At the end of each year as I think back to high points of the past twelve months, I love to remember food. It’s so ephemeral – a combination of ingredients, many of which are lovely and memorable because of their peak ripeness that has the soil, the weather, and the grower for which to be thankful. Although many favorite food moments occurred while standing at the kitchen sink with a peach in hand or a hunk of watermelon, the ones that I want to try to capture and hold just a bit of their sweetness for memory, were meals shared with others. Five meals. Five acts. In no hierarchy.
I) Two meals come from the trip that Bella and I took to Northern California last spring. There is always good food in California; it’s one of the delights of going there. For our first few days, we stayed with cousins – Michele and Tim in their Haigh Ashbury apartment. My one request was for Chinese food, a rare treat for this Iowan and something I came to love during the years I lived in Seattle. On our first morning in town, Tim took us to a friend’s bakery. We got some awesome goodies – a cornmeal, cherry scone was particularly delicious – and drove to the beach where we sat in the car as the rain drizzled onto the windows and watched the ocean. We got out and explored the Sutro Baths – an abandoned urban fitness project of yore – and then headed to Tim’s office. He works for a nonprofit that protects Pacific coast fishing from environmental hazards. He started there as an intern in law school and inherited the directorship when the guy who had founded the nonprofit decades ago suddenly passed away. Tim now has an office in a Park Service building that is literally as close to the Golden Gate Bridge as one can get without working on the bridge itself. It’s dusty and musty and charmingly blue collar. Pkcing through the multitude of boxes that the packrat former director had stashed around the building, we picked out old tshirts to take home: “Save the Salmon” and “Protect Our Waters.” By now, it was arguably lunch and we’d arguably digested the croissants and coffee cake, so we headed up and over and around the western edge of San Francisco, until we landed at a small white storefront on one of those uniquely wide and kind of desolate San Francisco streets. As soon as we added ourselves to the queue in front, a man came outside and took our order. Soup dumplings, pea shoots, fried rice for Bella, who had never had an authentic Chinese dining experience, and more. By the time we got a table in the spare second room – a fan running in one corner, despite the chill that had us all stay in our coats, a lazy Susan in the center with the little silver condiment containers – the steaming soup bowls arrived. I can’t remember everything, but I do know that those pea shoots tasted more vibrant than anything I’ve eaten in a long time. They were so green, so fresh, so tender! By meal’s end, Bella was a full convert to Chinese food. And we were ready to for an afternoon at the Oscar de la Renta exhibit at the de Young Museum (which was its own kind of tasty).
II) After three days of solid rain and damp chill in the city – I now have new appreciation for the Grateful Dead’s lyrics “walking around in the Mission in the rain” – we made our way to Pt. Reyes, and the sun pushed its way through the clouds. The next three days were full of sun, as we drove our convertible Mustang through hyper green fields. “This looks so much like Ireland!” I exclaimed to Bella again and again, to the point where she started saying it too, despite never having been to Ireland. On our first morning, we woke up in the still empty Pt. Reyes Hostel (unbeknownst to us, the very large elderly singles hiking group wouldn’t arrive until that afternoon) and filled a backpack with some light snacks, Bella’s art supplies, and water bottles, and made for my favorite Fire Lane Trail. A 1/2-foot wide stream of water ran down the center of much of the length of the trail. It was warm and fresh, having just fallen the day before, so I rolled up my jeans and went barefoot. Along the way, we encountered tiny irises, a toad, and fine-laced spider webs — dainty beauties compared to the sea lion, dolphins, and elk we’d later encounter. After more than an hour of walking, we arrived at The Tree – the grand coastal oak that rests in my daily imagination, the tree that I could not wait to introduce Bella to. We took turns on the rope swing before making our way to the beach. Eventually, we found a spot high on a bluff where Bella sketched and I meditated. By the time we got back to the hostel, it was mid-afternoon – an odd time for lunch, but we were starving. We drove into town, where the Station House restaurant did not disappoint. Bella went all out – burger, fries, and a milkshake, while I had steamed mussels fragrant with wine and garlic and a half glass of Chardonnay. The hike, the sun, the sea, and most of all the time with Bella made a quotidian meal taste sublime.
III) Last April, Chris and I decided we had seen too little of each other and headed to Chicago for a weekend get away. It was my favorite kind of trip — nothing specific planned, lots of walking, lots of sitting and staring. I particularly remember sprawling out on the spring grass near Lake Michigan and making a blanket of sorts with our coats and sweaters and taking a nap as joggers and bikers went by. It was that early spring day that announced that you could finally take a deep sigh; everything would be okay . But the day before when we’d arrived had been a different story – classic Chicago. Big winds. Biting cold. I went out and bought a hat and socks – not the first time in my life I’ve purchased cold weather clothing in the spring in Chicago. I went to a yoga class and Chris met me afterwards. We decided that despite no reservations, we’d try our luck at The Girl and the Goat, one of the most award-winning restaurants in town. It was so early that perhaps we’d get lucky. Arriving just before 5:00 pm, there was already a line. The hostess said we could stand in the bar area – the seats at the bar were already claimed – and if a spot opened at the bar, we could eat there. Otherwise, she gave us a pager and said to expect a table in two to three hours. “How do you know the order of who has first dibs at the bar?” I naively asked. She gave me a half smile and said “Whoever gets there first.” So we staked our territory toward the far end of the bar, and started the process of wondering at the staying power of those seated in front of us who already had half-drunk glasses of wine and place settings at the ready. I ordered something sparkling, Chris had beer, and within the first ten minutes of our wait, we were befriended by a younger couple in trench coats. At first, they were just surmising our position. With their clean, professional looks and those coats, they had a spy-like quality to them and I wasn’t too friendly – we were all pitted against each other for those few spots. After another quarter of an hour passed, with no movement by the patrons at the bar and more newcomers crowding around us, all trying to look cool while simultaneously keeping an eye on every move at the bar, the couple offered us free drinks. They had gift certificates to the restaurant and it was more than they could spend. They were optometrists – he working up in Logan Square and she commuting to her family’s business in Indiana – who lived nearby and ate here fairly often. It reminded me of my pre-kid days in Seattle when my Microsoft income and unscheduled evenings let me eat out a lot. (And yes, I sometimes kick myself for not saving that money, but I also do not regret some very lovely meals.) They chatted up a group of three at the bar and figured out that the trio was leaving soon. Without hesitation, the optometrists insisted that the space would be ours – as newcomers and guests to the city. And so it was. What followed was divine. Especially the cauliflower. Yes, we ordered many dishes with unique ingredients and spice combinations. There was more than a strong dash of Indian, but I seem to recall sauerkraut making an appearance, too. Most memorable of all, however, was that cauliflower. Buttery. Pickly. Spicy. I could have eaten two orders. After milking every second of our prized spot, our bellies full and a bit too much of the sparkly in our heads, we braved the cold and walked briskly all the way back to our hotel. It was more than a half hour of fast walking straight into the wind – making me very grateful of the investment I’d made earlier on socks and a hat – but it seemed just the thing to outline the splendor of the meal.
