Hug on a plate
“I’m sorry… I messed up. Again.”
He glared at me through the food portal and said something rapid in his native tongue that made the younger cook laugh and shake his head. Some sentiments need no translation to be understood.
I hadn’t been working at the restaurant for very long. The old cook was irritated with me and my wrong orders. My face at the food portal was the harbinger of extra work. Months passed. I got the hang of my job as a server, eventually. I also learned some colorful words in a new language.
One afternoon there was a rare lull. As I waited for customers, the cook gruffly motioned me to the kitchen. I immediately felt defensive, given our past. As I rounded the corner, he greeted me with a plate of pancakes. There was a fork stabbed right in the middle. I was confused.
“Eat.” He demanded, pushing the plate toward me.
I shook my head.
“No good,” he motioned my thin frame up and down. In a more gentle tone, he repeated, “Eat.”
I took the plate from him but looked around. Occasionally, an order was made in error or a pancake was too misshapen to plate. Food that was considered unsuitable to serve was thrown out. Company rules forbade employees from partaking in any.
He saw my gears turning and gestured to himself, using my old line, “I messed up.” With a wink and a shrug, he walked back to the grill.
I sat at a small table in the makeshift break room. Beneath a bulletin board plastered with safety data sheets, I pondered life of late. School almost completed, I was now in the midst of my internship at the hospital. Long hours there, followed by work here, I was on my feet for most of the day. I tend to lose my appetite when I’m stressed or busy, and I knew it was starting to show.
That first bite was a soft, pillowy piece of heaven. The pancakes were soaked in whipped butter and enveloped in thick maple syrup. I wasn’t quite sure pancakes had ever tasted this good. Perhaps I had just forgotten how good food could taste.
I fought back tears as I savored the entire short stack. The kindness of the old cook had taken me by surprise. He saw my need and met it the best way he knew how. The food was warm and sweet and tasted like a hug felt: wonderful.
From that day on, I made the effort to eat more regularly and to eat better quality foods. No more skipped meals. No more junk food swallowed hastily in my car as I was driving from one commitment to the next. My health and well-being became a priority again.
And at work, the old cook would tilt his head and shake his spatula at me with faux sternness, as to query if I was eating. However, this was always done with kindness in his eyes. I would smile and give him a thumbs-up. I was good.
My kitchen contains two bottles of wine that I have stored at 55 degrees Fahrenheit for nine years; I will store them at 55 degrees for at least another fifteen. I will open them on that undetermined date to follow a meal with an undetermined menu for undetermined guests.
My daughters and wife will be there, certainly, and several colleagues of past and future. I’d like to draft the list now, but life doesn’t work that way. Preparing for a dinner party 15-20 years in advance is an exercise in quixotism—who knows? I could be dead myself—but that’s the appeal, I think.
I bought those two bottles of vintage port first: Quinta do Vale Meao, 2011. I had read of the excellent vintage, and when a conference in 2014 took me to Albany, I shopped at a wine warehouse during a break and found them. I have held them ever since, occasionally pulling them from the temperature control to read their labels and daydream.
In centuries past, nobility bought cask after cask of vintage port to celebrate the births of their sons. By the time the children reached adulthood, the port would be ready to drink. Being a teacher in the 21st century, I have more limited means, but I can manage two bottles for my retirement.
I have not decided on the wine for the main course, but I have prepared a trial to help me choose. My wine fridge contains a quality 2007 Barolo and 2010 Bordeaux. Both remain too young to drink, according to Robert Parker’s vintage charts, but someday soon I will have to uncork them anyway and decant for a few hours. Which aged red will I prefer? My decision must come soon so I can invest in a half case or so of something very good. If I retire when first eligible, I only have until 2038 for the wine to mature. I feel less time pressure for the first course’s wine. I live in the Finger Lakes, one of the finest Riesling regions in the world. I can lay my hands on something good just a handful of years in advance.
