I was treated to a high end, high class dinner recently at a classic French restaurant. We ate steak tartare with boquerones, chicken liver mousse, pork pate en croute with savora mustard, wilted spinach salad with lardons, rum cake for dessert. It was the kind of dining experience that teaches one how good food can be, how good food should taste and feel, and then leaves you defeated as though you’ve been crushed by a cleaver to the chest, the remnants lingering behind your teeth. We tipped our waitress. We bought beer for the kitchen staff. We went home with empty pockets.
The next night we ate a plate of local cheese at home on the couch; we only meant to have a few pieces, but couldn’t stop cutting more until the entire block was gone, finished with dark chocolate and then collapsed onto the couch until morning.
“It doesn’t have to be fancy,” Gogo tells me. “Good food is only that.”
I made macaroni and cheese from the box, found some grapes and watermelon in the fridge, drank a beer from the can, opened a bag of chips and sour cream.
“Food is meant only to be eaten and enjoyed.”
There’s something sensual about the way garlic smells in butter. I made tomato butter for whitefish. A bottle of white wine. Bread on the side. Cake for dessert.
The best meals I remember from childhood were potlucks in church basements. Little old ladies removing tinfoil from platters and using wooden ladles to serve carrots and potatoes and roast beef and baked chicken from dishes made of glass. I would eat everything on my plate and go for seconds. Everyone in the grand hall ending with coffee and dessert, happy and full. Bits of crumb stuck to the stubble of old Mister Grainy’s chin, his wife nodding off in the seat across from him, tipping forward with wheezing breaths, her nose nearly dipping into onion soup, her glasses on her lap.
The beautiful Gogo sitting on the other side of the hall, only the smell of food and the laughter and conversation of the congregation between us. I watched as she gently stuck her fork into her plate of greens, chewed thoughtfully, smiled at her Uncle Vic telling the same story he always told about the mouse in the back of the sanctuary that interrupted the sermon every Sunday by skittering across the pulpit at just the right time.
He laughed, holding his stomach, his mustache shaking. The “Jesus mouse” picked up the crumbs we left behind. Coffee steamed over the cookies and brownies and meringue kisses made the same way every Sunday since 1934.
“And don’t ask who makes them the best,” my grandmother told me, “or you’ll really start trouble in the church.”
Gogo caught me looking her way. I winked. She smiled.
When we were finished eating, we went outside to the playground across the street. We snuck down to the corner store a block away to buy bubblegum and drinks in colored bottles. It was a rough neighborhood at that time. There were bars over the windows of the corner store and the owner kept a baseball bat behind the counter. He smiled at us though. He didn’t notice when I slipped an extra pack of candy into my shorts and he didn’t care when my sister giggled too loud.
Holding hands with Gogo, our legs swinging over the side of the I-94 bridge. She’d sneak cigarettes from her mother’s purse. We’d cough and laugh. She’d her head on my shoulder, cars shooting like bullets beneath our feet.
The sun rose in St. Paul and set in Minneapolis. We watched the light over both cities. We walked to the Little Mekong district in Frogtown and ate bowls of noodles and rice. Egg rolls or spring rolls depending on the season. Hot soup in winter eaten with banh mi sandwiches and bubble tea. We’d walk around eating Thai rolled ice cream with no concern for anyone, or anything else. She’d light another cigarette, only smoke half and throw the rest away. A homeless man or a trust punk would pick it up and finish it every time, following behind us and hoping for another one.
“Waste not,” my grandmother always told me with her eyes twinkling and wrinkling at the corners.
Our footsteps faded on the sidewalk.
The best meals were in her kitchen and my mother’s kitchen. The things made from old recipes and the cookbooks on her shelf. The things they made for their children and grandchildren. It was cozy in the kitchen. I couldn’t reach the highest shelf. My grandmother patting the perfect part in my hair (I’d have to fix it after). My mother sneaking me special “Don’t tell your sisters” chocolates and I’d help her slice tomatoes and cucumbers to make the salad for dinner.
The best meals are made with love. It’s easy to forget that when you’re eating quickly at the McDonald’s drive-thru. It’s easy to forget that while watching Food Network television shows made just palatable enough to taste like something, and nothing, to everyone. Food that is eaten, and forgotten, within minutes.
Food is not dumb. Food is a language that everyone knows how to speak. But sometimes we forget. Sometimes it’s a slice of pizza or bowl of pasta. Sometimes it’s sliced cheese and chocolate cake. A fried chicken sandwich eaten with our hands. It can be the food eaten together at weddings and funerals in church surrounded by other people. Food that gives us comfort or hope. And when you’re starving there is nothing more important than whatever you might eat next.
Gogo sat down cloudy as was her usual disposition. It took good food to turn her to sunshine. Her hand was always warm in mine and we’d leave the church behind in the dirt beneath the slide of the playground.