intelligence. I was famished, the okonomiyaki was delicious and my tongue would anyway do its own thing as it always has, I thought, conflating this instance with those occasions in my past when I'd had a sore mouth/tongue for one reason or another.

Soon, though, it became impossible for me to continue eating. I'd consumed about ¾ of the okonomiyaki when I had to sit back in my chair with my mouth open and breathe cool air that did not extinguish the flame that now was my tongue or the new furnace that was burgeoning in my mouth and throat. I would wait it out, I thought, this personal idiosyncracy, then finish my meal. Few are as stubborn as a hungry Irishman.

Echo sat down to eat. In just a few bites, she said: "Something's strange... what did I put..." She dashed to the fridge and took out the dark jinenjo variety of yamaimo (Dioscorea japonica) root she'd grated into the okonomiyaki, opened the paper wrapped around it (on which there was some rather serious-looking writing) and said "Arrraaaaaa!" (The Japanese equivalent of "OOHHMMYYGGOODD!") "This isn't jinenjo!!"

I stared at her, mouth already conveniently agape, awaiting the details of my imminent death. "This is konnyaku root!" Konnyaku root, you see, from the plant we in the West ominously call Devil's Tongue (Amorphophallus konjac or rivieri), is supposed to be grated, boiled all to hell in order to COMPLETELY REMOVE THE EXTREMELY HIGH CONCENTRATION OF OXALIC ACID THEREIN, then mashed and mixed with limestone to coagulate the result, which is then formed into a substance that is carefully parboiled before being finally served as konnyaku, a neutral-tasting, rubbery food item I'd never really cared for all that much during my brief but interesting life.

In my remaining moments I hastened to the computer to google oxalic acid and found, as viewed through now upper-case eyeballs: "CAN BE FATAL IF SWALLOWED... DO NOT INDUCE VOMITING..." Oxalic acid does its damage by absorbing large amounts of calcium from the blood... can cause kidney and digestive tract damage... can be fatal... but only in large quantities of the raw chemical... My mind was still clear, since on my behalf it quickly calculated that I had swallowed only a relatively small amount from a modicum of root in a large amount of okonomiyaki batter, only a single portion of which I had not even finished eating.

So I was now a living experiment. I ate some yogurt and honey. I drank some of a special concentrated calcium drink we have. I took some calcium tablets. The tongue, mouth and throat pain didn't keep me from sleeping as deeply as if it were my last sleep. The thousand nanoswords had waned to a few tinglefeathers by the next day. The day after that I had a remotely dull ache in my right kidney for a couple hours.

Folks commonly say the plant is called Devil's Tongue because the flower perhaps looks maybe like a devil's tongue might possibly look if there were an actual devil's tongue around to compare it with, but they only believe that because they've never eaten the raw root, which puts the devil's tongue right in your own mouth.

These few days later, now that the devil's tongue has departed my mouth and I've got my own tongue back (a different set of problems), I can't swear any more effectively than I did before, but some things have changed as a result of my satanic experience. For example, the rest of my life looks richer now that I haven't died. And we no longer cook in haste.

Also, I have inexplicable sudden cravings for fresh konnyaku...


Trace said...

Oh my Robert. How frightening a thing to happen. I am glad you are okay, but shouldn't you see a doctor just to be certain? Your writing, as always is terrific!

Winston said...

So glad you are still with us, living to relate the story. This reminds me of the "black hairy tongue" I had many years ago. Sounds gross, was gross, turned out funny... Maybe I should go blog about it...

Val said...

The Japanese do certainly live/cook dangerously. Fugu, konnyaku.. I wonder what else there is in the arsenal? I recently survived ten days eating out in Kyoto, usually not knowing what it was I had eaten. It was all delicious though.

Joy Des Jardins said...

Apart from what must have been some very anxious moments, I'm so glad to see there was no lasting damage done Robert. Sounds like you're back to being in fine fiddle with no lingering effects. Oh those eye-opening, out-of-the-blue life experiences, huh?

Chancy said...

Robert, what a scary experience. I am glad you are OK but why go through all that suffering and unease with the Devil's Tounge if you still cannot swear any more effectively.

Mick Brady said...

Bob, glad to hear you still be around to wander the cemeteries with me of a cool autumn night under a waxing crescent moon.

I think I know why it is you survived this ordeal, though. You may not know it, but you always had a bit o'the divil in ye, and I think that provided a sort of inoculation.

A word of caution for the future, though. Just let him whisper in your ear; a lot less painful.

Robert Brady said...

Thanks for your concern, kind folks. Winston, I look forward to the black hairy tongue story.
BTW, my swearing seems to be improving. And Mick, it's whispers from now on, believe me. Mostly, anyway.