Food is personal. Intimate, even.
On the rarest of occasions a restaurant meal can feel this way, but food that is prized for speed and consistency rarely takes up residence in our consciousness. Even a fine meal is a more ephemeral pleasure, hazily remembered along with the wine and company. A memory frittered away and consumed.
The ones that become part of your emotional landscape are connected to a deeper truth. A mishmash of taste, company and place that add up to more than the sum of the parts.
My mother made incredibly tasty salads that showed up at every dinner regardless of how tired she was. I liked when she let me put the main course on the same plate and the vinaigrette would seep into the other food. I would happily take bites of salad and stew together.
Years later we visited her sister and she made us a delicious salad, similar to my mom’s, but perceptibly different. The vinaigrettes are like a fingerprint. A simple combination of salt, fat and acid that can be modified infinitely. Mine includes a smooth and whole grain mustard for texture. I taught my daughter how to make one when she was little. I’ll be curious to taste her version one day.
I got my first lesson on cultural appropriation from my mother, a woman of Armenian and German descent raised in Beirut. Food mattered. I was ten when we moved to the U.S. for good. She ventured into American grocery stores and ran smack into shelves filled with inventive takes on hummus. In the middle of a busy aisle she grabbed my hand and thrust a container of black-bean hummus in my face, “this, is not hummus!”
The other day I ran across a snickerdoodle, dessert hummus and had a similarly violent reaction (pictured below).
There were lazy afternoons with my Dad spent picking crabs on a park bench at Hains Point
. He’d walk me around the S.W. seafood market and we’d leave with some bright, red crabs in a paper bag. Then, as now, I was a good eater. More than willing to do the delicate work of extracting the plump, snowy-white meat. As an added bonus, my singular focus gave him some time to read the paper in peace.
From eleven to fourteen I had to schlep across D.C. for school. Every day I took the bus, then the metro, and another bus. It was a lot of logistics for a spacey, adolescent girl. I often missed busses, walked, or purposely loitered about.
The best days were when I scrounged up enough change from pilfering my parents’ pockets to buy a hot dog at the Dupont Circle metro stop. For an extra twenty-five cents I would get chili and onions and eat it while riding the extra long escalator
. Freedom meant spoiling my appetite in the gloriously unsupervised world of public transportation.
Eating street food and walking cities is still my idea of a good time. Company, or no.
. . .
There was a point in my dating life when I prized going out for a good restaurant meal. I had one boyfriend who wanted nothing more than for me to dress up and pick a fancy place to dine. It was fun until I realized we didn’t like each other all that much. A curated experience is a poor substitute for deeply enjoying the company of another.
At forty-four I found myself awkwardly eating almond-butter sandwiches in a barebones hotel room with a man I had let myself want entirely. I sat on the edge of the bed taking bites, my skin prickly with longing and promise. I thought of all the beautiful meals I’d been taken out for. They were appreciated at the time, this was better.
By your forties you know everything ends, good or bad. It’s important to pay attention when it matters. To be brave, and say how you feel regardless of the outcome.
Two years later I met another man who made me a beautiful meal to celebrate moving into his new home. He served cumin-scented cauliflower tacos with an array of fresh toppings. I tried not to cry as I sipped rosé and watched him chop.
Here was this handsome and funny man making some effort for me. Maybe there are still good surprises in store for this two-time cancer survivor?
I ate those tacos and knew exactly how lucky I was.