Most memorable meals, take one: fire in the hole!

tamal with salsa verde

The other night, inspired by a typically wonderful dinner at Texas French Bread, my Best Gal and I got to talking about our favorite meals ever, and what made them so. Eventually, we decided that it might be interesting to write about some of our most memorable meals. Since it happened to be my turn to grind out our weekly post, I got to go first, but we hope to turn this into an occasional series. Stay tuned!

For the purposes of our discussion, I arbitrarily ruled out meals that Heather, an amazing cook in her own right, had made at home, which knocked out a bunch of contenders: her pork posole, her made-from-scratch pizza baked in the wood-burning oven in the backyard, her weapons-grade ratatouille, her charcoal-grilled bison-lamb burgers with all the fixin’s, and so on.

With those delectable meals off the table, so to speak, my thoughts turned immediately to the tagine we enjoyed on the pillow-strewn rooftop of an inn in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, and the tortelli at that trattoria (I can’t even remember its name) we blundered into by pure chance near the Duomo di San Martino in Lucca. Less exotically, I remembered wonderful meals at Higgins, in downtown Portland, Oregon; at Delfina and Swan Oyster Depot, in San Francisco; and at Savoy, in New York’s Soho.

Closer to home, I fondly recalled the burgers and Shypoke Eggs (actually a form of trompe l’oeil nachos) at the late lamented Little Hipp’s in San Antonio. And then there was that “Whole Hog” dinner prepared by Jesse Griffiths of Dai Due last year: seven incredibly delicious courses, each featuring some form of pork—even dessert, which was beignets fried in pork lard. (Oops! Please excuse me while I wipe the drool off my keyboard.)

Somewhat disconcertingly for a couple of self-styled foodies, though, we found that we could rarely remember the dishes that made up these meals in much detail. Rather, what we tended to recall was the setting, and the company, and other such trivia. Not that the food wasn’t important, of course; but we concluded that it takes more than merely wonderful food to make a truly memorable meal. When it all comes together, there is something magical about the combination of the flavor and texture and smell of the food, and the comfort of the setting in which it is served, and true ease and delight in the presence of one’s companions (and what a wonderfully evocative word companion is, deriving from the Latin “with bread”—literally, one with whom you would break bread).

Or, alternately, a truly memorable meal might just involve intense pain and suffering, like the one I’m about to describe. Almost thirty years ago, during the summer after we graduated from college, we set off on a 4,500-mile road trip from Massachusetts to San Francisco and then back to San Antonio—all in Heather’s un-air conditioned Toyota Tercel hatchback, nicknamed Pollo for reasons now lost in the mists of time.

It was an eventful journey—in New Orleans someone busted in one of Pollo’s windows and made off with everything we owned, including the all-important cooler full of cold beverages, and in San Francisco each of my parents had an, um, entertaining reaction to my newly pierced ear—but in some ways the high point occurred as we were making our way back to Texas in July.

We’d been following Interstate 40 eastward, but we had an early edition of Jane and Michael Stern’s book Roadfood in which we read about this Mexican joint in the dusty little town of Socorro, New Mexico, and even though Socorro was some seventy-five miles out of our way we decided (ah, youth!) that it would be worth the detour.

We reached Socorro at the height of the scorching mid-afternoon heat and found the restaurant, next to the railroad tracks and surrounded by chickens, without too much trouble. It was almost completely deserted, in that dead time between the lunch and dinner crowds, and as we walked to our table we caught a brief glimpse of an enormous black cast-iron stove in the kitchen, surrounded by a swarm of diminutive elderly women in black.

Heather ordered… I don’t know; enchiladas or something. I ordered the tamales with salsa verde, I can’t remember why; perhaps the book recommended them? We sipped our iced tea while the women in the kitchen got busy; when the food arrived, it looked and smelled fabulous. We both dug in enthusiastically, and almost immediately I realized I was in waaaaay over my head.

The tamales were wonderful, but that verde sauce… oh, my God. It’s still probably the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten. My body’s alarm bells started clanging, the warning lights began flashing; my forehead, and then my scalp and neck and upper body, started pouring sweat like Albert Brooks in Broadcast News.

Soon my T-shirt was soaked; still the heat kept building. I drained several glasses of iced tea, to little effect. I noticed that all the women who worked in the kitchen had come out to watch me; they stood in the doorway, pointing and giggling, like a gaggle of highly amused crows.

Somehow I made it all the way through the tamales, then, trying to marshal my last shreds of dignity, stood up, marched out to the car, and changed my sopping wet T-shirt. Did the women applaud when I returned? I can’t remember, though they certainly should have. I’ve had many fiery meals since then, but none could compare to that one. Fortunately, my youthful constitution absorbed the dreadful punishment with no long-term ill effects, and we went on our way to Texas.

Yeah, that was a memorable meal, all right. Won’t you tell us about some of yours?

What we’re reading
Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking
Martin: Peter Carey, Parrot and Olivier in America

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