Saturday, January 23, 2010

Five memorable meals and what they taught me

My coworkers and I have this little tradition going called the Culinary Club, where we rotate hosting each month and teach the others how to cook our best dishes. Our core competencies cover Italian, Indian, and Cajun, with a healthy dose of "let's make something new" bravura to keep it interesting.

But the real intent of the evening is not the wine (though divine) and not the free homecooked meal (though appreciated). The club is a collective memory in the making, a standing reminder of all the good food that got us to this point and all the good cooking that will sustain us going forward.

We got to talking about this very idea last night, about how even if you're not an avowed foodie, meals can leave mile markers in your life. Which started me down my own epicurean memory lane with five distinct pit stops.

Some center of the food. Others center on the people. But they are all delicious. And I bet you have some to share too ...

1. "Wait, There's More?" -- Florence

I didn't know the meaning of feast before I ate this meal. It was my family's first night in Florence. All we knew was that "you have to eat at Il Latini," according to my friend Michael. So we made reservations, bypassed the line stretching around the block, and sat in a section of long wooden tables, surrounded by other diners.

What transpired was an endless banquet (I think we counted 14 courses). We didn't even order anything; the waiters just started bringing out food. When we thought we could eat no more, a new aroma or sauce enticed us to make room. (The gallon of wine we chugged also helped.)

Night fell outside, the din in the room increased, and pretty soon we were part of a rollicking, boisterous food extravaganza with everyone soused out of their mind and scarfing down food like it was their last chance.

The dish I remember best: white beans in a light marinara sauce. That's it. Nothing fancy. But oh, the way it smelled! Like rosemary and garlic and home. I could eat that dish for the rest of my life and never be lonely again.

2. Muffaletta Me At It -- New Orleans

I was helping Habitat for Humanity build homes in Slidell, La., the spring of my junior year of college. We took Friday off to cruise New Orleans and see what all the fuss was about. My group and I ended up at this little hole-in-the-wall I can't recall the name of, not too far from St. Louis Cathedral in the French Quarter.

I ordered a muffaletta. I'd never had one before. And I don't think I'll ever recapture the experience again, unless I find a way to approximate the level of crack in that olive mix. Plus, I don't practice voodoo or play jazz, and I'm sure both were required to concoct those unique flavors.

I ate the whole damn thing. By myself.

3. You Say Frittata, I Say Jumbata -- Syracuse, NY

Syracuse is not known for its cuisine, just its Orangemen. So I relied on my own knowledge and meager food budget to feed myself through college. Eventually, many friends came to rely on me too, because I was one of the few folks who regularly food shopped and remembered to buy such exotic items as "eggs."

No surprise then, that six hungry college boys -- all friends from church -- arrived at my kitchen table one late night, lured by the promise of a homemade frittata. I delivered on that promise too, by dumping the entire contents of my fridge into one pan and serving it with great enthusiasm.

A dozen and a half eggs, three veggies, 2 kinds of cheese, and some questionable meat later, I learned that watching people relish a meal I made for them was a sure recipe for my future happiness. I also learned that the way to men's hearts is not only through their stomach, but through their wallets too.

4. Spoonfeeding Sans Spoon -- somewhere on a highway in the snow

My boyfriend at the time and I had just left visiting his parents to make the four-hour drive back to school. It was already late when we left. Then a snowstorm hit. We were in the car so long we got hungry again.

Luckily, we had leftover chicken parmigiana in a doggy bag from the restaurant we'd just departed ... but no utensils. So while he gripped the wheel and watched the road, I tore apart the chicken with my hands and fed it to him sideways, all the while thinking that desperate times call for hilarious measures.

I'm pleased to report we made it home in one piece with nary a sauce stain.

5. "You Have Something In Your Teeth ..." -- Washington D.C.

I was on my first job interview in DC with a tight timeframe, seeing as I was traveling round-trip from Philly in one day. Yet meetings at my potential employer's were delayed. I had no lunch. So they sent me over to the Daily Grill with orders to eat a nice meal and bring the receipt back.

It had started to snow outside. The restaurant was packed with the lunch crowd. I sat by myself in my big-girl business suit. I ordered tomato soup and salad, even though they carried great risk of a) staining my outfit and b) getting stuck in my teeth.

I ate it slowly, watching the snow fall and listening to DC natives chatter. I pictured myself living here (in DC, not in the Daily Grill). By the time I finished, I felt fortified. I could see myself here. I wanted to be here.

So I went back to the office and landed the job. But only after checking my teeth for spinach.

What's your most memorable meal, and why?

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