From the first suckle to the last supper, what we eat is, at least if elementary school gym teachers can be believed, what we are.
In Life is Meals, James and Kay Salter give us a book of days, beginning on January first with the declaration that, “The meal is the emblem of civilization.” The book is full of menus and recipes, arcane facts about the repast of interesting people, rumination on the glories of specific foods, and grand philosophizing about the place of food in culture. Deborah Madison and Patrick McFarlin go the other direction, exploring the more quotidian side of supping in What We Eat When We Eat Alone. “When we eat alone we often break all the rules surrounding not only what to eat but when to eat and even where.”
No surprise to me. In the absence of a communal supper with my husband tonight, I’m eating bran flakes with extra raisins for dinner, while watching Benedict Cumberbatch in an adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder is Easy”. I might have the last few ounces of that bottle of Pinot Gris that’s in the fridge once the flakes are consumed. I occasionally eat like Bridget Jones when I eat alone.
Full disclosure, I haven’t actually read either Life is Meals or What We Eat When We Eat Alone in their respective entireties. They’re in my pantry with the cookbooks, and I dip into them to look at the watercolors, or to sympathize with Balzac’s excessive love of coffee (30 cups a day is too much, even for me), but their titles, especially juxtaposed, often give me ideas. I remember the food of a few meals with great clarity, but most of what I eat is a comforting habit. It is less the food itself, and more context.
When I go to Four Barrel Coffee for breakfast, I always order an espresso, sipped in a few swallows before my cappuccino is ready to linger over with a blackberry-pistachio croissant. The enjoyment of this meal is made up of several things that have nothing to do with the actual food:
- the comforting hiss and whoosh of the espresso machinery
- many of the baristas know me by sight
- rustic crockery in hand
- good morning records on the turntable
- low lights & sylvan tables
- the book I read while sipping
- the pleasures of quiet & solitude before a day of work with the public
This is my ritual once or twice a week. A meal is more about our mindset while eating than it is about the food on the table. Or is it?
A long, long time ago (why not begin it like a fairy tale), my husband and I ate a late-night dinner at Citronelle in Washington D.C. Suffice it to say, the food was art. The sommelier, his tastevin on a ribbon around his neck and a complete command of what was in his cellar, assisted us with wine pairings. Such service was a shock to me, and the cavelike interior was so cozy that I contemplated never leaving, but all of that? Wasn’t even the half of it.
What I remember in uncannily graphic detail is the food. I had surf & turf to start, which turned out to be a mosaic of paper-thin slices of cold filet mignon, scallop, tuna, cucumber, and radish. My main course was a meltingly rare duck breast with perfect-perfect, crispy skin, and I ordered the chocolate three ways for dessert, because if this were a mythological tale, an ungovernable love of chocolate would be my fatal flaw.
Between the presentation and the taste, this meal opened up a new frame of reference for me. I’d had good meals before this one, even great meals, but when my husband and I talk about the best meals we’ve eaten together, this is always the meal I bring up first. And it’s always the one I can nearly taste when I think of it. The food was about delight, and its entire intention was to draw us into the food as something that drew us back out of ourselves, which is what most good art does.
A Great Meal is very much about the food on your plate.
Or is it?
…we could go on like this forever. Let’s all just make a pact to eat food that brings us joy, whether alone or with people who bring us joy, whenever possible.