A Toothsome Dish, Indeed
Some meals are simply unforgettable
I love food. I live to eat, and don't understand those who simply eat to live. Sustenance is not enough. Every meal may not be completely memorable, but there’s always something to enjoy—the salty/sweet contrast of buttered cinnamon toast, the satisfying crunch of romaine in a creamy dressing—even the gentle tang of lemon in a glass of tap water.
And then there are meals which, due to a combination of appetite, ingredients and circumstance transcend mere taste and smell. These meals lodge deeply into memory and emotion. I’ve had a few of those…
I longed to experiment in the kitchen from childhood, but it was not to be. That was Mom’s domain and there would be no interlopers. Which was a shame, because she was not an enthusiastic cook—for her, it was more duty and obligation. What fun is that? (Confidentially, it showed on our plates, gloppy entrees prepared with “brown-in-bags” or mealy frozen vegetable concoctions from Bird’s Eye.)
It wasn’t until I moved to California for college that I put on my chef’s apron and begin to cook for myself. My teacher was an affable, enthusiastic gourmand who visited me every Wednesday — via the food section of the San Francisco Examiner.
James Beard taught me how to cook flavorful meals with simple ingredients. He wrote from memory of farm living in Washington, and I could relate with ample produce and a wealth of new flavors in the Golden State. The bland packaged foods of my youth were thrown out in favor of crisp bok choy, juicy mandarins and tart, chewy sourdough.
I was a stay-at-home dad with a family to feed, so I learned to cook big meals on a meager budget. My kitchen turned out plates groaning with cheap carbs for hungry kids. My forearms swelled from kneading dense whole wheat loaves every week. My eyes popped at the Alemany Market where baskets of deep green kale and bushels of Black Arkansas apples beckoned.
Eating out was a luxury for many years, so I contented myself with inexpensive delicacies. Odd English chocolate bars from Cost Plus. Fried Chinese noodles from the Berkeley Bowl. Salty salami subs from a flyspecked Italian deli.
My identity as a cook was deeply embedded, and after I became single, I met a succession of women who were not so comfortable in the kitchen. I became a nurturing figure in those relationships, taking on most of the cooking and shopping. I still foraged at the markets on Saturday, feeling like the hunter-gatherer laden with heavy bags of provisions for the week. My shoulders stooped but my smile stretched from ear to ear.
Eventually, I met a darling woman who loved to cook at least as much as I did — and who had greater distinctions. She took pride in her preparation and had a knack for entertaining. I thought, maybe she could teach me a few things.
The courtship was swift, but complicated. All the signals were go, and yet circumstances kept us from moving too quickly. Our first date was at a Sardinian restaurant, our second meal Szechuan takeout. As much as we talked about food and cooking, we didn’t get a chance to practice first hand. Until the third date.
I arrived at her tiny house empty handed. I’d learned early on that she didn’t share my sweet tooth, so there was no point in bringing dessert. That put me at a disadvantage—baking was my secret weapon. She ushered me into her tiny, galley kitchen, barely room enough for the two of us. If we opened the door on that classic Wedgwood stove, no one could pass.
My hostess had mastered this pocket space. First came the sweet smell of onions, carmelizing in the pan, turning golden in the equally bright and peppery olive oil. She removed them and put in a generous pile of green beans which popped and crackled in the hot pan. While they cooked, she expertly chopped on the board, a sharp crack with every stroke of the blade.
Plunging my hands into a bowl of icy water, I removed the plump shrimp and plucked the veins from each. The chef uncovered her pan and we carefully arranged the seafood atop the beans, turning each as they burst forth an appetizing orange glow. The onions, tomatoes and a sprinkling of feta complete the picture. It’s a work of art, a dish that I’d never seen before.
As wonderful as this scene is, I’m feeling off-kilter. I haven’t really contributed to this meal, just performed a few minor duties as sous chef. Aren’t I supposed to be the nurturing one? Perhaps my hostess can see that I’m distracted—because she touches my arm and offers me a sample.
I am immediately brought to earth. Even before her fork reaches my mouth, I am struck by the gesture of a woman cooking for me, attentive to my taste and appetites, eager to feed me. I can’t remember the last time this has happened. Has it ever?
This was an offering. I accepted the forkful. My teeth crunched the al dente beans, which gave way to a flood of sweet tomato, tart puckering cheese, basil-scented shrimp. I don’t use this word lightly but.. it was amazing. She leads me to the dining room.
At the table, I watch her put my plate before me. We make eye contact. Paulina grins and fills my glass, “Buon appetito!”
We toast and begin to eat. The room is warm, the conversation bright, and the air still scented with herbs. It’s an excellent pairing. I could make a regular meal of this.
And the food’s good, too.
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These memoirs are the product of my continuing work with writer, actor and director Suze Allen. If you're interested in telling your own stories, I recommend you check out her website ManuscriptMentor.com