IV. August. I’m in New York en route to a yoga retreat and I get to spend two days with my dear friend Mary. It’s hot. Like ridiculously, over the top, record-setting, humidity drenched, wickedly warm. Mary has graciously come up with a list of outdoor outings for us, knowing that I’m still smarting from the canceled family vacation to Colorado a few weeks before. Kayaking, hiking, and cycling are all on her list. But it’s so damn hot that we sit around and watch the Olympics and talk. On the second day, we decide to get out of the house. I’m looking for a few Indian-inspired accoutrements for my trip, and so we get online and find some shops and restaurants that all seem to be in the same Long Island suburb – the unlikely “Hicksville.” Mary, a native of Long Island, has been there – even lived in that area – but it’s been years. With an eye toward the address that Google produced, we navigate a strip of four-lane road and quickly realize that it’s one Indian place after another – grocery stores, henna salons, restaurants. In a super market that rivals mine at home for square feet, an entire side of one long aisle is filled with sacks of different kinds of flour. In a smaller shop, I come very close to buying was is likely a 75-pound statue of Kali, but thinking of the flight home, I resist. The shop is attached to a restaurant. It’s filled with people who look like they know their Indian food. Mary and I do not, and are accordingly seated at the very back of the restaurant. We enlist the waiter for help and he politely, if not entirely patiently, guides us toward several choices, both of which are mind blowingly good. Again, there’s The Most Memorable Dish, and here it’s without a doubt the onion tomato chili uthappam. Thin, crispy, filled with spices that my mouth didn’t know it was yearning for … I am in strip mall heaven. I don’t care that I’m sweating. I don’t care that when we return to the car, the thermometer reads 106. I don’t care.
V. One home cooked meal. Simple and unforgettably nourishing. In May, there was what you might call a Disturbance in the Force of our marriage. For more than a month, everything felt way too raw and way too on the brink. At the beginning of this period, before I’d started to attune my own Jedi Strength toward self care, I traveled to Big Sur to assist my teacher Jovinna for a workshop. I was met at the airport by my friend Nanette, who kindly drove the rental car down the coast and listened to my woes. Along the way, we stopped at ate at a Whole Foods and got to Jovinna’s house after dark. We saw the tiny one-room cabin where she lives but couldn’t see that it is perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. It was such a relief when morning came. In Jovinna’s tiny cabin, we sat and talked over steaming mugs of tea, pulling cards from a deck. These are a bit like fortune telling cards – with pictures and symbols and stories. The first card that I pulled showed a burning tower with people leaping to their deaths from its height and others writhing on the ground. The moment she saw the card, Jovinna’s face fell and then she erupted in laughter: “You can pull another one.” “No! That’s my card! I claim it!” Its story was all about life changing – destruction of old ways, burning into oblivion, and the possibility for the new. Over the weekend, I pulled some version of this card repeatedly. In the bookshop at Esalen, at a noontime dance event, at the entrance to our workshop. Over and over: Destruction and rebirth. In next month, I’d pull this card a total of 19 times. … After the morning tea and card readings, we went about the business of readying for the workshop. Jovinna reviews her plans. Nanette and I make suggestions but mainly just try to be supportive of the upcoming event. By noon, there’s a need to eat. Jovinna lives many miles of winding coastal highway from a grocery store. You sense that any food in her cabin is especially dear because it’s arrived there with much more careful planning than most of the food in my house. She has a small, dorm-sized fridge, and a two-burner gas stove top. The space is precarious in its tininess. But the payoff is great – a front seat view of the Pacific ocean. We wait as Jovinna takes a container of soup from the fridge and heats it up. She has been telling us about her mother, who passed away last year back home in Singapore, and this is her recipe. The aroma saturates the Hobbit-like space and within minutes we each receive a bowl filled with broth and chicken. It is like no other chicken soup I’ve had before, specked with gogi berries and threaded with ginger, the bones floating in the broth. It is rich, ancient, earthy. I have sensed that Jovinna is magical, but this soup confirms it. Despite the cards. Despite my midnight panic attacks. Despite the fact that the future, which once felt secure (so foolish to ever think such a thing!) now feels perilous, I know that I am nurtured. Below us, the Pacific sweeps in and out, in and out, her roar a reminder of all the mystery that we spend our 21st century lives denying. And in the bowl, I can almost see all the way to another life.