Once I’ve made a final decision about my retirement date, I’ll make inquiries and hire a private chef, with whom I’ll meet and share the Riesling and the red. We’ll talk about the dishes the chef favors. I will be open to possibilities, but I’d like something with goat cheese to accompany the Riesling, and I’ve thought of braised beef or roast duck for the main course. As I am Irish, there must be roasted potatoes. A dark chocolate dessert must accompany the port.
If some of my former colleagues live out of state, I’ll offer airfare and a hotel; they will be surprise guests. Local colleagues will meet me, somewhere, and a limo will arrive to carry us to the location so past and present can come together, unexpectedly, as they usually do. When the server brings the first course I will raise a glass and acknowledge those who could not join us. I do not now know the middle bit, but I’ll have notes by then. I only know the closing: “Thank you for being there. Thank you for being here. Thank you for sharing a meal with me.”
I watched it spin through the window of the microwave door. Flakes of ice melting into nothing, dissolved by waves of invisible radiation. The burrito seemed to inflate, frozen tortilla brought to life, inflating like a pair of lungs taking in its first breath.
When the microwave sang it's terminal melody, I lifted the ceramic plate from its alter and set it down on my kitchen counter.
I'd been eating these for breakfast for years. Back when I used to be a runner, I was burning calories like a funeral pyre, and I depended on frozen meals to fill the void in my gut.
They were pumped with all manners of salt and chemicals. Which meant that to me they were as addictive as crack cocaine. They formed the core of my breakfast. I begged for them at lunch and dinner. They were the fuel I needed.
However, I hadn't gone on a run in at least a year. My rings no longer fit around my fingers. My hands were swollen by the amount of salt I was eating.
I wasn't fat. Everyone kept telling me that.
But my fingers told the truth: I was swelling. A balloon about to burst.
But I still kept eating these fucking burritos. Kept buying them. Stuffing them down every single morning.
Today was, I thought, no different.
I sat alone at my table. Jammed the fork into the middle of the burrito, sending an explosion of flavored sludge across my plate. Scooped it into my mouth.
It tasted like dust.
The sludge had lost its flavor, the tortilla was dry and hardened. It was a shell of what I'd been eating.
No longer was it the delicious fuel that had allowed me to survive track season. No longer was it a delicious reprieve from eggs and bagels. It was just dust. Emptiness. Another obligation in a life full of expectations.
There was no longer anything special about it. It wasn't a treat, or a reward. It was just another number, another stack of calories that I didn't want.
So I stopped eating them. Traded it in for a "healthier" (smaller) breakfast. Cutting down bit by bit.
And it began with a breakfast burrito.
Grease, and the beginning of Forever.
January 13th, 2011.
The sky was blue. An anomaly for an Oregon January. It was a balmy fifty degrees Fahrenheit, and you were sixteen. You'd just gotten your license and come to pick me up on our first date. Silly boy, I'd wagged my finger and told you there was no way we were driving-- it was illegal, and boys had a tendency to get tickets when I was in the passenger seat. You took one look at the sky and grinned, and I thought I knew right then-- you were the one.
You were veritably gigantic for a sixteen-year-old boy, and when you offered your hand, I took it, my hand swallowed in yours--and I thought I knew right then--you were the one. We walked together, both of us tall, strides in harmony, hands sweaty and cold and delightfully lost in each other. It was a terribly long walk to the arcade, but we didn't care. We were young and desperate to show off for one another. You let me beat you at air hockey, and you didn't bat an eye at the jibes I dished out in generous heaps afterward. The jock, beaten at a game by the theatre nerd. We each knew the truth, and the both of our eyes sparkled in harmony for it-- I thought I knew right then--you were the one.
