Recently I was in Nori's Whole Foods, wandering around, idly checking the merchandise, when my gaze fell on the soybean bin.
I looked at it and looked again. Something held my attention.
Soybeans? I've never prepared them and never bought them. So why was I looking at them?
I looked some more
I thought about how I like them when they're properly prepared. But only when they're properly prepared. Because if they're not - and then - bam! - it hit me: Improperly prepared soybeans could be an alias for my old pal Paul Durbin.
I first noticed Paul more than 35 years ago at a Paul Smith's College fun run. Of course he was hard not to notice.
I'd arrived early, and when I did I saw a guy running warm-ups around the campus. A lot of people ran warm-ups, not like this one. He kept running right up till race time, which meant for a five-mile race, he ran at least a five-mile warm-up.
But that's only half the story. The other half is after the race he ran at least another five miles cooling down.
"Who is that guy?" I asked the others there.
No one knew.
There's was only one way to find out. I waited till he finished running, when I figured I'd introduce myself. But I didn't have to - before I could say a word, he come over, his face split in a wide smile, stuck out his hand and said, "Paul Durbin's the name and it's a pleasure to meet you."
It was a perfect introduction to one of the nicest guys I've ever known.
The down side of an up guy
Back then I was a pretty serious runner so it was only logical Paul and I would run together. But though we shared a lot of training runs, I was never even close to the runner he was.
Paul was in a class by himself. By any measure, he was fast - and at any distance from a mile to a marathon. He was also a stylish runner. A lot of us could pick 'em up and put 'em down and get from start to finish, but we were neither energy-efficient nor graceful. Paul was both. He skimmed the road, upright, smooth, unswaying, the perfect running machine.
Then again, he didn't arrive at that level of expertise by magic: He'd been a standout runner in high school, college and the Army, and his skills had been finely honed by expert coaches and years of high-level competition.
Originally, he'd run because he loved it; a bunch of years later he was running for every other reason but love. When he'd finally had enough, he quit competing and never went back to it. He still ran in races, but did it his own way: He'd pay the entrance fee and run as hard as he could, but never crossed the finish line. So while he ran against the clock, he never ran against people.
Paul had a lot of other dimensions besides running. He taught college math and was a dedicated and excellent teacher. He was unfailingly positive and last but not least, a man of his word.
But for all his virtues, there was one area that no matter how he was judged, he came up lacking: He was the worst cook I've ever known. I found this out the hard way.
A washout of a washout
Paul had invited me to dinner at his digs and of course I accepted. Because he was a generous guy he'd insist on providing everything, but I finally got him to allow me to bring the drinks. Since we weren't boozers, I brought several different fruit juices, of the exotic health food store variety. Stuff like mango/pomegranate or kiwi/lime/raspberry. Had I known what was about to happen, however, I would've opted to bring the food and let him provide the drinks.
I got to his apartment and after taking my place at the table, Paul went over to the stove and took out a monstrous casserole dish and set it on the table.
I thought I'd planned my arrival perfectly, because by the time I sat down I was famished.
"OK," he said. "Time to dig in."
I looked at the food. It was unlike anything I'd ever seen before. It was red, so I figured something tomato was in it. It also had some green stuff sticking out here and there, but I'd no idea what that was. The purple chunks in there were beets, I thought. And then throughout it were tan marble-size things. Steam rose from it, and I gave it a sniff, but couldn't place the aroma at all.
"Uh, what is it?" I asked.
"That, my friend is my specialty, Soybean Surprise," said Paul, literally glowing at his handiwork.
The tan marbles were the soybeans, but I had to ask him about the green and purple things.
"Kale and purple cabbage," he said. "Here, help yourself," he added as he ladled a mound of the stuff on my plate, and then one on his.
Then he said," Bon appetit," and shoveled in a softball-size hunk of the stuff.
Being hungry (and nave) I did the same.
It was unbelievable, literally. I was chewing a bunch of stuff, but had no clue what it was. It didn't taste tomato-y, kale-y, cabbage-y, soybean-y, or anything-y. The only thing it tasted was weird.
Then there was the texture, which was also weird. At the time I didn't know it, but I later figured out he hadn't really soaked the soybeans very long, so they didn't soften up. Instead, it was like trying to chew a mouthful of double-aught buck. Try, I did, but with almost no noticeable results. The stuff would break up, but wouldn't soften or even separate. So the more I chewed, the more it moved around in my mouth, but it still wouldn't go down the hatch.
I tried to wash it down with juice, but it only flowed over the mass, taking almost none of the SS with it.
Meanwhile, Paul was forking the stuff in like Cossacks were in the lobby, grinning and even humming to himself. Then it hit me -he'd lived alone so long, not only could he eat his own cooking, but he actually enjoyed it.
Paul had seconds. I was still chewing on my second forkful.
I added ketchup and hot sauce, but to no avail. Then a little sour cream, some parmesan cheese, salt, pepper, and a dollop of mayonnaise. As for the taste? Still nada. Nichts. Zilch.
Paul had thirds. I hadn't finished a third of the stuff.
Having been raised by a widowed Depression survivor, I'd learned one ironclad rule of table etiquette - you always ate everything on your plate, no matter what it was. Period. And so I labored on, chewing a tasteless, unchewable mass.
About an hour later and against all odds, I'd actually downed my plateful.
Then after turning down Paul's offer of seconds and his homemade dessert (Pepper/Cardamom Yogurt Delight), I waddled out to my car and somehow managed to squeeze behind the steering wheel and drive home.
And when I got home I learned something else: Paul's entree was not only tasteless and unchewable - it was virtually indigestible as well.
My pal Paul, a man of his word: When he labeled something a "surprise," that's exactly what it was.