Megan Stielstra is the author of three collections, most recently The Wrong Way to Save Your Life from Harper Perennial. Her work appears in the Best American Essays, New York Times, Poets & Writers, Longreads, Guernica, Tin House, and elsewhere. A longtime company member with 2nd Story, she has told stories for National Public Radio, Museum of Contemporary Art, Goodman Theatre, and regularly with the Paper Machete live news magazine at the Green Mill. She is currently an artist in residence at Northwestern University.
Here, she gives a full menu of favorite meals, coffee as meal, and a final meal—any meal—as long as it’s with her husband.
On her all-time favorite meal:
I’m biased as hell, but I live in the greatest food city in the world. I was all ready to go off on taste and atmosphere and presentation and local-sourcing but last week [at the time of writing] Anthony Bourdain died and truth be told I’m pretty raw. I’ve dug through depression. I feel it—still—in my bones. I’ve been reading his stuff this week and was really stuck by something he said in a 2001 interview with Bookpage: “The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”
Here are a few perfect meals. For him, for me, for you:
*Turkey Avocado Club, ordered for carry-out from the Bongo Room immediately after my high school boyfriend dumped me. When I went in to pick it up, the owners took one look and made me sit down. They brought me chocolate pancakes and listened while I cried. Not long after, I started working for them. I worked for them for over a decade.
*Cheese plate with grapes and walnuts, the second floor of Webster Wine Bar, a sold-out 2nd Story storytelling show. The place was packed; six people squished together at two- and four-tops. Twenty-or-so of us sat cross-legged on the floor. Back then we didn’t know about fire codes. I remember Khanisha Foster was sitting on the bar with a lav mic, telling a story about sex and love and Shakespeare, and somebody over my head passed me that cheese plate. Somebody else passed me wine. I ate and drank and passed the food and laughed my face off and when Khanisha was done, everyone around me started telling their own stories. I’d never been to a performance like that, where the professional work bled so seamlessly into the audience.
“I love this,” I told the director later.
“Great,” she said. “Do you want a job?”
*Filet mignon, served inexplicably next an iron shackle, at an underground restaurant in Prague called Cartouche. Its walls were lined with a thousand melting candles. Wax everywhere. Fire everywhere, like something out of Game of Thrones. Our waitress brought drinks and said—a statement, not a question—“You are American.” She said, “There is election soon in your country.” She said, “For which will you vote?”
“Kerry,” we told her. “We sent in absentee ballots for Kerry.”
“Good,” she said, sitting down with us. “Now we may be friends.”
*King Salmon, pulled straight out of the ocean by my new stepbrothers near Kodiak, Alaska, and cooked minutes later over a small fire on the beach at Spruce Island. We ate it with our fingers out of the sizzling skin. We got to know each other. Later we decided we didn’t like the word step.
*Plain baked potato in a hotel in Clarkston, Michigan. We were there for a friend’s wedding, a wedding that my husband was officiating. I was three months pregnant. I didn’t know what was happening to my body or my brain but I was sure of one thing: I wasn’t going anywhere without a baked potato. I got out of the shower, laid naked on the bed, and told this to my husband, who was then standing by the door in his suit and tie, nervously looking at his watch. “We’ll be late,” he said, and then: “We’ll find something on the way,” and then: “Give me fifteen minutes.” He went out into the August heat and found a Wendy’s.
I can still taste the fake butter. The runny, melted sour cream. Glorious.
*Goat cheese salad on Mondays, Fridays, and Sundays at Bistro Campagne. On Mondays, Fridays, and Sundays my friend Jeff worked, and I’d go there with my infant son strapped to my chest in a front pack. We’d take the Lawrence bus West and walk down Lincoln. It was good to have a destination: Bistro, Jeff, salad. It was good to have control over something: Lawrence, Lincoln, cheese. I had so little control. So little was clear. I’d walk in, and Jeff would take the baby, and I’d sit in the corner and eat my salad. I was not doing very well with food back then. I was not doing well with anything. But something about that salad. Salad, Lincoln, Lawrence. Mondays, Fridays, Sundays. Rinse, repeat, heal.
*Smoothie with juice and frozen blueberries, made by my now ten-year-old son this past Mother’s Day. We drank them sitting on the steps while our new puppy tried to eat the fence. It was May in Chicago. May in Chicago is perfection. We’ve made it through another winter and anything is possible.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
My favorite meal is my first cup of coffee, first thing when I wake up. Some people might say that coffee isn’t a meal. Those people can fight me.
Right now, I’m getting up at 5am to write. I’m trying to hit a daily word count and how do you do that with a kid, a day job, deadlines? I’m trying different things. I’m trying to figure it out. I’ll always be trying to figure it out. I make my coffee and stand on my porch and watch the sun come up over the lake, orange and pink light smeared across the sky. It’s so beautiful. This city is beautiful. I’m so lucky to be here, to see this, to find language for it.
On snacking while writing:
I eat crack broccoli.
On her go-to late-night snack:
On her food quirks:
I hate olives. Hate them. They ruin everything: pizza, nachos, martinis. Much to my frustration, they are my kid’s favorite food, which means I have to shop for them and occasionally (Lord save us) touch them. I blame Jeff, who would often take him to gastro pubs so I could write. Once when [my son] was three or four, I went to pick him up at Longman & Eagle and he and Jeff were sitting on barstools with an enormous board of fancy, oily olives. Usually this little boy would see me across a room and say Mommy! or You’re here! or some sweet thing but this time he pointed his spoon at me and yelled, “GO BACK TO WORK, I’M BUSY.”
On her final meal request:
I’m with my husband. He’s rad. We can be dressed up fancy at NEXT or in pajamas on the couch with popcorn. Maybe we’re eating snow cones from the ice-cream cart guys on the pier near Pratt Beach. Maybe super-rare steak and roasted potatoes at Perseus in Florence, which is where we were sitting when I first knew I would marry him. Maybe samosas and green chutney, my favorite thing he makes. Maybe Texas Pasty, like his grandmother taught him. Maybe tuna casserole with cream of mushroom soup and frozen peas that we make when we’re too busy or exhausted to make anything else, or too broke or impatient for delivery, or it’s too cold or gross outside to walk to one of the many great restaurants in our neighborhood.
I’d be lying if I said I cared. I just want him to be there.