But it wasn't then, no. It was an hour later, after we'd stumbled our giddy way into a tiny diner. You pulled out my chair and we played thumb wars over a sickeningly sticky table, and when the basket of french fries arrived, we shared. I know you were starving, but you gave me the larger portion anyway. I have never tasted a better french fry. They were perfect. Salty, soft, crisp, but not overcooked. Perfect. I nearly got lost in them. I nearly forgot you were there at all, for my very first love had me then in its grasp: food. But then you surprised me. You stole the last fry from my greasy fingers, and I looked in shock and sadness on the emptiness greeting my greedy tongue. "Did you forget I was here?" you teased me.
And I got worried...because... how could I have ever thought that I could be myself in the presence of a boy like you. You were a football player. I was chairman of the anti-bullying club. It was never gonna happen and I'd just made a terrible fool of myself over the last few hours. These things galloped about my head in the quick ten seconds it took to truly look at you, sitting there, the last fry held between thumb and pointer finger, ketchup bottle in the other hand. You slowly rotated the fry to face me, a garish grin painting your face in the process. "This is how I feel about you," you said, rather matter of factly, and handed me the fry. There, in bright red ketchup, you'd drawn a smiley face on the top. And I knew, then, that you were the one.
You ordered me another basket, and we drew ketchup faces until the waitress started walking by and sighing. So you paid and we left with a greasy sandwich bag of french fries and the certainty in our hearts that we were at the beginning of forever.
I could write about the food. I could write a great deal about the food. But the food is not what’s important.
I’ve had some amazing meals, don’t get me wrong. And cooking is art, there’s no doubt about that. It’s an act of caring and grace to coax raw ingredients into majesty, and when it’s done well, it borders on magic. But it’s not what’s important.
I would know, I’ve had it both ways. I once ate a 90 day aged Chateaubriand in an estate at one point owned by the King of Morocco. It was seared with a crust of peppercorns and walnuts and kissed with a brandy-based pan sauce, accompanied by a beet and goat cheese salad with slices of white truffle. After, we sipped fine port from crystal snifters and ate delicate chocolate desserts with aerated pistachio creme. A paragon of a meal, indeed. But then we went home. “Mommy and daddy had a great time,” we tell the kids. What do you say to a 3 year old? The meal was majestic, but I was not transformed.
My wife and I once dined on fresh langoustines and salmon sashimi in a 16th century building in old Torshavn after a long day hiking up the gorge of Saksun. The fish and lobsters were pulled from the water in the old docks not 100 yards from where we sat. It was spectacular, and I was happy. But I was happy before, in a happy place, with happy company. The food didn’t need to do that much heavy lifting.
One day in 2009 I sat alone in section 212 of the Friendly Confines. One of those midwest storms had rolled through, fierce and transient. The air glistened with moisture and a fog lay heavy over the lake while rays of sunshine dappled the park. The seats were dry, covered from above, but the air was humid, and damp. No one could tell if I cried, and no one cared. I drank a $9 old style and poked at a $8 Chicago style dog. White onion, neon green relish, celery salt, mustard (ketchup is heresy). The Cubs won in extra innings.
Now we’re getting somewhere.
I flew into Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International airport in the late afternoon. The flight was delayed and I’d been drinking since morning in expensive airport restaurants, because I wanted to, and airports are the place to do that kind of thing. Time doesn’t matter there, and no one cares. When I got my bags, the sun was already setting behind the Sloss furnace. My mom picked me up. She muttered pleasantries about the weather on the car ride back to my parents’ house. I said nothing, and watched the darkness fall on the magnolia trees and hills of kudzu, heart and head bowed beneath a heavy weight.
I slept long into the morning in the basement bedroom. No one came for me. I heard the doorway to the basement open multiple times, hesitant creaks on the stairs, then the sound of the door closing. “Leave him be, he needs to sleep,” I imagine them saying. Fine by me. It was dark and quiet down there, better for no one to see what had become of me. I had nothing to tell them anyway.
Eventually I came upstairs. The kitchen smelled of pecans and the morning’s bacon grease. Fiestaware littered the sink in bold reds, yellows, and teals. The smell made me realize how hungry I was.
