"Is this your first time with kava? What do you know about kava? Just everything you've read on the internet?" Actually, no. I hadn't read anything. It was someone else's idea to visit SquareRüt, a specialty kava bar. I knew it was a root from some island somewhere, and it makes you feel funny. Trendy children drink it for hippy kicks. I'll do anything that comes in an unsavory shade of Orientalism.
Our waitress launched into a lengthy briefing. "It makes you feel very relaxed. It helps with anxiety. It won't make you intoxicated, it just gets into the top layer of your muscles. Some people are very sensitive, but it doesn't depend on how much you've eaten or how much you weigh. Just your sensitivity. We recommend 12 ounces per person."
"Ok, I'll take 12 ounces."
But it's not that simple.
The kava powers-that-be prescribe 4 ounce servings. Each serving can come with a different flavor.
"We have four flavors available tonight. Chocolate mint, chocolate orange, pumpkin, and ginger. I recommend everybody try the plain version at least once."
"What's it taste like?"
"Well, as you've probably read, it's not the greatest taste in the world. Keep in mind, it's made from a root."
"Does it taste like a raw potato?"
"More like a number 2 pencil."
Great. Bring me one of those.
Three of the four in our group ordered the plain kava first, for the authentic experience.
The number 2 pencil description was dead on, each cold sip with the tongue-tensing bitterness of a thousand tortured pencil corpses. I adored the savage little cups, made from polished coconut shells. But the dirty dishwater color of the liquid didn't ripen my banana, I tell you what. It had the starchy consistency of potato water.
Authentic reaction shot.
After a few sips, my face did indeed start to feel numb, especially my lips and tongue. Amanda, pictured above, resentfully eyeing my gaping maw and lustrous tresses, didn't feel any of the promised effects. But the rest of us, she estimated, "Seemed pretty high."
Unlikely. I was just excited to have a numb face. It was like being at the dentist's! A dentist who lives in the jungle! Take a walk on the wild side!
It's probably really crazy if you've never tried anything else before. Children and Mormons, take note.
"This would be great to drink before you had to eat something you didn't like."
This proved accurate. Each cup tasted better than the last. I ordered ginger for my next round, and then chocolate orange. I wish I had remembered to say something about the umami.
Here's the information I was supposed to have before I visited:
Kava is a root widely consumed throughout the islands of the Pacific. Fiji, Polynesia - places interesting enough to sound appetizing on labels of bottled waters and sauces, but too far for a vacation. For thousands of years, in lands far away, maidens have gathered kava to pound the roots to a pulp, using presses made from tree limbs and twine. That's something I made up, before I did any research.
They give children hunks of the root, to chew up until good and mushy. The kava children spit the juices into a bowl, for everyone to drink later. Oof.
According the Oceanic peoples, one day the Sun God's wife flew through the sky, shooting out the Sun God's baby at a high velocity. Presumably because his birth was so stressful, Tagaloa Ui sought to lessen the anxiety of all, and so introduced kava to the good people of Samoa, Venuatu, Micronesia, and so on.
Now we have our paws on it, somehow.
Based on my research, SquareRüt is the only kava bar in Austin, and it's doing pretty well. Imitators will soon follow, probably, but they're nothing like the original. If I ever drank their cheap, imitation kava I'd probably spit it right out. Into a bowl, for someone else to drink later (yukyukyuk).
Our kava completed, I longed for the real thing. Let's quit doinking around and go make our faces numb for real, the same way our wise ancestors have for thousands of years.
"Isn't kava bad for your liver?" Amanda piped up.
We asked the waitress. "It's about as bad for your liver as alcohol."
"Is it ok if we drink alcohol tonight?"
"It's not recommended. It's just like when you have a prescription and the doctor tells you not to drink with it. Plenty of people still do. It just intensifies the effects of alcohol. So some people are like, 'woo-hoo.'"
Woo-hoo! We went to the normal part of town and ordered beers.
At first, I felt none of the usual beer-related hoodoo. Had the kava created some kind of bossy, hippy cushion around my brain?
Then, 7/8ths through my beer, I spiraled into wretchedness. After a few minutes, I was about 2/5ths of my way to barfing. I felt hot, and my head hurt. I heard the far-off pounding of angry drums.
What a fool I had been.
Kava knew I thought I could treat her like a casual experiment. I was like a greasy, plump merchant, ogling Polynesian milkmaids in the marketplace, stroking my mustache and pointing at which ones I wanted brought to my party that evening. And then resumed my usual ritual of gluttony and intemperance.
The Slave Market, by Fabio Fabbi.
But my dalliance with the exotic would have her revenge.
"I'm not just some fancy potato!" Kava screams from the rafters, grabbing the chandelier and swinging over the crowd of well-to-do revelers, gathered in the parlor to inspect the newest pagan novelty.
She crashes onto a long table of chafing dishes, her grass skirt disheveled, the deviled eggs jettisoned across the room. She lets out a piercing wail, picks herself up, and starts to do a freaky dance. It's primal and arousing, but it makes everyone uncomfortable with themselves. Suddenly nauseous, the guests all ask to be excused. The party is ruined! Serves you right, colonialist pig!
I went home to sleep it off, lesson learned.