Yesterday, for lunch, I ate several humongous grapes and used tortilla chips to dredge small heaps of chicken salad from a container and thought that was pretty good.
This evening, I ate food that seems to transcend “food” as a category and makes me understand things that I generally don’t like: taking photos of your meal with your phone to post to Instagram or wherever, generating a mental list of people to badger into eating at a specific restaurant as you are eating at that restaurant, making vague sounds of sexual satisfaction while eating, saying dumb things that are basically a string of context-free superlatives to the restaurant staff as they ask you how your food is, making triumphal fist-pumping gestures in your seat as you eat the things that are casually destroying your understanding of what food is and does.
When I was walking to the restaurant in 30-ish degree weather, a man in a tank top and a dog that had the markings of a Dalmation but the supernatural physical size of a small horse trotted by. Maybe that should have alerted me to the fact that something special was about to happen. But immediately on being seated I was flummoxed by the menu and feeling sort of ponderous. The menu read sort of like this:
Thing you think you don’t like. Italian word you’ve mispronounced. Italian word for “pepper.” Fennel.
Middle Eastern mystery word. Olives. Protein that you find revolting.
Gnocchi. Sea creature. Flowers.
I also accidentally ordered a dessert wine to start, which the waitress diplomatically identified as a dessert wine, so I ordered something else. And that other wine was lovely.
After hemming and hawing, we ordered raw fish, which I intended to ignore, pasta which I intended to eat, a kohlrabi Caesar salad which I intended to appraise and perhaps lightly dabble in, and a squash thing with pepitas about which I had no presumptions.
Then the fish came, along with a small bowl of spicy raw mussels with crispy sweet potato bits on them, and the fish, which was bluefish and black bass, was so delicious that I found myself trying to understand it as a vegetable-fruit hybrid. The fish we had was somewhat like eating an apple or jicama, or actually it wasn’t but made me think of those things, and just was fish that was a sensory throng of fish-ness so pleasing and unmeddled-with, or meddled with so appropriately that I have to compare it to an item outside its category. I imagine the narcissist’s understanding of such a thing is that the item in which s/he delights is there for her/him alone and its consumption allows it to subside into some other glory. But I just felt like I was hallucinating. Hallucinating with no downside. Usually there is a flabby carnie who is also somehow my boss hanging around when I hallucinate. Not this time. Not this time, Terry.
Kohlrabi is a sort of cabbage-turnip and a bulb and it has rubbery skin like old fridge broccoli and I watched the man who made our salad layer what looked like a pale cut hose onto a plate and then I ate the salad in a panic of happiness when it was set before us.
Of the squash, all I can really say is that I whimpered a little bit while eating it, and chased pepitas around the bowl, and, because this is the upper limit of my understanding of cookery, I said, “they really know what they’re doing with salt here.”
And the pasta was garganelli, not Gargamel who is always persecuting the Smurfs, but a flat noodle rolled into a tube with a visible seam. I don’t recall what else was involved, but I do remember eating it in a somewhat competitive way and then pushing it toward my dining companion in a state of greed/desire to spread the gospel of the garganelli that was, again, disorienting. Faced with something delightful, I will just war with myself.
We were also given some extra things, including swordfish cured for three months in olive oil, the memory of which has a private island estate in my consciousness, as well as an extra dessert.
My limitations regarding dessert are as follows: I like chocolate cake. But we ordered a pear tart and were given a baked quince with walnuts, chamomile and cream. Being handed a baked quince at Oberlin is sort of like getting ready to go to work and then meeting someone in your doorway who says, “Oh, I did all your work for the next six months; here’s your pay in advance, now you can go on a sabbatical and come back next year without facing retribution of any kind. Your benefits remain in force, and I bought you a hang glider.”
But maybe a sign of a meaningful restaurant is not only the food but what people who operate the place say to you. Three of the staff members mentioned loved ones while trying to talk about the food. One indicated that her boyfriend was trying to recreate the Hubbard squash dish and then giggled because it seemed impossible but somehow still conveyed supportiveness; another noted that her boyfriend was encouraging her to return to painting and printmaking (time, space and materials – these shortages are no joke) when we were talking about homemade pasta, and it was not an aside but relevant; and another mentioned that she was only a part-time convert to eating sashimi, ie. when she was at the restaurant, but her boyfriend also loved sashimi.
If the purpose of metaphor is, in part, to recognize that not just words but we are insufficient, then, well… I described what I was eating as “Obama’s third term.” I whispered that. I wouldn’t begrudge him going out on a high note, but finally, at least according to his approval ratings, people value what they have. I have high hopes for tomorrow and the next bunch of years, and am also very frightened. But I am hoping the frightfulness is of the order of unknown, uncooked things from the sea that end up being quite perfect.