Last week I had one of the most memorable meals of my life.
Out of curiosity I’ve searched back through my memory files, and found just a few other such memorable repasts:
– A wiener roast on the top of a high snow-covered dune (we called it “Mt. Everest”) on the southern shore of Lake Michigan in the middle of winter. My family and another family were all bundled in snowsuits and boots, hats and scarves and gloves. I was four years old. The grownups built a bonfire for roasting hot dogs until they were charred in the kid-approved summer-picnic fashion (minus the crunchy sand). After wieners we had charred marshmallows and hot cocoa. It was childhood feast, memorable for over 70 years.
– Sometime in the late 1980s, my husband Joe and I had a memorable meal with our friends Wes and Judy. They were wealthy, we were not; and the four of us loved dining and playing and traveling together. To solve the income disparity, we agreed to alternate our social planning – Joe and I would plan one evening or road trip (inexpensive), Wes and Judy would plan the next (without regard to cost). The memorable meal happened at the restaurant atop the Westin Hotel in Chicago. (Wes wanted to go there because the restaurant featured a roving musician who played a Stradivarius violin.) It was a luxury restaurant, one of those that had “ladies’ menus” with no prices listed, so female diners need not fret about the tab which their male companions would, of course, pay. I tried to sneak a peak at Joe’s menu, but couldn’t manage it. So I made up my mind thusly: Okay, Cynthia, you are here in this fabulous restaurant. No matter what you order, the price will be way beyond what you think you can afford. SO – order what you really want to eat. Enjoy EVERY morsel of it. Be grateful. Do NOT give up a single moment to fretting; figure out later where you’ll find the money to pay off the credit card. And I did just that. I ordered in-season soft-shell crab, a lovely white wine, and even a crème brûlée for dessert. It was a glorious meal.
– Here I’ll give a nod to another meal, the reason I knew about soft-shell crab in the first place. A few years earlier Joe and I had driven deep into the bayous south of New Orleans. We found a little dump of a tavern where cars pulled up to one side of the building and small fishing boats pulled up to the other side. The soft-shell crabs we ate that afternoon had made the briefest of stops in a frying pan on the way from a boat to our plates!
– Another jaunt to New Orleans, another of my most memorable meals: one of the components of the prix fixe lunch at the Quarter’s tiny iconic Tujague’s Restaurant that day was a red rémoulade sauce. I remember nothing more of the meal – just that sublime sauce that my tastebud-memory can still recall perfectly.
– One more memory before I return to last week’s meal. This memorable meal was a picnic in Tennessee, with Joe and our friend Jim. We’d brought sandwiches we purchased at a deli, and a bottle of wine that Joe was excited about trying (he was a wine aficionado). We drove beside the Little Pigeon River, outside Gatlinburg in the Great Smoky Mountains, until we found a pull-off area that looked promising – where the river was shallow and raced around a few table-sized granite boulders. After leaving our shoes in the grass at the edge of the river we distributed our sandwiches and wine glasses among the three of us, and each claimed a relatively flat-topped boulder. On his boulder Jim opened the wine, stood up and poured a dram into the river as a blessing of gratitude; we passed the bottle from boulder to boulder, and it was, indeed, worth being excited about. I think the sandwiches were good, but the wine and the friendship, the granite and the cold rushing water are what I hold in my memory.
And now I’ll tell of my most recent memorable meal. The setting was an isolated cafe on Whidbey Island, the only commercial establishment for miles around, near the ferry dock on the west side of the island. Privately I was feeling sorry for myself about yet another sign of my aging: just an hour earlier I’d gotten (and paid for – gasp!) hearing aids. It had been raining all day, and I didn’t feel like socializing. But I’d made this date with my friend Katherine, and I was cautiously glad to be emerging from a couple of months of social/emotional hibernation. So there I was, in a motley mix of feelings, staring at the menu at Callen’s Restaurant. I ordered a steak, knowing that it might be tough (serves me right for wanting red meat). What the waitress delivered was a five-ounce sirloin steak, almost as thick as it was wide; beside it were two stalks of steamed broccolini, a finger-sized whole carrot, and a mound of garlic mashed potatoes – chunky, as I prefer them. I cut into the steak – it was tender, perfectly medium-rare and so delicious I nearly swooned. Soon I realized I was eating with pure joy!
I ate every morsel of food on my plate, then had a discussion with the waitress about available desserts and ordered a “warm chocolate truffle cake” (it might not actually taste good, which would serve me right for eating all that sugar). What the waitress delivered was a little hill of dark chocolate cake, embracing a core of hot fudge filling; there was a scoop of vanilla on the flank of the hill, and a shawl of raspberry sauce around its shoulders, with just a touch of whipped cream trim. It was bliss, and I devoured it with sensuous JOY. I did offer Katherine a bite, but she declined. I have no idea what she and I had been talking about (sorry, Katherine), but she tells me that I ate that entire dessert, every last tasty gram and granule, in less than seven minutes. With exuberance and moans!
A meal may be memorable for its tastes, its textures, its unexpected ingredients. A meal may be memorable for its location, its companions, its emotion du jour. The mental file in which I keep my memorable meals now has a new entry, memorable for its secret joy. Perhaps you’ve enjoyed it too as I’ve recounted it. Bon appétite!