Meals as Measuring Sticks

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img_8492As I was flipping through some writing prompts, one caught my eye: write about the best meals of your life.

I’ve worked in restaurant since I was 15, so food has always been a large part of my life. There are meals that I can claim were the best or that I would maybe ask for as my last but really, some meals were mile markers, touchstones in my career that signified transitions. These are the most memorable meals to me; the ones that showed me what food can do. Some less spectacular than others but the most significant meals that have paved the way for my palate and my path.

  1. Spaghetti with butter and cheese, Massachussetts: I know, simple right? But it was a staple. It is the only meal I remember from my childhood. My Dad made it. We saw him every Wednesday night and Saturday. For lunch, we would have salami sandwiches, for supper spaghetti. My brother and I would set the table and my Dad would bring in our plates piled with tangles of the stuff, the slab of butter tossed on each portion wouldn’t be quite melted yet. I remember it would often still be light out. I remember the steam rising off it and how warm and comforting it was for something so plain. How it became a sort of symbol in my memory of the three of us together. Family.

2. Chicken Tagine, Morocco: This was my first major traveling experience and really my first introduction to how other cultures share meals. I was nineteen and totally lost emotionally and in my life. Morocco was completely out of my comfort zone, exotic in every sense of the word. It was humbling how unfamiliar everything was to me, how little I could navigate the language and the streets but enough that allowed me to open my eyes and learn. I admired how all the food was largely made from scratch- the piles of spices, dried fruit, barrels of produce at the stalls in the cramped pathways of the Bazaar, how the women sat picking rocks from rice or delicately pinching dough for briouets, how every meal was shared around a table from one large family bowl.  So, for this meal, we sat around the cooked bird pulling meat off bones when I noticed one of the boys, Moued, had created a small pile of white meat near me. Once I noticed this, I looked up at him and before I could actually question him he said “you like the white meat, right? Eat.” This meal is one of my favorites because it was the meal that showed me that food is culture, it is community. It’s sharing.

3. Jaleo, Washington DC: DC was really my introduction into the serious food industry. I had worked all angles of a restaurant up until this point but really just for the money never because I was interested in chefs or food or where it came from. When I got to DC, I realized amateur hour was over. These servers knew about wine, pairings, where their products were coming from and the people who were making them. They knew the stories and delighted in telling them. I was bartending in a restaurant way out of my league hustling to study menus that were basically a foreign language to me and working with distributors of boutique liquors I had barely heard of. My roommates were also in the industry but with a different chef. One day, my roommate Z took me to her restaurant Jaleo. We wanted lunch on her 50% deal. There were savory pork belly tacos, bright citrusy ceviche, sweet candied grasshoppers, the most indulgent mexican chocolate flourless cake. The chef on duty came out to say hello and told me all about the trip he took to get the chocolate, the woman who took him for his ingredients who is “basically the Julia Child of Mexico”, the tequila fields, the adventure that eventually led to this food on this plate. This meal, among many meals I had in DC made me realize the thoughtfulness and work that goes into food. Menus and plates are conceptualized, designed, created and then polished. This experience made me realize food is also an adventure, an adventure I wanted to be a part of.

4. Bass Fishing. Woodshole, MA. I got to Woodshole on a bus from South Station. This was when I was working as a journalist and I was being sent to investigate the MA fishing industry, how new quotas were affecting small time fishermen and their communities. Captain John Galvin met me at the port and that night we slept on a boat he was looking after. Fishing began at 4am the next day. John and Nat are hook and line fishermen. They were born into it, grew up doing it. They’re veterans, sea cowboys; they know the spots and want to get there first. So, there is me, with my obnoxiously large camera being pelted with rain holding on for dear life as we skimmed the tips of the current through the sun rising and a storm. When we stopped they set up four lines and the fish didnt stop biting. One after the other they would reel in, four at a time, bang bang bang, it was incredible. We couldn’t have been out there more than half an hour before we filled the cooler and headed back to shore. The grill was already going, Nat’s sister was inside baking. Nat gut the fish and tossed them on the grill. A circus of friends arrived filtering in and out of the kitchen dropping off dishes and tupperware filled with homegrown stewed vegetables, bowls of dark frilly greens, sauces and chutneys. As dinner was served and we all sat around the table, I was introduced, welcomed and questioned by gardeners who made our salad from their latest harvest, hunt and game officials who brought their newest chutneys, other fishermen carting in boxes of beer and their latest catch, all different kinds of people around one table with the same story: this is their livelihood and it needs to be protected. This is the meal where I realized the arms of the food industry stretch far and wide, from family and friends, to my community, your community, cities and beyond. The effects of this and these people are so, so, so important. It’s their work, our food, and our environment.

 

5. Buxton Hall BBQ. Asheville, NC:

Kelly and I worked in a dive bar in Savannah, GA shucking oysters for a living and pouring pitchers of cheap draft beer. We both eventually moved out of this city to another but remained in the industry. While I was in DC, she had been making a name for herself in Asheville on the craft cocktail scene. I had read about and attended pop-up dinners and was hoping to bring that to the Upper Valley. They seemed like fun, creative, vibrant ways to show off what you can really do when your team isn’t chained to a certain style and the opportunities to design a menu with local products is much more manageable when being prepared only for one night. Plus, I do always love a theme party. Kelly and the Jim Beam team invited me down to her restaurant Buxton Hall in Asheville to guest bartend their latest event. I had never done anything like it before but the thought of collaborating with other industry folk to put good food and good cocktails in front of people thrilled me.

Our welcome meal at Buxton was a feast true to the hardcore southern BBQ style of the south I had in seen in pictures of prior pop ups: a table sized chopping block piled with all the meats. There was fried chicken, fried catfish, two different kinds of wings, pork rinds, potato salad, pickles, slaw. Asheville takes its BBQ seriously. It’s also got this sort of shoot-from-the-hip food culture where bartenders and chefs alike show up and show down. They aren’t there to just cook or just make drinks, they want to show off what they can do. They want to play.

This was the meal that quite literally gave me my first taste of what type of food scene I wanted to be a part of and what type of bartender I wanted to be.  One full of enthusiasm and creativity, always wanting to know the next upcoming thing, hand cutting ice with samurai precision, grabbing something at the farmers market and then put it on a menu. Using food sourcing programs to helping change and reform my community. I want to work with the tinkerers, the tasters, the shakers, the change-makers

I may have come late to the scene but I arrived so that now maybe my menus can inspire someone or atleast surprise them.

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