the worst meal i've ever eaten, part 1

A few weeks ago Salon.com published "Bad Taste", (requires Flash ad or membership to read*) a six-part piece on the worst meals that the various contributors had ever experienced. There are tales of foetal ducks and oven-baked steak in a washcloth (which somehow seems worse than the foetal duck), but the stories have as much to do with the horrendous circumstances surrounding the meal as they do with the quality of the food itself. Take Michael Ruhlman's tale of a meal at a restaurant run by Rocco DiSpirito, in which the chef's attempt to impress with off-the-menu cuisine goes seriously awry. Ruhlman manages to catch the quality of what makes a particular meal bad:

Seven years later, the memory of that meal remains sharp in my mind not so much because the food itself was a travesty -- everybody but a brain surgeon is allowed to have a bad day. But really our worst meals are ultimately about sadness...
Or in my case, ridiculousness.

My worst meal was served to me - or rather, I served it to myself at a buffet-style lunch in a sweltering courtyard - in the Philippines in late summer 2004. I was a field producer at the time for the show Disasters of the Century, a formulaic but popular program on floods, volcanoes and the most crushtastic engineering failures that the world has to offer. During the selection for the international component of season five, one of the researchers found information about the Taal Volcano.

Taal holds the distinction of being one of the world's smallest and nastiest volcanoes. It had killed hundreds of people in the twentieth century, periodically spewing cannonades of magma and boiling mud on the people who shared an island with the thing. Ever hot on the trail of old stories about the long-dead, my company sent me in to investigate.

In the course of the show's run, Disasters of the Century covered around eighty stories, of which about twenty-five were international (ie, non-Canadian). Often we would pick stories based on the amount of 'disaster infrastructure' that had been built around the event - are there museums? Historians and experts? Records that will lead us to survivors and descendants? Web sites? And in countries with significant cultural or linguistic differences, are there guides (or as I came to think of them, showboating fixers)?

If you intend to conduct interviews in countries where the populace speaks little to no English, a good interpreter can make the difference between an enjoyable time in a foreign place and an endless nightmare of stomach-clenching anxiety and rage. My production company refused to spend money on a professional interpreter, so we usually ended hiring someone who had been recommended by one of our contacts. These people were invariably useless, unemployable freaks who seemed to take pleasure in working against us. There was the one who smelled of old sweat and didn't show up for most of the interviews, the one who showed late for each interview and took offense when I mentioned it, the one who antagonized the interviewees, the one who dressed exclusively in leopard print, the one who kept bursting into tears every time someone brought up the topic of head injuries.

And then there was Dindo Montenegro.

Dindo was our tour guide and cultural interpreter, a flamboyant fixer who seemed to do a little bit of everything. He met us at the airport with a van and a driver, which I had expected. He was also accompanied by two smiling young men (I wish I could remember their names) whom we had apparently hired as well. I checked the call sheet - these two weren't scheduled to show up until the next day. I was immediately on my guard; my company had held so closely to the bottom line for this trip that any unexpected expenses would tip the budget into the red. I did not want to end up broke and phoning home from some Pacific Rim country.

Not to worry, Mr. Eye-den, explained Dindo with much waving of arms, this is part of the package, it is all worked out with your office, you and your companion (the cameraman) are guests here. The two smiling men took the luggage and equipment from us, in some instances prising the cases from our surprised hands. I discovered that Dindo's main talent was rapid smooth talk, effusive explanation and a semi-clandestine whispering that gave mundane details an inexplicable edge of excitement. As we threaded the streets of Manila at rush hour, Dindo informed us that we were to be guests of honour at a luncheon three days hence.

Part two tomorrow. Sorry to break up the story like this, but I blame NaBloPoMo. I also blame NaBloPoMo for global warming and the decline in quality of moving picture entertainments.

*Salon will make you watch a brief ad to get a "Site Pass," which gives you twenty-four hours of trouble-free reading. In Internet Explorer, though, Salon can be still difficult to navigate - try navigating back if you don't believe me - so my free advice is to get Firefox, install the Greasemonkey extension, then grab the Salon Premium Pass script from userscripts.org. It makes for some trouble-free times. However, if you like Salon enough, you'll want a Premium membership.