~By Carl Unger
There are two things about me you should know: I love my wife, and I loathe licorice. The former is a simple enough truth-she’s smart, funny and kind, the bee’s knees all around-but the latter is a more complex matter. My hatred for licorice is so pure, so raw, that the barest putrid whiff of the stuff sends me not only into convulsive fits of nausea and disgust, but rage as well, impotent fury directed at a world cruel and calculated enough to invent such a horrid substance and expose me to it.
I don’t know when my disdain for licorice began. I can only guess that I was very young. I do recall recoiling from a handful of Good n’ Plenties at a young age, shrinking back like a scared animal from those benign-looking candies. Good n’ Plenties trick you with their shiny pastel shells. What’s in there? you ask. Could it be chocolate? Caramel? Some delightful sweetness I’ve never had before? No. It’s licorice, Death’s candy, the embodiment of all earthly malice.
So perhaps that was my first brush with licorice, I can’t say. Regardless, I learned, as one learns to safely cross the street, to sniff (from a safe distance) all candies and baked goods for traces of licorice, and only consume once the coast is clear. Anything involving licorice is promptly discarded.
Oh, but no one tells you about anise. Ah, anise: Is it the source of licorice’s powerful flavor, or do the two share a bond, united villains in the war against humanity? I find it hard to believe the world could evolve to include two separate edibles with the same vile taste, but I’ve never bothered to research the link between anise and licorice. I know all I need to know.
But I didn’t know anything about anise until I was presented with an anise cookie, sometime later in adolescence. I had, up until that point, successfully avoided licorice in all its nefarious forms, but as with Good n’ Plenties, anise cookies attack with stealth. They appear as mounds of soft dough enrobed in a thin, sweet-looking icing often topped with sprinkles. Tricked into thinking I was eating a mild-mannered sugar cookie, I grabbed the anise cookie and took a bite.
The smell hit me as my teeth bit down, invading my nostrils with guns blazing and cannons firing, overloading my senses with a blitzkrieg of that unmistakable odor. Then, true peril: The cookie touched my tongue. Panic ensued. My throat constricted. Jaws locked, unwilling to chew. My face screwed up into an expression of bewildered disgust. Finally I forced myself to chew and swallow. The cookie burned my throat on the way down, and the flavor of everything I ate for the next few hours was coated in the slimy aftertaste of that one, tiny bite of anise cookie. I do not remember where I was or when it was. I could have been in Buckingham Palace, for all I know. I suppose my brain wiped away as much of the awful memory as it could. But not enough.
One. Tiny. Bite. Such is the awful power of licorice.
So why, you may ask, did I marry someone who loves it?
Well, it certainly didn’t have anything to do with licorice, I can tell you that. But alongside political leanings, my wife’s opinion of licorice was chief among the facts I needed to know before serious dating could commence. I can’t recall my reaction to her telling me she liked licorice, but I must have bitten my tongue because, well, we’re married now, and the things I might want to say to a licorice lover are not things that typically lead to marriage (i.e. “You’re %$&@%$# gross!”).
What a conundrum! She may as well have told me she enjoys kicking babies or likes the Yankees. But love, my friends, affects people in unexpected ways. To wit:
It was Christmas, our first Christmas, still dating, and though I had a number of good ideas for gifts, I wanted something that would really make a statement. I ran through all the conventional gift ideas, but they all seemed too, you know, conventional.
Walking through a CVS one day, I detoured through the candy aisle. As always, the shelf of Good n’ Plenties directed its burning gaze of evil my way, staring me down from its black tower like Sauron in the Lord of the Rings. And then I thought, yes: A box of Good n’ Plenties in the stocking. It would be like Superman giving Lois Lane a Kryptonite ring just because she likes the color, despite Kryptonite’s ability to drain Superman’s powers and slowly kill him. What could make a bolder statement than that?
Christmas came. And yes, I went with the Good n’ Plenties. I wrapped the box at arm’s length with my nose well-removed from the cloud of stink. And when my wife opened them, she was ecstatic (well, I’m going to say she was-I was sort of holding my nose and averting my eyes at the time). “See?” I said, “this is how much I love you.” We hugged and she smiled and I felt proud for putting love above licorice, for finding a way to coexist not just with Death’s candy, but with a woman who loved it.
Grinning, she began opening the box. My happiness curdled instantly, and the old reflexive loathing crept up in my throat like bile. “Glad you like them,” I said, “and I do love you. But don’t come near me within a few hours of eating those. Please?”