“Lunch?” my dad was grabbing his coat from the hook in the hall. “I’m buying.” I nod, grateful. I wouldn’t have asked.
There’s a restaurant near 5 Points South where the ribs cook long and low over wood pellets and you can sit outside under a tent on splotchy grass amidst the blooming rhododendrons.
It stormed in the morning. The chairs are damp and the air is humid. The sky is a pale gray above the aging oaks and the fountain. I pick at splinters in the wooden table and no one speaks. I don’t have anything I want to say to anybody, and no one thinks it’s right to ask because, “cowboys don’t talk about their problems.”
We’re not cowboys. We lived out west, sure. We’ve ridden horses. But that doesn’t make us cowboys. But the myth persists.
Luckily, we don’t need to talk. While we wait for our ribs, there’s bread and barbecue sauce. The bread is Wonder Bread, white and chemical. It’s soft for dipping. Our fingers mold it like clay. There are bowls of barbecue sauce and paper plates. A deep south version of chips and salsa. We sop up the sauce, savoring the sweet bite of vinegar and Worcestershire. I take another. Sauce dribbles down my chin. I watch my dad eat white bread and stare at birds in the sky as the cloud cover breaks.
Suddenly the world is alive, hot and glowing. The sauce is sweet and the air vibrates with the hum of happy voices and birdsong. My dad smiles at me out of the corner of his eye and lifts his Wonder Bread in a mock toast. Still heavy in the head and heart, I’m burdened by pains I don’t want to talk about. He has his own, I’m sure. He doesn’t try to solve my problems. He doesn’t even ask. I volunteer nothing. The food is not transformative, it’s barely a meal at all. Just bread and sauce, but we’re together. And for the first time in ages, that’s enough. It may be the most important meal I’ve ever had.
The food is not what’s important.
The world was once transformed over bread and wine, after all. Why can’t barbecue sauce do the same?
There’s magic in the moment, in being present with those who ask nothing and love you as you are, even when you don’t deserve it. Then it doesn’t matter what you’re eating, it just matters to be sharing a meal. Because that’s when the grace peeks through. It’s not the aged Chateaubriand that redeems, it’s the communion.
We played cards that night, the three of us, and laughed at jokes, and told some old stories. Maybe I had changed, or the world had changed around me. It’s often hard to pin down the moments when wounds start to heal. But there is love and grace in a shared meal, if you’re open to it. You just need to know where to look.
She had close-cropped gray hair in a pixie cut. A large woman with broad facial features, her skin tones made me wonder if she was Native American.
I often wondered how long her hair would have been, if she'd let it go. How black straightness could've contrasted against her pastel yellow dress, if time hadn't eroded the darkness.
Every Saturday for years, she was wearing that uniform. Standard waitress attire complete with apron and name tag, "Sue," it read in cheap white plastic. I always wished it had said Alice, or maybe Vera, like from Mel's Diner.
Green memo pad in hand, she'd take our order after bringing him a coffee and me a sweet tea.
"After so many Saturday breakfasts together, I don't even know why I write it down," she said more than once. "I should know what you want by now." She'd smile, and there'd be a gummy, pink glistening where her top two teeth should have been.
Her smile was infectious, even for the old man across from me.
We didn't talk much, ever. Our weekly routine was no exception.
I'd usually have a novel with me. I'd read it on the way to town and as we sat in the booth together, waiting for our meal.
He never asked me about my books.
He never asked me about much, really.
I'd wait to begin turning the pages until after I'd placed my order. He'd get the special, $2.65. Two eggs, any style. Over medium. Two pieces of white toast with apple jelly. Grits. Two strips of bacon. He'd switch it up every now and then and ask for some slices of tomato, and Sue would bring that out on a side plate.
Always black coffee.
He drank Sanka at home. He never ran the percolator after my grandmother died.
That was her machine. He made due with the instant.
I often ordered a western omelette.
A dainty man usually sat opposite the aisle from us, in the olive green vinyl booths. I heard he was a university professor, and that he walked to the diner every day. He would always have his face buried in the paper.
