So this story has several firsts. I had lived for 20 years in Mumbai, India, when I headed to New Delhi to study for my Master's in International Studies. Two years later, at the ripe age of 22, I ventured to Nashville, Tennessee for graduate work in Political Science at Vanderbilt University. Language has local flavor, and while I spoke English, I did not always understand American, and the idioms surrounding food was very befuddling to me. I discovered that pepperoni was not a vegetable, that hot dogs were not made from dog meat, that hush puppies were not prepared with puppy meat, and that drumsticks were not pods that grew on trees that one ate in a lentil curry as we do in India. But, the most interesting food-related experience I had occurred over the course of my first semester at Vanderbilt. In a class on American politics, I decided to investigate the issue of school desegregation in Nashville.
So for my data, I had to look at archived community hearings on school desegregation, and these were kept in musty old boxes in the Nashville School Board office, the Unified School District office. And so I'd go there almost every week to go through these reams of documents that they had in some attic up in the School Board office. Two friendly ladies helped me during each of my many visits by bringing down these boxes containing manuscripts on yellowed paper, and replacing them with new boxes after I'd gone through ones that they'd already brought down. This continued over the course of September, October, and November. In November, they asked me about my plans for Christmas and seemed sorry when I told them I didn't have any. So the very next time we met, they insisted on arranging a day when they could take me out for dinner, and I agreed. On the appointed day, to my surprise, they came in a large van with their families and joyfully told me that they had reserved a very popular place outside Nashville that opened only on weekends and served frog legs and they looked at me to see how excited I was.
I feigned great excitement as I inwardly thought to myself, "I guess this is not the time to tell them I'm vegetarian." I had never had occasion to discuss with them my food habits in the many conversations I'd had with them, so I silently prayed that I could somehow manage to eat some frog legs, just enough to please them, even as I was beginning to imagine little frogs jumping inside me. The place they took me to was spectacularly beautiful. It was a huge mansion in the middle of woods just outside Nashville. We had a whole dining room to ourselves. They had really gone out to make sure that I had a taste of a southern Christmas.
I saw southern hospitality and kindness at its best. As there was salad, baked potatoes, and bread on offer along with frog legs I knew I would not go hungry. But, I had 10 pairs of eyes looking at me to see how I liked the frog legs, so I had to eat them. I proceeded to cut them into tiny pieces, wrapped them in lettuce, and more or less swallowed each bite because the thought of chewing on meat induced more anxiety than I thought I could bear. Once the meal got going, everyone relaxed and I did too. I did end up being sent home with a whole box full of leftover frog legs because they said I had not eaten enough. My roommate, Paula, was thrilled to have the leftovers, and anyway, to my relief, I discovered soon that I did not suffer any ill effects during my first and last time of eating meat. Thank you.