Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The most memorable meals of my life, in chronological order

1. Staying at some dinky motel in New Mexico with my family and my maternal grandparents, we cooked some kabobs on an outdoor grill: chunks of beef and cherry tomatoes on skewers in some kind of tangy marinade. This is the first food I remember finding unusually delicious, beyond the level of Fruit Roll-Ups and Pudding Pops, and it's one of my first memories period. I must have been four or five.

2. I went to kindergarten and first grade at a little private school called St. Luke's, out in New Mexico farm country. Once a year they did a fundraiser where they sold make-your-own-pizza kits. The resulting pizza was probably pretty lousy in the grand scheme of things, but I truly loved it.

3. On a family trip to San Diego when I was 13 or so, I ordered shrimp tacos at some divey Mexican joint, and they were covered in chopped fresh cilantro, which I may have tasted a couple of times, but certainly not in such quantities. This was before you could buy cilantro just anywhere. It blew my everloving mind. I had no idea what I was eating until later, back in El Paso, when I smelled that taste in the produce section at a grocery store and was stopped in my tracks. (I feel like cilantro isn't that fragrant anymore; I wonder if we use different cultivars now that there's higher demand.)

4. In high school, the gorditas from Pepe's Tamales on Mesa, in the same little strip mall that housed our Blockbuster Video. The crispiest, daintiest little gorditas in history, served in a little paper tray, delicious every time, RIP.

5. Once in college my brother and I stayed in a house on the beach (near Corpus, maybe?) with our friends Robo and Stacey (now married) and Stacey's mother and sister. One night we bought a bag of shrimp fresh off a boat, and I made a batter with a lot of Tony Chachere's (salty Cajun seasoning) and fried them up, and we ate them hot as they came out of the pot. Possibly the best shrimp I've ever had.

6. College again: At Jazz Fest in New Orleans, dripping in sweat, my roommate Kate and I stopped and bought a shrimp po'boy to share from a food stand. Just shrimp in a remoulade sauce with cold shredded iceberg lettuce on French bread. We looked at each other in disbelief as we took our first bites. That sandwich was so fucking good!

7. On my 21st birthday I went to Mark's, a beautiful restaurant built in an old church on Westheimer, and had some kind of carpaccio (tuna, I think, not beef) and seafood risotto garnished with – and this is the most memorable part – the most delicious sliver-thin slices of roasted fennel. This still stands out as maybe the most I've enjoyed a meal at an upscale restaurant.

8. John and I once spontaneously stopped for dinner at Bin 26, an Italian restaurant on Charles Street in Boston, and had an amazing mussel dish. It was just mussels in marinara, but there was a thick slice of grilled bread, that kind of really porous airy peasant bread that gets super crunchy, olive-oiled and almost blackened in spots, sitting on the bottom of the bowl soaking up the sauce, so you could eat it when the mussels were gone. If I could eat real bread one last time, that's the bread I would want. We also had an incredible Cabernet that tasted like coconut. We went back for a birthday or anniversary or something later that year and it wasn't as good, and they were out of the wine.

I'm sure I can think of others, but those are the standouts right now. Some conclusions:
  • I've been to lots of fancy restaurants. Simple foods really are best.
  • A lot of memorable meals occurred in Texas and/or involved shrimp. Of course, you can chalk up the first part to the fact that I lived in TX until I was 22, and we tend to form our most intense memories when we're younger. I still think Texas has better food than most places, though. I don't eat shrimp much anymore because John is allergic to it; also it's just not that great when you're not on the Gulf. Most seafood is flown in from wherever anyway (so it's silly when people are squeamish about eating sushi away from a coast), but shrimp is the one thing I've noticed varies wildly in quality from place to place. I never had exceptional shrimp in Boston. Gulf shrimp may suck now too, in a post-Deepwater world.
  • None of the food I ate during my two weeks in Europe was particularly delicious or memorable. I think you have to spend a lot to eat well in Europe. I mean, you can just buy bread and cheese, but I tend to disagree that random bread and cheese from Europe is any better than random bread and cheese you can get here. I still obviously had an awesome time, but the food was neither here nor there. The food we ate in Spain, in fact, was straight up bad; when we crossed into France, we bought a rotisserie chicken and devoured it like characters in a Goya painting on the floor of our hotel room. For some reason we ate pizza in Monaco. 
  • I think of New York City as a great food city but can't pinpoint a great meal I've had there. Maybe in NYC, as in Europe, you have to spend a lot to get past the abundance of mediocrity. 


  1. A few of the memorable meals I've had (not necessarily in chronological order):

    The first time I ate huevos rancheros, which was a few years back at a Mexican place in Albuquerque on Central Avenue (Route 66). I was there for the Albuquerque Cultural Conference, and several of us gathered for breakfast the morning of the first day.

    Homemade whole wheat pasta made by my friend Jilda, ca. early 1980's, here in Minneapolis, in her kitchen at home. Her family owned Italian restaurants during the years she was growing up. I'm thinking she must have made garlic bread too, but the pasta was so good I can't remember what else we had with it.

