Over the span of my life, I have eaten a lot of delicious bites of food. The first bite of caramelized onion butter on warm sourdough at The Foundry, the sea salt dark chocolate caramel from Hilliards, the sharp, buttery taste of Kerrygold Dubliner cheddar. These are just a few. But it takes many more ingredients to make a meal memorable than just delicious food. It takes people, occasion, memory, and some confluence of gratitude and mindfulness. I’m thinking about some of my most memorable meals today.
I’m watching a lovely, meditative series on Netflix about the lives of very high-level chefs as it follows them through their lives, process, and art. What they all have in common is the knowledge that, in their work, they are creating experiences. They are writing stories with their food. They are sharing a piece of themselves with their guests when they cook and create. They know what I know: the best meals are those that are experienced, not just eaten.
I can remember a perfect meal eaten on my honeymoon. Tim had the steak and I had the shrimp, and it was exponentially more money than we had ever spent on food before. Every bite was a revelation and a celebration of where we were and what was to come.
I remember a meal celebrating Maura’s tenth birthday, six months later than the day. She had wanted a sophisticated dining experience of tapas, and she wanted to share it with her family and especially her grandparents. When my mother’s cancer diagnosis preceded her February birthday by ten days, we delayed our plans. Six months, one major surgery, and four chemo treatments later, we went for tapas and the entire October night was pure magic. We ate roasted potatoes with spicy tomato sauce, beef tenderloin with garlic aioli, spicy gambas swimming in butter. We passed around dish after dish, one more delicious than the next, and we felt truly grateful for life, family, and the experience of being together. You could taste it.
I remember watching Brian gleefully eat the lobster macaroni and cheese that his grandmother insisted he order on his twelfth birthday. And dessert, too. And soda. All the stuff that he never got on my watch, my mother made sure he had. I remember her face watching him enjoy it and I think of it every time I walk into that restaurant, even now.
I remember walking four miles to get French-Lebanese fusion food at Café la Maude in Philadelphia. Maura had researched it before our trip, and our whole foodie family delighted in trying the different flavors and experiencing the hospitality and pride of the owner. My kids seemed older and more cosmopolitan as they sat there amid the very European décor, and I loved seeing their joy and interest at experiencing all of it. It was the same feeling when I watched them eat and enjoy pastrami sandwiches and latkes at Carnegie Deli in New York City. Sure, that one was a tourist trap, but we were together in it.
I remember a meal Lisa cooked for me and a couple of friends when we needed nourishing. A crisp, chilled, simple salad with goat’s cheese and pear, a hearty soup, homemade focaccia, wine by the fire. We felt loved and heard and fed. It was perfect.
I remember enjoying a zucchini lasagna with a newly gluten-free friend, a chicken salad sandwich, orange soda, and barbecue chips that somehow always signifies the start of spring when we’re cleaning up the yard. I remember my Dad taking just me to a diner as a kid and marveling at the variety, beauty, and availability of all of those jam packets. I remember every post-mass breakfast we share now at The Farmer’s Daughter, where Andrea remembers that he takes cream with his coffee and I take milk, and she brings them both right away.
I remember sharing warm vanilla wafer cookies with my choir friends on the street in Czechoslovakia, and I remember a vegetable soup at the Waterford factory in Ireland. That soup was the only thing I could hold down, newly pregnant with Brian and somehow travelling around the coast of Ireland on the trip that was supposed to take our minds off of trying to get pregnant. The whole thing was unexpectedly delicious.
I remember the chicken parm, simple salad, and chocolate mousse we used to get at Rosario’s for family celebration dinners. My whole family remembers the time my Dad got al olio on his shirt and how my mother insistently called for club soda to remove the stain. The story is funny now. The chicken was always perfect.
I remember the bagels that Terri used to make at the commuter café at BSC, on the flattop with a scoopful of butter, and how she called me ‘honey’, and how it made me feel protected, strong, and safe. I remember every bite of my Dad’s mashed potatoes and my own mac and cheese that Maura now routinely makes, after having taken copious notes on my recipe.
These are special meals, each one from a bagel to fine dining, and I hold the memory of each of them very dear. They fed me in many more ways than one, and the beauty of these experiences has stayed with me over very many years. I hope you have a meal or six like this in your life that you can remember. After all, we don’t live by bread alone. We need the spirit that comes from stillness, joy, laughter, a bit of a candle maybe, and the dearest of people sitting across a table to feel as nourished, understood, and loved as we are. Make a meal like that happen soon, and feed yourself, body and soul.