Kelso: Eating after radiation changes a lifelong love

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Kelso: Eating after radiation changes a lifelong love

I was on my way to the airport to pick up my wife. It was lunchtime. I was in a hurry. So I stopped at a food trailer on Barton Springs Road and ordered some barbecued pork ribs.

I took the plate over to the newspaper to grab a few bites at my desk before I hit the road again. The ribs smelled smoky and wonderful. I took a bite.

About 20 seconds later I felt like I was chewing needles. It was the seasoning. The ribs were covered up in pepper.

Silly me. I’d forgotten to ask the guy at the food trailer if the ribs had any spice, any spice at all — even pepper. So I ran to the soda machine and grabbed a cold drink to put out the fire.

At least I could take the ribs home for the dog.

That’s my life since I had radiation for the cancer in my mouth three years ago.

Eating used to be one of my favorite sports, but I don’t enjoy it anymore. If I could do without it, I would. I guess you could say that I don’t relish relish. What normal Americans view as fun, I look at as a necessity. I don’t eat for kicks. I eat for fuel. And I used to love to chow down.

This is a major change for me. I used to write frequently about dining out. I once ate about eight submarine sandwiches in three days to research an article on subs. Ironically, shortly before I was diagnosed with cancer, I entered a taco eating contest. And I’ve done at least two series of articles on barbecue places around Central Texas.

I’ve eaten at so many barbecue joints around here that I still identify towns by their barbecue joints. Lockhart has Kreuz Market, Smitty’s and Black’s. Luling? Try City Market. Llano is Cooper’s country. If we’re in Taylor, it must be Louie Mueller. Here in Austin, it’s Franklin and the JMueller trailer on South First Street.

But dining is no longer my idea of a good time. Three words I don’t particularly enjoying hearing anymore? “Let’s do lunch.” Sure, I appreciate the camaraderie.

I just don’t enjoy the meal part.

Here’s how lunch goes. I check the entire menu to see what choices, if any, I can handle without ending up feeling like I’m gnawing on a pocket knife. Anything spicy is automatically eliminated. This puts the kibosh on most Mexican food. I used to down a basket of chips and salsa like there was money in it.

Now I just nibble on the chips. Keep the salsa in the kitchen, unless you’re out to get me.

The trouble with this? It makes some foods I used to enjoy no longer worth bothering with. I used to love wasabi. Can’t handle it now, though. This means I no longer eat a lot of sushi. Sushi just isn’t worth messing with without wasabi.

The hot sauce for dipping dim sum? Can’t do it. Who wants to eat dim sum without it? And forget about one of my all-time favorites — a dozen raw oysters. What use is a raw oyster unless you can drown in it horseradish?

Another annoyance: I have to watch what I eat so I won’t hurt myself. Seriously. About a year ago at Central Market, I stopped to chat with a friend who was operating one of those samples tables. He had set out some chips and salsa for the store’s customers. Without thinking, I grabbed a chip, stuck it in some sauce, and gave it a try.

A minute or so later I was gasping for air and making ugly faces. Turns out it was habanero sauce. Habanero peppers are to jalapeños what a pistol is to a howitzer. I had to sit there for about 15 minutes to get my breath back.

Lots of luck translating my spice problem to the wait staff, though. They don’t understand. How could they? Most of them have never experienced the problem. Here’s how it goes. I’ll ask the waiter if a menu item is spicy. “Oh, it’s not THAT spicy,” he’ll say. To him, it probably isn’t. To me, it might be like sucking on a lit match.

Then there’s the lack of saliva. Radiation leaves you with a dry mouth — probably for the rest of your life. So chicken, usually, is out. Chickens used to run and hide when they heard my car coming. But thanks to radiation, I don’t have enough spit left in my mouth to deal with chicken. Oh, I can eat it, but it’s like busting up cardboard. Beef I can deal with, if it’s got some fat.

I have to be so selective in what I order that I can name the menu items in town that I really enjoy in a couple of paragraphs. I like the fajita taco at Torchy’s Tacos because the meat is tender and there’s no heat to any of the ingredients if you tell them to leave off the heat. I can manage the bean, cheese and bacon taco at Mi Ranchito, a little Mexican food restaurant in Manchaca, although I’ve ordered it so often that I’m tired of it.

Sure, I can eat soup, if there are no hot surprises floating around in there. But who wants soup when it’s 101 outside? You say “split pea” in August, and I’ll split, all right.

Even stuff I used to put on a food pedestal isn’t what it used to be. It’s not that things taste bad. It’s that they taste, well, different. I’m more aware of texture. I used to be crazy for lobster. Anymore, lobster is OK, but a bit rubbery.

The end result? My appetite isn’t what it used to be, so I waste a lot of food. Really. I leave a lot of food behind at the table. Instead of the O.T. Special at Dirty’s, I get the small burger. And I don’t even finish that. Plates that used to look normal now appear gargantuan. If you ask me, “Are you going to finish that?” the answer is probably “Nope.” Of a dozen shrimp, I might be able to finish five. I’ve probably left behind $500 worth of food at restaurants over the past year.

This leads to an embarrassing conclusion. The server will see a nearly full plate of food that I’ve left behind, then ask me, “Was there something wrong?” So I have to explain that it’s not the cook, it’s me.

One good point? I don’t have to worry about adding to America’s obesity epidemic. Oh, I still can eat sweets. Sweets taste the way they’re supposed to. God bless Blue Bell ice cream. I can down half a big tub of Blue Bell in a New York minute. Still, I couldn’t become obese if you held a ham sandwich to my head.

I used to weigh 210. Now I’m 185 on a big day. This summer I got down to 174, until I started pounding down milk shakes so I wouldn’t have to buy new pants.

”Hey, fat boy” is an insult I don’t have to worry about — most likely ever again.

Did I mention that all of this is probably a permanent condition? But what the heck, thanks to the radiation, I’m not pushing up daisies.

Although I am passing up a lot of sausage wraps.

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