It was during a seventh grade field trip to New York City that I realized there was something different about me. My class of Baltimore girls was scheduled to break up into small groups and have lunch in Chinatown.
I walked down the noisy, teeming streets mystified and elated. The long ducks hanging in rows in the windows! The turtles for sale, the slippers, the clanging medicine balls! The lush reds, deep purples. The unfamiliar dried herbs and medicines and things. The families and old ladies and men barking in husky voices. And, oh, the intoxicating smells!
Fast Food and Self Discovery
I longed to eat something hitherto unknown to me, something extraordinarily exotic, something to make my senses dance and jump for joy and cry out in happy surprise. But my cohort of ponytail-wearing eleven year-olds felt differently. They chose McDonalds.
The Micky D's in Chinatown is a fancy one. Or it was in 1999. There was a waterfall, exposed brick, and the tables were wooden and stately and handsome. It was at one of these tables, surrounded by the lonely jabber of my classmates—who I hated, in that moment, with every fiber of my being—and the smells of grease and salt, where I put my head down and sobbed.
My kindly math teacher took pity on me. When I explained that I had been looking forward to this culinary adventure for weeks and that to eat a fried fish sandwich in a food wonderland would be an epic tragedy, she took pity on me (or the opportunity for a good meal) and whisked me away to a place she knew and loved just a block away.
We shared Peking duck and a giant, garlicky plate of greens. Giddily, I ate the crackling skin and juicy, sweet meat. I pitied my friends and their Big Macs and their ignorance.
My Little Food World
Some twelve years later, I still try to surround myself with people who love food, who put thought and care into its creation and consumption.
My mom has always been a wonderful cook, a lover of markets and a believer in the magic of cooking. My ex-boyfriend was a staggeringly talented chef, so talented I became momentarily intimidated to cook, at least in his presence. A small tragedy, as the act of making things in the kitchen brings me all kinds of joy.
Since I've spent the entirety of my career in the food biz, my friends and colleagues are food writers, cooks, wine people. They import olive oil and anchovies from the best producers in the world. They live and breathe ingredients, recipes, menus, cheeses, microbrews.
My best friend from college is a scientist and musician with nary a tie to this food-obsessed universe and yet she lights up when almonds cookies or soup dumplings or roti rolls get mentioned. Together, we've eaten our way through some of the world, trolling the Boqueria in Barcelona and Borough Market in London with unbridled, giggly glee.
We plot what we will eat next. We daydream about what we ate yesterday. We set our sites on the perfect ice cream cone, the ideal curry, the ramen to put all other ramen to shame. A great meal brings brightens us down to the soul, inspires us, elates us. And we delight in its details and myriad components—the shopping, the planning, the prepping, the cooking. The sights and smells and flavors; the conversation and nuance and joy and possibility.
The Outside World
Over Thanksgiving meal, my cousin mentioned that her go-to weeknight dinner was a skillet meal.
"What's a skillet meal?" I asked, thinking of the endless delicacies that could be prepared with the aid of a trusty skillet.
She meant a frozen meal that you buy in a bag and cook on your stove. I didn't express my judgmen overtly but judged the hell out of her. That bag of frozen, processed stuff was the embodiment of what separated her food ethos from my own. She wore the face of my fast food loving classmates.
To me, food means so many kinds of satisfaction, beauty, and expression. Not to say every meal I eat is a masterpiece. Like most of us, I often end up scarfing a prosaic turkey sandwich in the whirl of a busy day. I am not above little packets of oatmeal, crappy frozen yogurt, etc.
But to my cousin, food is utilitarian before it is a vessel of meaning and wonder. She eats because she has to eat. That's it, that's all. Taste and price and nutrition are certainly factors, as they are for me, but there is no waxing poetic, no symphony cued in the background.
And that's OK! I used to think these people were missing some of the best parts of life. That their capacity for joy and pleasure was diminished. That life was a feast, and they were stuck with sub-par hamburgers and freakishly long fries.
But later that night, my cousin and some boisterous family sat screaming and hooting in front of a football game. A sport I am 100% indifferent to. A game that interests me less than teeth flossing. The proceedings brought them all sorts of excitement, connection, and elation. They were having a grand old time. They were enjoying the hell out of themselves!
And to them, maybe I am missing out. But I was digging my novel. My life feels complete without partaking of this much-loved game. Just like my cousin's life feels complete without the thrilling search for fall's best honey-crisp apples.
Autumn brings us different thrills—for me it's the perfect apple, for some it's the perfect touchdown.