Char grilled eggplant into a new form, its purple skin flaking and twirling around the fork as you try to cut it, the insides almost mush and mostly seeds. Brush raw slices with as much olive oil as the fruit can hold — which would be too much under other circumstances — and watch it soak like a sponge and disappear until it doesn’t. The oil will coat your tongue in a way that soothes in a way you can’t explain, but only in that particular moment. Swallow fast and hard, past the lump you carry like a stone in your gullet.
Assemble a caprese salad with sliced red tomatoes from the garden, still warm from the late-August sun. Choose the ones so plump they taunt, obscene in their curves that sometimes burst through skins too thin to contain their excess. This way: One slice of tomato, one of fresh mozzarella, around and around in a spiral until the entire white Buffalo china plate is covered. Plug the olive oil bottle’s spout with your finger and drizzle in concentric circles. Then the same with good balsamic, and lick a little off your thumb. Snip fresh basil from a pot on the back porch until your finger smell like summer. It’s meditative, this plate, the making of it, like a labyrinth manifest on the table. Eat it quickly, with your hands if you have to, before you can think about cheese.
Grill chicken breast, all of the fat cut off meticulously ahead of time. Sprinkled with roast chicken seasoning, you’ll know it by that name. 0 calories, mostly salt. You won’t know what the unit contains because their individual components might not exist outside the lab it came from. Don’t think about that, and especially not about how it mimics the college campus you’ve escaped from, or your own life, or society, or anything else at all. Whatever else you do, don’t cut the raw chicken near the vegetables, or the silverware and wash the counter a foot around with soapy water hot-hot-hot until it scalds your hands. People have died from E.Coli, although we can’t say where, and mortality makes poor dinner conversation.
Drink red wine in whatever glasses haven’t broken. Splash it in and don’t rationalize why the highest-calorie drink in the house still feels safe. Try not to imagine what that means about inhibitions, and welcome the first warm flush. The next one. Drink until safety buzzes in your belly, but never until the anxiety will rush up and choke you the next morning. Forget to wash your hands and bring them to your face, still smelling of smoke and freshly-cut leaves. This will smell like home forever, so bottle it in your memory for moments when you don’t have one.
Eat this outside, at the type of picnic table they sell at grocery stores, on china plates brought from indoors. Dine under the canopy of trees you’ve laid under for so long, you can see their patterns when you close your eyes. Gather at the table with the family that knows you better than anyone, but blinds themselves to the hardest parts of yourself and each other, like so many families do. Laugh about nothing and complain about everything. Some ideas:
— The lack of rain
— Too much of it
— How overgrown the garden’s gotten (no one will be able to tell)
— Something the pope said, and how badly you’ve misquoted it
— A coworker’s foibles and how little time she’s got left in her job (at this writing, many years later, she’ll still hold it)
— The many things families talk about evening after evening that burble like a subterranean stream underneath the conversation that, really, has very little to do with actual words and everything to do with the sustenance of eating together with people you understand and don’t understand and accept and can’t and keep coming back to, regardless.
Sustain yourself as much with their faces as your plate. You’ll all become a kintsuji of families and foods, long after you come to terms with both of them. Emerge from that summer as from a forge, a little harder where your soul calloused under pressure of your own mind’s creation. Remember this plate as a breaking open and a mending, a meal and so much more. Not everything is as simple and as complicated as a hot grill and a cold salad but sometimes, it is.
Lizz Schumer is a writer and editor living and working in Astoria, NY. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Bon Appetit, The Huffington Post, Serious Eats, Edible Queens, VinePair, Whisky Advocate, and many others. She’s usually snacking.