Foods I Miss the Most
Steak: I’m surprised this came to mind first. I didn’t eat steak, or other beef, real often, but I do (well, I did) love a New York strip or ribeye seared to have a satisfying slight char on the outside, then cooked medium/medium-well on the inside—with a juicy line of pink in the middle. I salt steaks generously. I occasionally add sauted onions or mushrooms on top, but nothing beats the simple pleasure of the right combination of meat, heat, and salt.
Part of my grief is the diminishment of the entire grilling experience. The routine—preparing the grill, lighting the charcoal, waiting, preparing the meat, checking the coals, cleaning the grate, cooking—was always satisfying. It never got old. With my previous grill, a round black kettle style, I piled the hot coals on a slant so that one side was piled higher, and thus was hotter (for searing), and the other side less so (for cooking the middle without burning the outside). With my new grill, I can, with the turn of a crank, raise or lower the coals for the same purposes. I would often drink a diet soda, wine, or beer while cooking. If we had company over, someone might join me on the deck, and we would talk about whatever, watch the birds, listen to music.
I still cook steaks, but without the tasty payoff at the dinner table it’s not the same. For me now, all meat, regardless of the source or quality, is bland chewiness. I can tell if it’s overcooked, but I can’t tell if it’s good or not. Grilling for friends is still fun because having friends over and feeding them is fun. I like the compliments, but I would prefer to be able to say, “You’re right. This is good.”
Coffee: Oh, I still drink it—copious amounts—even though I can’t taste it. It’s not that I need the caffeine boost; it’s just what I do in the morning. Coffee is one of those things about which I will sometimes reply to the question, “Can you taste __________?” with “No, but I know it’s there.” Some foods/drinks have a discernable sensation separate from their taste, and coffee is one of them. (Same goes for apricots and pretzels.) Nowadays, for me, coffee is often a brown bitterness (I know, yuck), but that doesn’t stop a well established habit from marching on. I get to continue all those coffee quips, even if I don’t really mean them: “Oh, no thanks, I’ve had enough coffee for today.” “Oops, sorry about that, I haven’t had my coffee for today!” “OK, just one more cup, and then I’m done.” Those are fun, if dripping with cliché-ness, but clichés are sometimes useful. They can give us a way of being together without having to really try, and sometimes that’s good enough for that moment.
Chocolate: I had not bought into the chocolate as the dessert of the gods mythology or as a special emotional/spiritual elixir for whatever ails you, but now that I can’t taste it, I think I might have been wrong. Sometimes I have an urge that says I deserve some chocolate, and nothing else will do. Eating chocolate makes—er, made—me feel special. How to describe a taste? I can’t do it. Chocolate is sweet, yes, but it’s so much more. The bitterness of the cacao bean is tamed by the sugar, to varying degrees, but that original bean’s acerbic charisma persists through the sugar. That makes for a pleasurable experience that both feels delightful (thank you, butter) and tastes sumptuous. Nuts, fruit, caramel, crispy rice, and all the other additions are delicious, but chocolate alone can be magical. Chocolate has a distinctive feel and texture—smooth, creamy, delightful—that I still recognize, but (you’re probably tired of reading this by now) it’s not the same without the taste. I occasionally eat chocolate covered toffee because the texture is so recognizable, which makes the memory vivid: oh, the creamy and the crunchy, oh yes, yes. Still.
Ice cream: The creamy-cold combination is still nice, but is now such a letdown. In the past, I would crave ice cream and absolutely have to have it. Once I had a hankering for Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Crunch, and I drove from place to place until I finally found it. I brought a spoon with me and it was gone by the time I got home. Now, I skip desserts altogether.
Carrot cake: Back when I wanted birthday cakes, I often requested carrot cake with cream cheese frosting. Carrots have almost as much sugar as sugar beets, so, historically, they were used in desserts when sweeteners were scarce (due to climate or rationing, e.g.). When that frosting (sweet but taken in an odd direction by the cream cheese) and the allspice met in my mouth—oh, wow.