He kept his own jar of sugar free jelly at the restaurant. Diabetes, Sue said. He never spoke to us, unless nodding hello or goodbye counted.
We stayed to our side of the dining room, at Table Number Six, one of the high backed wooden booths. Our seatcushions matched the vinyl of his side of the divide.
Olive, or maybe avocado, was a popular color when that place was redecorated sometime long before Carter left Atlanta for a bigger house in Washington.
The floor was weathered and worn; some of the tiles had actually been eroded by the tides of countless shuffling feet coming in and going out. In some places, what once was white had drifted into a chalky black; buffing and waxing were never a priority at the Grill.
Along the walls, framed photographs of football teams hung. They were faded and some were askew; once vibrant prints had rippled to watercolor hues. Looking at them was like hearing almost-familiar lyrics; I knew I should have known the places and the people.
They weren't my places, and they weren't my people.
But they could have been.
The portraits started along one wall, near the front door of the restaurant. They hung over the high backed booths, almost jammed on top of one another in a semi-straight line that ran the length of the old wood paneling, all the way to the back door. Football teams in uniform were posing, year after year. They started off as children, and the frames grew as the players did, ultimately featuring nearly-grown men posing as undefeated State Champions. Interspersed between the team photos were countless framed newspaper clippings.
Fewer pictures hung above the forest of avocado vinyl booths. The portraits were a man's life story, from boy to champion, told in group photos and newspaper articles. A man's success, from star player to team coach, with a pause for time spent studying abroad in Southeast Asia wearing a different kind of uniform.
An actual trophy sat on the counter next to a manual NCR. It reached skyward among packs of Hubba Bubba and Juicy Fruit. Not a spec of dust discolored its golden shine. Ceiling tiles almost touched the crown of the thing, but they dared not.
The owner's son, from little league to high school through college, had gone on to become the head coach for the very same team with whom he'd won so many years ago.
Instead of putting the trophy in a case at the school, he'd brought it to his father, the small business owner who'd supported him and made it all possible.
His dad always ran the register, and he always did the cooking. A tall man with a white crew cut and glasses, his hair matched his pants, shirt, and apron. Marlboro reds were rolled in the short sleeve of his right arm. Like my grandfather, he was part of The Greatest Generation, but Mr. Webb smiled more.
Every Saturday, he'd ask how my Pop's garden was doing. How the breakfast was. How we thought the Team would do this year. How the Team was doing. How the Team did last night.
Sometimes, my grandfather would laugh at a joke the man would share.
How easy it seemed, watching my Granpa talk to that stranger-who-was-not-quite-a-stranger.
How easy it was to turn the page in my novel.
How hard it was to know the man I had breakfast with every Saturday.
How difficult it is to almost know more about the journey of that cook's son, as told in weathered photographs, than I do about that man who lived next door to me for so much of my life.
We didn't talk much.
We never will.
How do you define ‘family’?
Having gotten used to being confined to my room while my parents wordlessly watched on TV whatever my dad had chosen for the day, to say I felt uncomfortable when my boyfriend told me we had to leave his room to have dinner with his family would be an understatement. Forced to sit down and actually talk to people instead of hiding behind a task, I found that I could be very talkative indeed. When I found myself looking forward to dinner, my heart hurt for all the dinners I would have to eat without family when I went back.
Too Bourgeoisie for my Blood!
On the eve of her 6 year anniversary, my sister let me tag along with her and her husband to a reservation at a restaurant with three Michelin stars, which usually means "exceptional cuisine that is worth a special journey." You can imagine that the restaurants location in the heart of Paris France likely meant it had earned those stars ten times over.
I had been nervous about having room in my stomach for an eight course meal that I had no say over, but the first thing they did was hand me a glass of red wine the size of my head. It really took the edge off. The first course to come out had only a mouthful of something squishy with some fancy sauce and garnish. Apparently, it was some kind of giant squid egg. The smell was mouthwatering. I scarfed it down trying not to cringe at the texture. The flavors evolved from sweet to tart and savory as I chewed.
