Helene Achanzar is a Kundiman fellow and a John and Renée Grisham fellow at the University of Mississippi. Her poetry is forthcoming in jubilat. Her other writing can be found on Noisey and On She Goes.
Here, she talks mid-autumn dinners, tea as an essential, and how the last bite must always be of starch.
On her all-time favorite meal:
It’s impossible for me to choose the most delicious or most memorable meal, but there’s a meal that was an old standby for a long time. On the 1100 block of North Ashland Avenue in Chicago stood three taquerias, all named La Pasadita. When I was a freshman in high school, I started going to one of them before theater rehearsals and always had the same thing: two carne asada tacos with cheese and beans, complimentary chips and salsa, and a tall styrofoam cup of water.
Choosing a La Pasadita was easy. The one a few doors down didn’t serve free chips, and the one across the street didn’t have beans. The steak at my La Pasadita was tender and salty and slightly charred.
La Pas saw me through many phases of youth. As a teen, I’d grab a quick bite before rushing to my retail job. In college, it was usually my first stop when I’d drive home for long weekends or academic breaks. When I moved back to the city after school, my friends and I would pop in for a late dinner and pour cheap whiskey into our fountain drinks to pregame before a night of dancing. I’d go there with my mom for lunch, show it off to out-of-town guests, and tell pals I’d one day have La Pas cater my wedding. Through the years, my order never changed: a couple of steak tacos, free chips, and cold Chicago tap.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
There’s something about dinner that feels earned. Maybe it’s because I spend more time preparing it than other meals, or maybe it’s just that it comes at the end of the day. A mid-autumn dinner is my favorite because Brussels sprouts, spinach, and garlic are at their best. I prefer to dine early, when there’s still a bit of orange daylight through the kitchen windows and all I need is a little warm lamplight from an adjoining room.
On snacking while writing:
I like to have one sweet snack and one salty snack on hand, and these days it’s dry Honey Nut Cheerios and toasted corn nuts. I usually don’t snack at all because I write after meals. I’m easily distracted, so any food cravings completely derail my plans to write. However, tea is essential. Most of the time it’s genmaicha or hojicha, but I’ll have Earl Grey if I need to stay up late.
On her go-to late-night snack:
If I’m at home and need to unwind, I’ll have two Le Petit Ecolier biscuits or a scoop of vanilla ice cream with Swiss chocolate-covered almonds. If I’m out after a late night and there’s a 24-hour diner, then it’s scrambled eggs, bacon, and hash browns. If I’m out late and a diner isn’t an option, I’m hitting the drive-thru for a Filet-O-Fish.
On her food quirks:
Starch last, always. When there are multiple components of a meal or dish, my last bite must be of starch. Say I’m having dinner and on my plate are fish, couscous, and green beans. I’ll eat each food at around the same rate, but once I’m nearing the end of the meal, I’ll take special care to make sure my last bite is of couscous. Even if the meal’s starch has a bold flavor, I consider it the meal’s neutral or base, a sort of texture and flavor reset after a bite of meat or veggies. I also think a lot about the last bite before a sweet dessert. It makes much more sense to me to transition from bread to ice cream or from rice to cake than to make the strange leap from chicken to chocolate truffles.
On her final meal request:
Being Midwestern (Chicagoan, specifically), I’m very much a steak and potatoes kind of gal, so if I’m going out, I’m going out with a bang. I’m in a booth at Bavette’s Bar and Boeuf with my three favorite people. We start with the smoked salmon caesar and baked goat cheese. Then I do as much work as I can on a medium rare ribeye, chicken jus mashed potatoes, charred Brussels sprouts, and broccoli. No alcohol, though, as it seems important to be clear-headed in the moments before death, so I’m drinking Mexican Coke all night. The meal is full of laughter and ends with profiteroles from Sabatino’s on Irving Park Road.