    Pancakes with pecans at Al's Breakfast in Minneapolis. It's a tiny funky hole-in-the-wall place near the University campus. A row of about 15 stools at a counter, with room behind the stools for roughly one row of people to stand while they're waiting for a seat. I stood and waited for a seat there some unknown number of times when I was a student at the U. back in the mid-1970's. They made the pancake batter from scratch.

    Walleye caught in one of the lakes in northwestern Minnesota by my grandpa, I can't place a date on it, but I was probably in high school, so early 1970's maybe. Walleye is one of the supreme delicacies in these parts. (You have to be careful eating it, it has many tiny Y-shaped bones that can catch in your throat, and there are likely to be at least a few even when the fish has been filleted well. But that's not even really a drawback, because if you eat it more slowly and carefully you taste it more.)

    A bowl of chili I had (October 1984) in Miles City, Montana, during a lunch stop on a Greyhound bus trip from Seattle to Minneapolis. Nice and spicy (but not so spicy-hot as to obliterate the flavor), and so thick that I could stand my spoon up straight in it.

    Brown rice with onions and mushrooms at someone's apartment in Duluth, Minnesota, summer of 1971, the end of a week when I'd been up there working at a day camp for kids in exchange for room and board. More of a teenage adventure than a summer job. A week away from my parents, my first time getting to be my own adult, with the other camp counselors who were mostly young adult hippie types, several of whom I'd know for a little while in Minneapolis. Much of the ambience of the week in Duluth no doubt contributed to how good the food was, but it was really good brown rice.

    The first time (ca. 1973) I ate veggie tempura. It was at a small Japanese restaurant in Minneapolis near the University campus, with a friend who led me there. It was a flavor and texture unlike anything I'd experienced before.

    Gyros at a Greek place in Minneapolis, sometime early 1980's. The place opened at a busy intersection sometime in the 1970's and it's been there ever since. Seasoned just right, and massive quantities of sliced meat, with the sauce served on the side.

    Feijoada, a Brazilian black bean dish made with sausage and peppers and whatever else and served on top of rice. I had this a few times in the late 1970's. On each occasion it was made by my friends Bob and Alida, both of whom had spent time living in Brazil, they both spoke Portuguese, and knew stuff about the culture. When they would make feijoada, they would get fresh black beans, not canned, and Bob would spend all day with a knife shelling the beans before cooking them.

    And I'll throw my mom's chicken and dumplings into the mix. Of all the food she cooked in her life, it's the chicken and dumplings I miss the most. She got the dumplings just right.

    1. I love huevos rancheros, but love chilaquiles more.

      Does anyone remember when Olive Garden used to serve fresh pasta? How times have changed. My mom had a pasta machine (she is the queen of kitchen gadgets) but I only convinced her to use it about twice.

  2. As much as I dislike Houston, I will admit it has one of the more interesting food scenes around. Certainly better than San Francisco and cheaper too (on the other hand, I still prefer sushi in SF over Houston. No offense to Kubo's and Osaka).

    As for Europe, the best food is homemade. So no, you don't have to spend a lot to eat well.

  3. Oh, and Houston also has better Greek and Turkish food.

    1. Oh, I forgot all about Niko Niko's. So yummy.

      Yeah I don't know anyone in Europe, so no one cooked me stuff. We ate in restaurants.

  4. In Paris I lived (for a short time) on a street croque-monsieur here, a street crêpe there, and later a brioche and a cup of tea with an elegant sleeve of sugar, and later a Kronenbourg...I had a memorable Cote du Rhone on the Champs-Elysees...I just snacked, spending very little, and I was walking all the time, so I probably lost weight, and I had no weight to lose. And all this food was delicious! But then I was always ready to eat the hind leg off a yak.

    I remember a crawfish po'boy in New Orleans. Good eating.

    1. I've never been to Paris. I do like those European tall sugar sleeves, which are catching on here too.

      I could do a whole 'nother post on most memorable wines I think. I remember once in Boston, around 2003, my brother and I bought a bottle of Seghesio Omaggio, a red blend that was like the California version of a Super Tuscan, from the half-off bin at the wine shop below Deluca's on Charles Street (this was when I lived in Beacon Hill). Originally a $30 bottle so we got it for $15. We took one sip, then went right back across the street and bought the other two bottles.

  5. I love French pastry. You don't have to spend a lot. Even mediocre French pastry is good. A good pain au chocolat can kick the ass of an American chocolate croissant, and probably be cheaper. They are so flaky, and not too sweet.

    Also, when I lived in Brittany there was a galette food truck that arrived every Wednesday to the town I worked at. I would get a cheese and egg galette, made right there from scratch and folded into a wedge, and it was the best, simple thing.

    1. Oh! That was my favorite meal in Europe and I forgot. Getting a cappuccino and some little croissant or brioche type pastry for breakfast on a cloudy morning at a cafe. Oui oui!

  6. I love this post, and I am stealing the idea. Or borrowing it, perhaps. Also, I'm now very hungry.

  7. I also loved this post, and I'm planning on lifting it as well. I hope that's ok :)