Rachel Mennies is the author of The Glad Hand of God Points Backwards, winner of the Walt McDonald First-Book Prize in Poetry and finalist for a National Jewish Book Award. She teaches at Carnegie Mellon University—often about food and farming—and lives in Pittsburgh.
Here she talks about the challenges of recreating a special meal, a love of odorous foods, and a motley crew of a final meal request.
On her all-time favorite meal:
This is the hardest question I’ve ever been asked about my personal preferences—I’m not exaggerating. I grew up in a household that taught and cultivated our own Jewish-American food traditions and that also encouraged (utterly non-kosher) adventurous eating—one of my early memories is of my sister Leah playing “cooking show” in our kitchen; another is of learning to braid challah with my mother. I’ve also become mostly vegetarian, having given up and re-embraced meat about a dozen times in my life, but I see as I write this that my most beloved meals do contain animals.
I have to give two answers here, I’m realizing. My all-time favorite meal is the Passover meal we ate growing up as children, starting for me as a full participant probably at the age of four or five: the matzo ball soup, the (yes) gefilte fish and raw horseradish, and—in our house—the brisket and onions. Were I to elide this meal with the Sabbath meal we ate growing up, which is to say, to suspend temporarily the Passover edict to avoid leavened bread, the table would also include my mother’s challah. I would eat two fistfuls of that challah as my last meal on earth. (More on that below.)
My secondary answer, thank you for indulging me, would be the tortilla my host mother made for us weekly when I lived in Madrid during college. She taught me how to prepare it, though I never learned her choreography just right—there’s something about the timing between the heated oil and the (in hers, perfectly fanned) potatoes and onions, placed and cooked before the eggs go in, that she mastered and I can never replicate in my American kitchen. In Spain, I’d eat her leftover slices cold in Parque de El Retiro with friends, wrapped up in a baguette with a four-euro jug of wine as a chaser.
On what the light looks like during her favorite meal of the day:
Setting sun. Despite all the home-cooked food described above, I love eating at the bar in restaurants, right as dinner starts, and especially on a quieter weekday. It’s a good time to feel comfortable about settling in for a couple of hours—not hogging a barstool—and eating slowly from a menu.
On snacking while writing:
I don’t [snack], mostly because I’d get food all over my computer. Lately, I write in the mornings before teaching, so I pad into the kitchen and make a coffee and steam some almond milk (I guess you’d call what I make “a technique-less latte”), and drink my way through that concoction while I write and wake up.
On her go-to late-night snack:
Dessert (cookies, if I’m home and have baked something) and a Negroni. I wish I could drink coffee late at night but even decaf messes with my sleep.
On her food quirks:
I’ve never been a picky eater, which I partially ascribe to the Jews’ love of odorous foods and my having grown up eating them (see: Passover seder described above). I will eat pickles and pickled foods, also fermented foods, straight from their various jars/cans, which some might find quirky but to me feels utterly Jewish. (Though also universal—I bonded recently with a student over the similarities between sauerkraut and kimchi.)
On her final meal request:
I mentioned my mother’s challah above, and it’s good enough that I’ll repeat it here—any “last supper” would have to include this challah, oven-warm, with a stick of softened salted butter ready for spreading. We eat challah in my house ripped one sector at a time, no bread knife needed, and with the butter spread over the non-egged, doughy crag. This definitely complicates other aspects of my last-meal request, because I cannot imagine how a single kitchen could also supply me with Taiwanese soup dumplings, a really good mayo-based Caesar salad, a side of pickles, the scrambled eggs from Au Cheval in Chicago, and a Negroni, but I suppose there’s room enough in an imagination for all of this to come true somehow. I’d like to take this all back to Retiro in a basket and eat it on a blanket while scanning the park for greyhounds in coats, or bring it into a bar (forgive me) and have them make the Negroni while I share the rest with my companion.
Who am I eating with?—as someone who prizes food and the ritual of eating basically above all else, this question feels almost like I’m being asked who do you love the most in the world? I don’t think I can answer it. I have a few friends and family members with whom I’ve shared important meals, and if I could repeat this once with each of them, it would be a just last-day-on-earth gift.