Posted on January 3rd, 2013
Once, in Spokane, I ate the best snails of my life. The waiter said they were fresh, and I looked at him for a long moment and thought, “Fresh from where?” and then ate them all anyway, soaked in butter and garlic and a little white wine. Another time, my brother and I sat in the innards of a subterranean sculpture on the grounds of an art museum, a round kiva-like space with one oblong hole to the sky, and ate durian together. Some children entered and gathered round the durian, touching its spines and asking for a taste. So we fed them durian pods while their parents looked on, its rotten egg-custard smell making everyone laugh.
Or what about when, on a cold night just a few weeks ago, a friend and I constructed the world’s first Goat Nuts? Carr’s water crackers spread with creamy Jif peanut butter, topped by a smear of goat brie and capped off by a thin slice of apple – the sort of thing you only eat with someone who constantly pushes you to the brink of breathless hilarity, after a night of beer and dancing, when anything seems possible and edible. And speaking of peanut butter, there was also that dinner out on the tundra in the rain in the summer of 1997, where I ate nothing but thick blocks of cheddar cheese dipped in a tub of peanut butter, the only thing that could warm my pre-hypothermic body (and did).
There’s something, too, about road-trips that requires a grilled cheese in a diner on some rural back road. I’ve eaten these in Massachusetts, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, nearly every place that I’ve lived. Alaska doesn’t have diners but does have roadhouses, which are usually a step up in historic authenticity (creosote-soaked logs, single-paned windows, and thick-planked floors) but a step down in culinary quality. On the Denali Highway last summer, though, my grilled cheese was American on sourdough, pickle on the side and a Coke to wash it down, and it was perfect. I ate it at a table next to a view of the Tangle Lakes soaked in fog, and then I drove away into that fog to look for caribou, who eat lichen, sedges, and moss.
One time, I got lost in the woods in the south of France and nearly didn’t find my way out. Shortly before that happened, though, I sat on the wall of a medieval city, looking at the ocean and eating a baguette filled with shredded tuna, olives, tomatoes, and red onions. I could still speak French then, and everything about that lunch – the angle of the sun, the hum of the insects in the trees, the ripped page from Le Monde wrapped around my sandwich, my scuffed leather shoes – seemed so appropriately Niçoise. It was probably that lunch that led me to think I could take the shortcut home through the cow pasture and head into the hills, just like a local, except locals know how to get home and foreigners do not.
Home is now a cabin on a mountainside in Alaska, and I live alone. There is no one to cook for except for me, so I make meals that only I would eat. Dinner the other night was quartered Brussels sprouts, fried in olive oil with minced garlic and then laid over slabs of browned Halloumi cheese, the whole thing drizzled with balsamic vinegar. Okay, maybe someone else would eat that, but I wouldn’t have let them, because it was the perfect thing for a quiet dinner for one at the round table by the windows while the snow fell on the birch woods outside and the wood stove sputtered and belched smoke. And afterwards, I ate a Tootsie Pop, just because no one was there to say I couldn’t.
Back when I was very little, well before I was allowed candy of any sort, we had two gardens: an herb garden next to the house and a vegetable garden down by a pond that smelled like mud. I’d wander between the two, eating tiny strawberries, mint leaves, green beans snapped straight from the vine. There was a crabapple tree, too, with tiny fruit that made your lips pucker, and a plum tree on the edge of the woods. Summer still tastes like all of those things: fresh, grassy, a little unwashed but in a good way.
It’s winter now, though, and this winter tastes like hot toddies, peppermint canes, and double-chocolate cookies. I’m hibernating, I think, because all I want are warm alcoholic drinks and baked goods full of butter and sugar. They’ll put me to sleep just enough to dream of all the memorable meals I’ve eaten. I’d think of more but I can’t, because I don’t have time; the world is supposed to end in a few hours. If it does, don’t wake me up. I’m already dreaming of my last meal.