The Art of Expectation

Daniel Bombardier
Yes,” said the girl. “Everything tastes like licorice. Especially all the things
 you’ve waited  so long for, like absinthe.” 
“HIlls Like White Elephants” – Ernest Hemingway

Ah, disappointment, I know you so well.

My most recent encounter with it was at a well-known Boulder restaurant that is not only as pricey as a Ferrari, but comes with the kind of long-lived reputation that is synonymous with the word “institution.” Continuing the Year-of-50 celebration, I finally agreed to meet a longtime friend at the posh spot overlooking Boulder and say yes to $75 butter-poached lobster, whether I could afford it or not. We’d been talking about doing just this thing for at least a decade.

For that price tag, I expected an orgasm.

What I got was licorice.

You plot, you plan, you prepare, you’re excited. And in the end, you get “meh.”

Butter-poached Lobster

I thought the lobster would taste, well, buttery–and sweet, and practically melt in my mouth.  I expected to hear angels singing,  to have a moment when the restaurant dissolved and the whole world was my mouth wrapped around perfectly cooked and succulent crustacean in a symphony of flavor. After the first bite, I waited in vain for what my sister calls “The Great Pause”  to hit me.  But, I had a hard time feeling like the lobster tasted like anything at all. Instead of a lovely strings and cello, I could hear the woman at the next table order sweet tea with her $100/plate meal. The light dimmed just a bit in the cool clean restaurant overlooking the red-tiled roofs of the University of Colorado.  I squinted blankly at my plate. Then, I added fancy table-served sea salt. Then more salt.

Nothing. The claw meat was ever so slightly chewy.


If disappointment’s has a twin, it’s expectation.  Had my expectation killed the messenger? Surely, anticipation is nothing if not a double-edged sword. Think of how many times you’ve waited to see that movie that everyone says is “really amazing,” only to be let down: “It wasn’t that great.” It’s the same with restaurant food. I build up a place in my mind or go to some new hot spot everyone is raving about, but it’s just okay. And too often, the first time at a restaurant is the best. Why is it never the same—never as fresh or surprising—again?

I am disappointed.  A lot.  And not just by food.

Am I drowning pleasure and the potential little surprises life has to offer under the ballast of expectation and my need to orchestrate everything?  If I do X, I think, I will get Y

Disappointing sweetbreads an foie gras

And yet, this is exactly the opposite of the kind of cooking I advocate.  Put yourself in front of some ingredients and see what happens, I say. Let the preparation be meditation.  Let the experience be new.  I have been surprised by recipes I’ve made a 100 times.  And that’s a good thing.  Imagine making the same turkey every Thanksgiving, exactly the same way.  It may be good for tradition and your sense of nostalgia, but it’d be rotten for your taste buds and your palate which will be, as Sylvia Plath says, “dulled to a halt under bowlers.”

More and more, I want to live like I cook:  with confidence and curiosity, with a willingness to be surprised, with the idea that every single meal, each kiss,  each act of love can be new.

Last night, the city-dwellling boyfriend made dinner. He quick sautéed minced pork stew meat with garlic and white onions before finishing it with a bit of chicken stock. Then he fried corn tortillas as I drank wine and ate his famous guacamole. On the table: white lilies he’d bought for me. We ate the pork tacos with pickled onions and cabbage and sour cream.  I served some chilled corn soup I’d made earlier in the week. We chatted and watched to the hummers fight at the feeder above my head. It had been a week since I’d seen him. 

The experience was so much more satisfying than my $200 meal. 


I hadn’t expected anything at all.
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