It was delicious, but it was only enough to make me more hungry. They didn't bring out anything (except more wine because: France) for 15 minutes after we finished the morsels. The next two courses consisted warm truffle wraps and some kind of salty mousse. Yummy and unique, but again not nearly enough.
My French brother in law signaled for some more wine. I didn't want to embarrass him even though I was getting lightheaded, so I let the waiter fill my glass all the way up. After one (or was two?) more unsatisfying tease of a meal, they brought out the main course-- a delicacy the likes of which I had never tasted -- banana foie gras. It sounds utterly disgusting, but it tastes like heavenly butter babies soaked in silky wonderful.
For real, I'm a horrible person for eating it. In the months that followed, I learned things and actually became a vegetarian out of guilt because it's actually pretty messed up what they do to ducks to make it. Jamming fat down their throats till their livers can't take anymore. So don't go trying it if you want to keep your conscience clear. That little culinary ecstasy isn't worth it... But I have yet to find anything of comparable delectability.
To be fair though, I was almost certainly the drunkest I'd ever been in my life trying to keep up with a natural born Frenchman drinking fine wine. The last few courses were a blur of strawberry sweetness and frothy chocolate with coffee. (And more wine; do they not have water in France?)
My sister laughed as she half carried me back to their tiny apartment in a state of giddy intoxication that was as close as I've ever been to blackout drunk.
Unfortunately, I coughed up the exotic assortment of hyper-rich foods later that night making that meal hands down the best, worst, and least fulfilling of my life. But also the best travel story.
Every season has its flavor. Winter is a rich beefy stew; spring is sweet strawberries in cream. Each season’s harvest brings nostalgia for the tastes of childhood.
For me, summer brings some of the best food memories of my childhood. Everywhere we lived my grandmother would plant a garden. No matter what else she planted there were three things she always cultivated: tomatoes, basil, and zucchini. Summer was bounded by how long these ingredients graced our table.
The zucchini plants were especially precious to us for they provided two crops. They not only supplied squash but also the blossoms. It was a special day when grandmother harvested enough blossoms for us to enjoy.
One summer I invited some of my friends to share this treat. I remember my grandmother placing the platter filled with fried zucchini and fried zucchini blossoms in the middle of the table.
“You eat flowers?” asked one.
“They are delicious” I said as I grab one and bit into it.
Another friend picked one up. She gingerly nibbled on the edge and made a face. She stood there holding it, not sure what to do. My mother came to her rescue. She held out her hand for the girl to return it and said, “you don’t have to eat any if you don’t want to.”
After they left my grandmother comforted me. She said, “some things we just shouldn’t share with Americans.”
After that zucchini blossoms remained something we kept within the family. I never invited any friend over to try it. After leaving home I never encountered them. It became just another childhood memory; something that was part of the past.
One day when I was hosted a group of friends and my brother showed up with a large bag of blossoms.
“Do you think we can recreate them?”
We talked through our collective memory of the batter. I knew it had cold club soda, he remembered it had an egg and we both presumed cayenne pepper had to be in the mix. We mixed together 1 cup of flour, 1 cup of club soda, 1 egg, some salt and cayenne. We gingerly dipped the blossoms into the batter and then fried them in a skillet. In a little more than a minute they were that delicate golden brown we remembered.
We arranged them on a platter which I placed in the middle of the table. I saw my friend’s children’s eyes light up.
“You eat flowers?” the older one asked.
“Yes, they are delicious.”
I watch both grab a flower and eagerly bite into it. They devoured those and had a few more. We all joined in and soon all the blossoms were gone. My brother and I were pleased. We had reclaimed a lost flavor of our childhood.
A few days later my friend called to thank me for the cookout.
“The kids have been bragging to all their friends about eating fried flowers.”