When I think of food, it’s usually of the plate, cooked/prepared, as opposed to on grocery store shelves or in gardens, farms, hanging from trees. The plate, clean. The plate, full. The plate, empty again but covered in crumbs, smears, leftover bits of whatever we were eating. Sometimes messy, sometimes elegantly so. The plate that will disappear to be washed and then used again. Washed by someone with wrinkled fingers forever reeking of sweat and the astringent cleaning chemicals.
I think of the restaurant kitchen, and the long, often arduous journey that led to the plate in front of me on the table. Hands with knives attached down to the wrist as a natural extension of the arm. Chef’s orders. The cold line giggling, fryers spitting, everything so feverishly hot, everyone desperately sweating.
I think about the food trucks lining on streets. 1: tamales, 2: burgers, 3: Korean steamed buns, 4: ice cream truck for dessert. A popsicle in the shape of Sonic the Hedgehog’s head and gumballs for eyes.
Perkins was never the best brunch in town, but we went there anyway for 3AM unlimited coffee, 4AM omelets, 5AM bathrooms.
This was in the Midway neighborhood. Midway is loud, dirty, fascinating, fun. Ethnic restaurants on every corner: Some of the best Ethiopian food in the city. Some of the best Thai food anywhere. My favorite (some nights) Chinese food at Peking Garden. And then Perkins, strangely, in the midst of it all against the backdrop of a decaying shopping mall and train passing by with heads leaned against the window.
When I moved downtown it was Mickey’s Dining Car instead. I sit where Meryl Streep sat and imagine her there beside me.
A man sitting at the counter with a beard and hat pulled down over his eyes talks about St. Paul the way one might talk about a lost love; a lover now a memory. But he’s sitting right here watching her move on without him. He speaks in a broken, wavering voice. He drinks coffee and sighs through his chest. He says, “St. Paul was a beautiful place. A city of stature. And certainly the better of the two.”
The man behind the counter rubs his forehead with his hand. “You’re talking back in the day.”
“When I was a young man.”
“It’s been a long time since then.”
“I had a house and car and a wife and kids on the salary I made up the road at Hamm’s Brewery. I had a family and we’d sit right there in the back booth. My youngest Lula would always want to play sad songs from the jukebox and I’d have to tell her to drink her milkshake.”
“Those jukeboxes don’t work anymore.”
“And I’m unemployed.”
The man behind the counter, a slight hunchback named Joe, points at the coffee cup with his finger. “You’re here drinking coffee.”
“Coffee is all a man can buy.”
“Yeah, it’s something.”
“I haven’t had a hamburger in 9 months.”
Joe leans against the fryer. Piles of hash browns smoking next to him turning crispy and brown. Hamburger patties still pink in the center. Baked beans overflowing from a large, steel pot. Fat, butter, grease, salt. The smells baked into the walls for 80 years and for 80 more.
He says, “Well I tried going vegetarian myself once. With a lady I was dating at the time. It didn’t stick.”
7th Street outside is a common place for the homeless to congregate and ask for money. If you offer to buy them breakfast instead, some of them say yes, and some of them say no. Depending on the events nearby, concerts or hockey games at the X for example, Mickey’s will be packed with tourists; visitors from suburbs or out of state. Slightly nervous, more than a little drunk, holding their menus up to their faces so as to not look anyone in the eye.
“We read about this place on the internet…”
But on most nights only regulars come to drink coffee. Order a patty melt, maybe, and Mulligan stew. Talk about the past, the present, the future.
When I think about food I don’t think about getting full.
An empty plate means that there was once something there, and will be again. To feel full is a tragedy sometimes, when there is still food on the table and you know that it would taste good if only your stomach would agree. The table full of grandma’s cooking and you end up eating yourself sick. Then fall asleep, dream, wake up and eat the leftovers cold from the refrigerator.
(In moderation, etc. etc.)
And certainly better than those nights where we would go to bed a little hungry because there wasn’t quite enough food to feed us all. But, still, to be hungry and to want is a sensation important as well: You don’t learn how to appreciate if you’ve never had an empty plate in front of you wishing it were full.
I think of spicy peppers and the hot sauces that they make. Jim Harrison had this to say about his favorite hot sauce, Clancy’s Fancy:
“…her sauce is stopper and neck above hundreds of sauces I’ve collected from Ethiopia to Ecuador, from cold Leningrad to the steamy fuck-crazed alleys of Bankgkok where slant oysters are far more numerous than the fabled Belons, Bon Secours, or the champ Apalachicolas.”
I keep bottles of Crystal, Tapatio, Sriracha, and a local called Crybaby Craig’s, close to my desk. I don’t mind Tobasco in a pinch.
Bad food can be made better. Good food can turn to shit. Everything becomes waste at some point. It’s about perception. It’s the plate and what is on it and how it makes me feel when I eat it. Who I eat it with, and why.
Seasonally. It’s summer now. I think about raw vegetables on plates in summer alongside a grill covered in hamburgers, bratwurst, whole fish. The plates are paper here. The air is warm.
I think about watermelon cut into slices. I think about strawberries.