Life is short and can be very cruel. This is one of the first things we learn. As an old joke goes –
“Two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”
– life is often viewed, somewhat sardonically perhaps, but with a certain modicum of truth, as something that can be quite cruel.
But times filled with good food and drink, however, and good people all around with whom to share it, help us to think, maybe,
Memory of a good life
The smell of black coffee immediately brings me back to the childhood hours spent at my grandparent’s house in the country. My parents did not drink coffee, but my grandfather had coffee every cold morning before breakfast. I remember looking at the fresh pastries, the croissants with butter, raspberry cream donuts, kaiser rolls, and walnut snails ready to eat while waiting wide-eyed, watching a thousand people pass by, and then a thousand more, at the bakery.
A tall glass of orange juice reminds of the sun shining warm across the breakfast table. Getting together the last bit of change in my pocket to buy a fresh pretzel from the stand, or something warm to drink when the wind blows cold.
Food is not just about luxury – not just about the foie gras with black truffle, or having caviar twice a day; food is not about differentiating between to have and have not. There have been times in my life I have been able to afford the finest, and times in my life when I have not been able to afford more than a cold sandwich and $3 Chablis.
Food is about appreciation. There is something so immensely powerful in the memories. Each moment tastes a little different as it passes, as we grow up and grow older. But they all smell the same. I didn’t love the taste of mushrooms, or liver and onions, or anything with a complex flavor profile as a child, but I can remember the smell of what my parents and grandparents cooked on the stove and in the oven. I did love Brussels sprouts and broccoli from my first food memory moment.
So to this we seek out our favorites: we latch onto the familiar sensations that come from the tastes we love, and the memories from the smells we know.
But we also seek the beauty of trying something new; searching for flavors previously undiscovered; the need to go beyond the familiar and dive headfirst into a life of culinary adventure. If you have fallen in love with one taste, one dish, one morsel of food, then surely you can love another.
To a good future
Because we know that, on some level, everything is all right if only we can taste something better than ourselves. A midday break for lunch gives respite from hard work. A tough day that ends with a cold beer or glass of wine. A meal with friends, dining out or eating in, creates an atmosphere of unmatched, unbridled contentment.
Food on the table. Drink in hand. The world spinning until it stops for that single moment when your fork passes your teeth, or the glass presses to your lips. It is about the good life. A life where we can sit around long tables with seats filled with smiling/laughing faces, the tabletop covered in plates and glasses and silverware, the pièce de résistance glowing in the center. The sounds, the smells, the tastes.
Or, perhaps, just a sandwich and $3 bottle of wine.
I am now surrounded by food from all over the world. This is something our modern, globalized world has afforded us. I can enjoy East African for lunch and East Asian for dinner. I can enjoy classics from my grandmother’s kitchen, and then go out for tamales and beer before getting ramen or pizza late-night. Everything old and new coming together. Classic dishes from homelands near and far (the familiar smells and tastes of friends and neighbors), mixed with an always-changing array of new ideas, new ingredients, new influences.
Which is more important, the foods of beautiful antiquity, or the dishes that personify modernity? I say they are both equal at the dinner table.
It reminds that the best parts of life are simple: Is it better to take over the world, or just to enjoy the things it has to offer? Because what a beautiful world it is that can produce these smells, these tastes, these moments that seem to last forever. It is only when surrounded by such (good food and drink) that these questions can even be asked; that the good life is evident, and tangible.