Interview with the Taster

Stephen Marche

Mason Withers has tasted the seeds of every species of tree found in Europe and North America. He has tasted arsenic. He has tasted every part of a Mexican rattle used in Precolumbian rituals used during human sacrifice. Like the member of a traveling freak show who consumes a bicycle over the course of a month, Withers brings the unexpected world into his body, though for private pleasure rather than public display. He’s tasted snow drenched in polar bear urine and a piece of a woman’s liver, cobra venom, rusty barbed wire, and shavings from a medieval Croatian balustrade. In his quest for the evernew flavor, he has left behind him, dazed by his 2004 departure, the world of restaurants and wine writing. “How could he go?” Tony Dalyrymple, the sommelier at Le Cirque, asked me recently when he learned that I was interviewing Withers. “He had a premier consultancy with a stable of excellent restaurants in New York and London. He was maybe the best wine-pairer with Asian foods in the world. He had his run of big restaurants, of cellars, of vineyards. How could he walk away?”

Withers now lives in Fort McMurray, in Northern Alberta, working as a welder at a strip mine on the tar sands. His salary is six thousand dollars a week, enough to support his extravagant tastes—civet cat coffee and various illegal caviars—as well as six months of travel a year. Outlandish meals were commonplace in his previous life. Though he won’t discuss it, he once famously prepared a feast from the entire carcass of a black rhino, one of the last three hundred left in the wild. (The horn, sold to a Saudi prince as a dagger handle, paid for the entire meal.) His adventures these days are more ritualistic than hedonistic, but equally expensive and labor-intensive. He recently traveled to Siberia to prepare a bowl of oat porridge heated from a fire made by the Northernmost tree in the world.

I met with Withers at his small apartment near the Boomtown Casino in Fort McMurray.

Interviewer:
Tony Dalyrymple wants to know why you abandoned the restaurant business.

Mason Withers:
Good old Tony. He wants to know where my madness comes from. Is that it?

Interviewer:
Or maybe why you would give up a job so many people would kill for?

Mason Withers:
Let me put it this way. You’ve tasted the hair of a woman you love, haven’t you? Or even better the hair of a woman you don’t love who smokes?

Interviewer:
Yes. Both.

Mason Withers:
That’s better than any meal.

Interviewer:
But when did you decide that you like to eat things rather than food? When did you reject the idea of food? Was there one particular taste?

Mason Withers:
I can’t pick one. Maybe my own snot, the primordial custard. Or my own mouth in the morning before brushing my teeth. Or as a child when I was having trouble going to sleep, and I wondered if I could taste my own tongue.

Interviewer:
You left in 2001?

Mason Withers:
It was 2004. I was living in Paris. And I was thrown out of Fauchon [the famous patisserie in the eighth arrondissement's Place de la Madeleine] for licking the insides of their windows. Which were delicious by the way. Like licking a chocolate strawberry that had turned to glass. I was experimenting at that time with concrete and rainwater, trying to figure out which were the best places to drink run-off in the city. And then there was the incident at the bibliothèque nationale with the Ricci Book of Hours. I’m sure you’ve read about that.

Interviewer:
Tell me about it.

Mason Withers:
The book itself was gorgeous, a thirteenth century illuminated manuscript made for the Ricci family in Ferrara. I smuggled myself in by pretending to be a book historian. And then they kicked me out when I ate a piece. They put me in a mental institution in Nice. My sister Rachel came and released me.

Interviewer:
What possessed you to eat that particular book?

Mason Withers:
I wanted to eat the best vellum of the period, and that’s the Ricci Book of Hours. It seemed to me a kind of transition object. It’s a book on parchment, a holy thing, but it’s also essentially a piece of mutton. Definitely a crossroads for me. I realized that I had to leave Paris. It was the absolute end of my interest in what chefs can do. Every serious restaurant asks the following question: How fresh can we be? But I had eaten eight-hundred-year-old sheep skin. Why not relish the old?

Interviewer:
Being committed to an asylum encouraged rather than discouraged you then?

