You have to learn how to eat.
I’m about seven or eight years old and my parents have taken me out to eat at a restaurant in the foothills of Colorado. I’ve been screaming for a few minutes now, not just being fussy but having a complete meltdown. Usually my parents hold a wet washrag over my face to shock me out of crying, but they don’t have one on hand this time. I open my eyes for just a moment, probably to see if I’m making them as miserable as possible, and I see it—a bowl of bright yellow lemon slices— . The server sets them down on the table, my mom passes them over, and I begin. I put them in my mouth, one slice at a time, bite down and suck in. My mouth puckers into my face so hard it disappears and all that’s left is my chin and forehead. My parents’ faces go from scrunched to half-smiles. They laugh at me, proud to have soothed all of us in one attempt, as over the course of the next few minutes I eat slice after slice, lemon juice and bits of zest dripping down my cheeks.
* * *
In cooking you have to have a what-the-hell attitude.
I’m now in middle school in Moorhead, Minnesota and my Mom works nights at the gas station down the road to help out with the bills. Some nights my Dad is working late too, so I stay home and babysit my sister and me. She’s six years my junior, and most of the time she annoys every fiber of my being. Every now and then she doesn’t, and I agree to make us our favorite meal, mac and cheese with hot dogs, and watch the show “Cow and Chicken” with her before our parents get home. I dump the pasta and chopped hot dogs into boiling water, barely pay attention to how long they cook, stir in the packet of cheese, and scoop it out of the single pot into bowls. It’s hot and cheesy and we sit together and eat, my sister and me. The pitch of her voice when she thanks me, the extension of her smile, and the way she sits close and acts proud of me for making mac and cheese with hot dogs—praise I quickly take for granted until I grow older and it becomes forever the standard I strive for in every dish.
* * *
Life itself is the proper binge.
Now in High School at Moorhead Senior High I start spending fewer nights at home and more at a boy’s house whose parents are usually out of town. We aren’t quite dating (he is bi-sexual) but we spend a lot of time together and are close friends. On a cold Minnesota night, we hop into his Pontiac Grand Prix and drive to the West Acres Shopping Center. At the food court, he convinces me to try “take-out” for the first time, and we walk over to Panda Express. I’ve never had “authentic” Chinese food like this before, and although I’m a little nervous I’ll get sick or won’t like it, I decide to follow his advice and order something called “Orange Chicken.” I love it. I finish my entire serving and he shares a few pieces from his. We will continue this trend for the next two years, after we move to Denver, until we split up and he moves to Arizona and marries a woman with whom he has children. I will later act like I’m above eating Panda Express, of the Orange Chicken. But every now and then, when I’m alone, I’ll sneak off and scarf it down.
* * *
People who love to eat are always the best people.
While attending the Metropolitan State College of Denver I find myself in a classmate’s apartment with some friends one night. The dimly lit not-quite-garden-level studio apartment has enough room for all four of us if some of us sit on the bed and some of us on the floor. It’d probably seem more uncomfortable but for the fact that we’re all halfway through our first double plastic-bottle-vodka and Orange Crush cocktails, and we’re all gay. We feel comfortable being ourselves around one another, each of us anxious to share everything about our lives. It’s in this spirit of sharing that I decide to share a part of my Minnesota upbringing, a dish made by middle-aged-women both Lutheran and Catholic which they bring to church basement potlucks along with cookie-bars and coffee, the Tater Tot Hot Dish.
My cooking skills have not progressed much since my mac and cheese with hotdog days and it’s probably only the second casserole I’ve ever made. But we’re all broke, and I was able to afford on my own the corn, cream of mushroom, tater tots, and hamburger to feed the four of us. So, as with the hot dogs, I try to “WOW” my new “little sisters” with my hot dish prowess. I over-brown the beef on the electric oven, undercook the tater tots, and forget to season the dish with either salt or pepper. The result is a goopy mess of meat and cream of mushroom soup with soggy tots. My friends eat it anyway, washing it down with generous amounts of plastic-bottle vodka and Crush. Everyone is grateful, and later, when I confess I could barely choke it down myself, we all laugh and try to imagine what a good tater tot hot dish might taste like.
* * *
You’ll never know everything about anything, especially something you love.
Six years into my four-year degree I start dating a man who takes me to San Diego one weekend so that I can see the ocean for the first time in my life. On the night we arrive at the Hotel Del Coronado, I run towards the sound of the crashing waves, the soft sand like gritty butter underneath my feet, until I see it. I stop, take in a quick breath, and stare. Its presence is more than I had imagined; the crashing waves fill my ears and my heart, and I reach out to everyone who has ever touched it. I say something to Tim about the Titanic, about the ages gone by, about the world before and the world to come. He stifles a smile, gives me a hug. I think the mountains must be like the ocean—you don’t ever really get over seeing them.
Later that night we approach the hotel concierge, a flirty man who asks us if we are visiting “for business or for pleasure,” and when we say pleasure it sounds weirdly thick and taboo. We ask for a restaurant recommendation and he gives us directions to a local seafood restaurant just down the street, Maretalia.
When we sit down to read the menu, I find all kinds of dishes I can’t pronounce. I don’t know what a scallop is (and at the time I don’t know that eating them is like chewing fish gristle). I’ve never had lobster (and when I someday do, I will have to ask the server to show me how to use the tiny fork to pry it out of its shell). I’ve never eaten a prawn (and I don’t know that sometimes they serve them with legs and shell intact). Since it’s my first time to the ocean though, I vow to try something new, something with real seafood. I find a risotto (which I later learn is a rice-based dish) whose ingredients include almost nothing I can pronounce and in a show of bravery and also partially to make myself look cultured and attractive, I order it. Tim asks me if I’m sure, and I nod. I’m ready to expand my palette.
While we wait for the food, we sip our drinks. I romance about the sea. Tim romances about our day together. Suddenly they set the dish down in front of me and for a moment I panic.
There are two antennae sticking straight up across the risotto on the dish from a lobster that has been split like a cross section in a biology book. There are small clams or oysters, I can’t tell which. And for the first time I have prawns of the style that look like they may get up and walk off my plate at any moment.
I take a large sip of my martini, fill my mouth with biting pine tree gin and briny olive. I think about the sound of the waves crashing against the shore. And as I breathe in, I smell the savory aroma of what I can now identify as sautéed shallots in butter. The tangy combination of white wine and chicken stock that were used to simmer the rice draw me in further, enough to brave my first bite. Imagine: tangy butter and sea salt, tender lobster simmered in a dry chardonnay, and of course, lemon. There are other flavors I can’t identify, (later I will guess sweet saffron, spicy chili, herbal tarragon) flavors I desperately want to know. I vow to learn everything I can about food. We order tiramisu for dessert.
That night, I fall in love.