Tom Nichols: I said I couldn't stand Indian food. Then a Twitter friend took me to dinner.
This is a story about the internet, the spontaneous generosity of thousands of people and the healing power of food. Or, the healing power of lamb.
This is a story about how the internet and social media can be a positive influence on even the most provincial and opinionated among us.
And by “us” I mean, mostly, “me,” but this is also a story about the spontaneous generosity of thousands of people. It is also a story about the healing power of food. But before this happy ending, it was a story about a man – again, I mean “me” – who managed to insult over a billion people.
It all started in 2019, when in response to an open invitation from a user on Twitter to post our most controversial food takes, I decided to bypass all the hatred for mayonnaise and other foods, and to fire off a zinger about the cuisine of an entire subcontinent. “Indian food,” I said, “is terrible and we pretend it isn’t.”
A dinner invitation
Of course, I thought I was tweaking my American friends who sweated and gasped their way through dishes of thermonuclear spiciness, but my clumsy attempt at wit soon ignited an international firestorm. (You can read the whole amazing story here.) Eventually, the furor died down, as such things always do. But several of my friends, and more than a few acquaintances I knew only through social media, insisted that I should give Indian food another try one day.
One of those acquaintances was former United States attorney Preet Bharara. Preet and I had never met, although we often read and commented on each other’s views, as we were both dedicated opponents of former president Donald Trump. But this was beyond politics: Preet offered to take me for Indian food when the pandemic lifted. I promised I would put myself in his hands at any restaurant of his choosing.
The thing about making a promise like that, especially when you give it to former prosecutor like Preet, is that he will remember it and the day will come when you have to make good on it. And sure enough, after talking about our vaccinations and our relief at the return of normality, Preet reminded me that I was due for a fine Indian dinner.
I am a man of my word. I was going to visit New York to see some friends, and we set a date. And that’s how I found myself at a lovely restaurant named “Sona” in lower Manhattan.
“This is the guy,” Preet said to the owner and some friends, meaning “the guy who slagged the cuisine of our ancestors whose mind we just might change.” I smiled gamely and said I was willing to make amends. There was laughter and a lot of smiles and knowing looks. It turns out they’d been expecting me. I was not going to get away with my usual only-child behavior of a quick taste here and there. This was going to be a marathon.
A culinary comeuppance
Preet, as a good host, had checked ahead of time for things like allergies or other issues. He also suggested that we remember that people in India were still in the grip of the pandemic. Perhaps we might consider using social media to send out my culinary comeuppance, and even generate some small amount of money – maybe a few thousand dollars – to help with COVID relief? I thought this was a wonderful idea and we both sent out the message to the same internet that two years earlier had been scorching me and sending me wishes for my early demise.
By the time we sat down, we were amazed to find that there was almost $30,000 committed to Indian relief. We thought that was wonderful, and we tucked into our meal.
I would be lying if I said I remembered everything I ate, but I ate a lot. There was mutton, and fried ricotta, which I loved. There were spicy shrimp, which I did not love at all. (My palate is still the one I’ve had my whole life.) There were lamb chops that were quite tasty, and butter chicken, which other people swear is the food of the gods but that I disliked quite a bit. (There is a spice in some Indian foods that for some reason just doesn’t speak to my taste buds.)
We paused to check the status of the relief fund. It was now over $50,000. Preet and I looked at each other in disbelief. But if people were going to keep donating, I was going to keep eating.
Pass the lamb biriyani
Preet and I also enjoyed a buffet of conversation. Like any other new friends, we talked politics, careers, our families and children. We marveled that two middle-aged men who might never have met had found a connection through the turbulence of social media. We talked about strangers we’d never met were helping strangers, on a sudden impulse to do good for others.
Meanwhile, dish after dish arrived, like waves of culinary artillery raining down on my sheltered palate.
And then, a miracle occurred. A bowl of lamb biriyani appeared in front of me. I looked at it – as I had at everything – with a bit of trepidation. But I dug in. Fragrant, with lamb I could cut with a fork, I was entranced. I had found an Indian dish, after years, that I loved. I polished it off. (I’m not sure Preet got any of that.)
I wandered through many other offerings, eating heartily of almost all of them. Preet finally declared victory when I said that in the future, I would not dig in my heels when colleagues wanted to go for Indian food, because I now knew there were many items I would enjoy. Indian food might still not be my first choice, but I had to admit that my tweet was just dumb and so Preet ended the evening by retweeting it as a dessert of crow.
By the time we got home, the people following along had pledged $75,000 for India. The next morning, there was another ten thousand dollars. As of this writing, the fund is closing in on almost $90,000. I began this adventure by offending a billion people, and when it was over, I had learned about food, made new friends, and helped, in a small way, to alleviate the suffering of people in another country.
That’s a lot for one dinner. And while I had a tiny bit of heartburn in the morning, my actual heart, after a long spell of pessimism and concern, felt pretty good.