Mason Withers:
My change in perspective had been brewing for years before. I mean in the nineties I was the wine expert for a New York phone-in show, and a caller bypassed the screeners one afternoon, and asked, “Excuse me, Mr. Withers, I’m wondering, if you could tell me, what wine would you recommend for eating pussy?” And a spark gusted up through my life at that question. He thought it was a joke, a prank. I knew it was the truth.

Interviewer:
What did you recommend?

Mason Withers:
Well, I thought immediately of a Chablis.

Interviewer:
And what would you recommend today?

Mason Withers:
O there are a number of unoaked American chardonnays that would serve equally as well. But if you’re asking me what I would drink with pussy today . . . A squeezed lemon mixed with coffee ground and ashes of burnt pine needles. Scotch pine needles. Or maybe just a mouthful of pencil shavings.

Interviewer:
I guess you have no trouble finding those ingredients in Fort McMurray.

Mason Withers:
No. I love it here. People here are very much like me. Huge effort mixed with extravagance. Work eighty-hour weeks and then blow it all on smashed trucks and hookers. Strip clubs. Piles of cocaine. Furious entertainments.

Interviewer:
You do a lot of drugs?

Mason Withers:
Only the ones that I find. Everyone here does tons and tons. They live like werewolves here. Let me show you something. Eat this.

Withers hands me, from a small pouch on the kitchen table, something sticky and brownish-yellow, like a wasp ground into brown sugar. For a few moments I can’t quite bear to put it in my mouth. When I do, the strength of the flavor is like a sharp drumbeat—saliva floods my mouth on the brute strength of it. A sudden caterpillar bitterness crawls down my spine, ultimate bitterness, the definition of bitterness, then suddenly I swallow. The aftertaste is bubbling burnt plastic, cotton balls and acrylic paint.

Interviewer:
What is it?

Mason Withers:
A poplar bud. What do you think?

Interviewer:
Not my favorite.

Mason Withers:
I understand. This takes time. With me, now, I would rather eat the peel of a clementine than the flesh.

Interviewer:
Why?

Mason Withers:
Here’s what a clementine is to me. I’m six years old. I’m in the grocery store. A little boy, about my age, is shouting, “Mom, let’s get Jap oranges. Mom, can we get Jap oranges? Jap oranges! Jap oranges!” The mother was mortified. That’s the taste of clementines to me now, public disgrace over private hatred. The peel? It’s just peel.

Interviewer:
So memory disgusts you?

Mason Withers:
The opposite. Memory is the vital ingredient. You’re living in a small Midwestern town. You’re seventeen. You’ve just had sex with a girl named Mary-Beth in the backseat of a Dodge Dakota at midnight beside the canola fields. The windows are open. It’s a hot night. A blade of grass is stuck on the side mirror. You pluck it. You chew the stem. That flavor. Go ask Robert Parker. He’ll tell you. He knows. No French genius with a thousand years of tradition and ancient vines on the best terroir can squeeze that deliciousness into a glass.

Interviewer:
And that deliciousness is what you’re searching for?

Mason Withers:
I heard about this Spanish guy [the Argentine food writer Riccardo Melli-Schultz] who spent six years in the Amazon. Six years in the Amazon and he returned with three new fruits. That’s great. That’s three more fruits. Three more flavors. But there’s a poplar tree right there, bro.

Interviewer:
But if I can just say this. My body didn’t want that poplar bud. My mouth didn’t want that poplar bud. My mouth and my body want . . .

Mason Withers:
What do they want?

Interviewer:
Well, right now, half a dozen oysters, a small steak and a piece of chocolate.

Mason Withers:
That’s australopithicus territory. Nourishment. Tasty means poisonous. Everything that savors is poison. Whisky. Fatty steaks. It’s richness and swirling deliciousness. Before you sip green tea, ever notice a small wave of nausea creeps up? Isn’t that what makes green tea so lovely? When we reach puberty, we stop eating mud. We start eating coriander. And drinking wine and smoking cigars. Try a handful of mud. It’s the best. It tastes like innocence.

Interviewer:
Any mud at all?

Mason Withers:
Any mud at all.

Interviewer:
I guess I’ll have to try that.

Mason Withers:
Try eating air. Try fire. Try water. Anything children eat. Whatever children eat must taste good.

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