A fair number of folks on Facebook these days are sharing the 10 books that have stayed with them throughout their lives. I don’t mind and I don’t judge anyone’s entirely genuine and not-at-all-engineered lists, but as an English major there is no way to create that list without coming off like an insufferable talking tweed jacket. I mean Ulysses would be on my list. Seriously. The book haunts my waking life and it’s largely because I hate most of it but keep rereading the damn thing to try to figure it out. My bookshelves are clogged with annotated guides, and deconstructions and reconstructions and I’ve touched the door at No. 7 Eccles Street in Dublin like Ouisa Kittredge high-fiving God on the Sistine Chapel. So at this point it’s fair to say that it’s a book that has “stayed with me” even as I’ve hurled it across a room. Come at me, haters.
But in an effort to avoid literary induced violence, I thought I’d try my hand at creating a totally new type of list: The 10 meals that have stayed with me. Not literally of course; that would be gross. What surprised me while considering this list is that only a few of them are on here because they were at a specific, ballyhooed restaurant. The majority were about the mood, not the meal. In no particular order, they are as follows.
* Tasting menu at Le Bernardin, New York City, 2014. By myself, with a book. Eric Ripert’s culinary temple was on my bucket list and I suddenly found myself alone in the city with spare time one night while already dressed up from an event. “Why not,” I thought? It ended up being a spectacular decision, albeit one that cost approximately $3 per minute. Got free dessert later that night though when I joined two older gentlemen who’d struck up a conversation with me from the neighboring table. “Nobody who pre-orders souffle from La Grenouille could be a murderer,” I thought before taking the serendipitous leap and joining them. Fun night, nobody got murdered and I probably only vaguely came off like a culinary call girl. It was the most uncharacteristic thing I’ve ever done and the universe was chill about that on that night.
* Homemade taco dinner at my place in Adams Morgan, 2006. A perfect, warm, breezy summer night getting to know a new friend at the time, Johanna. We sat on the balcony that was more like a beefed-up fire escape, with the brick walls of the neighboring buildings rising up around us like Rear Window’s establishing shot. We listened to Amy Winehouse’s recently released Back to Black on constant repeat, our dogs at our feet, dishing for hours and the whole time it was “yayyy, new friend!”
* New family dinner, hospital room, 2009. It’s a tradition at the hospital where I gave birth to our daughter to do a special meal for the new parents. Above-average hospital dinner and sparkling cider plus a pledge that the approximately 148 residents, interns and admins normally coming through the room like Grand Central Station wouldn’t bother you for 30 minutes. I don’t remember what we ate – other than an amuse-bouche of painkillers for me — but I do remember that it was awfully interesting to have a new dining companion. I didn’t even mind that she was sleeping and drooling, which I normally consider rude from my dinner guests.
* Backyard bbq, Labor Day 2003, West Palm Beach, Fla., at the home of friends Mary Ellen and David. I didn’t know anyone well yet, having arrived only a few months earlier to work at the paper, so I cheerfully accepted the invite from my reporter colleague Mary Ellen and her husband. Their beautiful Spanish-style, very West Palm Beach-y home was the heart and homebase for many Palm Beach Post folks, the site of frequent parties with a bohemian flare and a menu to match. Turns out on this particular night, when they pulled together about five or six friends for a casual dinner, there was plotting afoot. Because they very specifically and deliberately invited one of the newspaper’s crime reporters, too…
* 19th birthday dinner, Kinkead’s in D.C., 1996. Oddly enough I don’t remember much about what I ate — pepper crusted fish of some sort was involved — but I remember vividly the navy and green plaid skirt and navy blue v-neck sweater I was wearing to visit the now-shuttered institution with my parents for my 19th birthday. Making conversation that night with my parents and enjoying the dinner, I remember feeling very, very mature and very, very #ThisTown before I even knew what that was. I was neither, for the record. Ultimately, I’m pretty sure that meal gave me food poisoning because I spent the next day throwing up uncontrollably, but it’s still on this list because it was really hard to get a reservation there in those days.
* Oysters and champagne, New York City, summer of 1997. Yes, if you do the math or remember the date from the item above, I would have been underage. Let’s move on. So there I am in New York City for the summer with a Harper’s Bazaar magazine internship and an editor who was a nice, chic fairy godmother. She’d rescued me from what was then the viperous bitchpit of the fashion features department, staffed by terrifying mean girls who in retrospect were likely all of 22 or 23 and living five to a one-bedroom apartment. Anyhoo, this editor took me under her elegant, Calvin Klein-sheathed minimalist wing and into her one-woman design features department. She would tote me along to gallery openings in the evening, and on this one particular night, the toting was to a gallery where we met the Beastie Boys, because one of them had taken an interest in obscure vintage pottery. (I have no idea either. Don’t ask.) Then we decamped to the Village and I had my first oysters and drank champagne and we made our tipsy way back up to midtown on the backs of bicycles peddled by God knows who. That was pretty much Peak Cool for me.
* Cornbread with honey and fried alligator at Southern Culture, Charlottesville, Va., 1994. I’m pretty sure this restaurant is long gone but it was an upscale Southern cooking, must-do hotspot when I visited UVA as a high school junior on my tour of potential colleges. After years traveling the South as a kid, this was my first time exploring it as a soon-to-be-adult and I was considering whether I wanted to live there or head north. I still remember the way the late afternoon light came into that place and refracted across the table when it hit the honey, stored in a plastic bear for irony’s sake. That dinner and that night helped confirm my belief that the whole laid-back, southern eclectic thing was what I wanted to be a part of in the coming years. Also, biscuits. I wanted sun-drenched, butter-and-irony honey-covered biscuits.
* Goat cheese mousse on homemade cracker perched atop citrus salad, Fiola, 2014. We were celebrating my recent promotion. Snow was falling outside. I still fantasize about this dish. To quote Liz Lemon, “I want to go to there.”
* Tea at The Plaza, Lattes in Orlando, 1990-1994. When you’re lucky enough to have two siblings way older than you, they serve as your sherpas to a cooler life and as an added bonus, they foot the bill. So it was that in the space of these years, when I was a teenager, that I first headed up to visit my sister in New York and she took me for a sumptuous high tea at The Plaza. And while I thought I was quite fancy, I wasn’t talented enough to fake being fancy through an entire pot of bitter tea, so I insisted on a silver pot of hot chocolate instead. There were scones with clotted cream and little cakes and by the end, I was likely in a sugar coma but I felt like tween Eloise. And then a few years later, I visited my brother and sister-in-law in Orlando and they took me to a decidedly hip coffee house and I ordered my first latte that came in a mug the size of my head. I poured a half cup of sugar into it and nodded knowingly as we listened to whatever early grunge or poetry slam thing was unfolding in front of us. Reality Bites had just come out, Singles was a couple years out, and it was like we were in these movies, people.
* Lobster bisque in little porcelain teacups, the Hay-Adams’ Lafayette Room, Oct. 25, 2008. It was all grey, gloomy rain outside and glowing and soft inside. My brother came over to my table and pointed out that we were playing Radiohead’s “Weird Fishes” at that particular moment and that he loved that. Scott and I were particularly dressed up on this occasion for some reason. Utter glee. The bisque was delicious.
Aw, screw it, here’s my 10 books anyway: Ulysses (We’ve gone over this. Stuff it.), Little House in the Big Woods, The End of the Affair, Sunset Gun, The Bonfire of the Vanities, The Great Gatsby, Gone With the Wind, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, All the Presidents Men, Cash: The Autobiography.