Barbecue: By this I mean slow-cooked meat, not steaks. I heard about beer can chicken from Matthew McConaughey on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” (When I worked at home as a writer, I took many breaks, often wandering upstairs to the rec room and absent-mindedly turning on the TV and plopping on the sofa for a while.) Soon after that, the recipe appeared in the New York Times Wednesday Dining section. I took that as a sign that I had to make it. The recipe calls for putting chicken rub not only on the chicken but in the beer. The beer can then goes inside the chicken cavity while the bird cooks slowly for several hours. The beer can and the two legs make a tripod that helps the bird stand erect on the grill. The seasoned beer bubbles and steams from the inside out. The meat is juicy and flavorful and always a hit when I make it.
I learned to cook pork ribs (I know, I know, from pigs grown in terrible conditions—rubbing my hands over my ears and saying “la-la-la-la-la”) from my wife’s Uncle Tom, who taught me to mix two different kinds of barbecue sauce (Scott’s and Carolina Treat) and brush them on the ribs late in the cooking so the sauce doesn’t burn. The slow cooking melts the fat, which infuses flavor into the meat. (Cholesterol, schmolesterol.) Dear Lord, that is good, and I still feel grateful and fortunate that he shared his cooking tips with me.
Beer and wine: Even after I lost my taste and smell, I could, to an extent, enjoy chilled white wine (red is rancid) and cold wheat beer with lime, but eventually I had to quit. I am composing a blog post explaining how I came to drink too much and why I quit, but I haven’t yet decided how much to tell.
The green beans, salt-and-pepper shrimp, and chicken in clay pot at Michele and Daniel’s restaurant (which I’ve been told is now closed): I’m actually referring to any favored dish that I associate with a particular restaurant and which drew me back repeatedly. I still vividly recall the first time I tasted their chicken in clay pot with its zingy ginger. I’ve made it a few times myself, and it’s good, but not Michelle/Daniel good. The salt and pepper shrimp had a crunchy but light breading, which was seasoned lightly and perfectly. If we caught them in season, their snow pea leaves (that’s right, the leaves, not the peas) were spectacular. Even after they turned the place—disappointingly—into a buffet restaurant, Michelle would sometimes surprise us by bringing (unordered) snow pea leaves to our table. Their green beans was one of the few vegetables that my daughter would eat enthusiastically as a child. We took her there as an infant, and she slept while we ate, then as she became a toddler, the wonderful Michelle would sometimes carry her around the restaurant so my wife and I could have some adult conversation.
These days, I still eat in restaurants (mainly inexpensive ones), but that whole experience (the relationships, the repetition of pleasure, the planning to return) that was once so enjoyable is now a memory.
Biscuits: Over the last 15 years or so, I have rarely eaten them, even before I lost my taste and smell, for health reasons, but when I did, I loved them. Transfats notwithstanding, I loved a biscuit with sausage or bacon or chicken, or with butter and jelly. Or just plain.
The last time I ate a chicken biscuit, I had driven 50 miles on a Saturday morning to “rescue” native plants from an impending new neighborhood, with the Georgia Native Plant Society, and plant them in my yard. I stopped at a RaceTrac, took a bulb-heated foil-wrapped chicken biscuit to the cashier, a friendly young woman who handed me a free chicken biscuit coupon and said someone had left it there. I interrupted and said, “And you decided to give it to the most handsome guy you see today.” She chuckled and rang it up for $00.00. Back in my truck, I ate it, full of disappointment, and haven’t eaten one since. (I dug up some good plants, however.)
A hot buttermilk biscuit made me feel like my mouth was blessed by God. The flavor was delicious, of course, but they also evoked heartwarming childhood memories. My mom made us a traditional Southern breakfast—for her six children, herself, and my dad—even though she worked full-time as a college teacher. We had biscuits, eggs, sausage or bacon (sometimes both), grits, and orange juice (which she strained). When she stirred me in the morning with her chipper “Up! Up! Up! Breakfast! Breakfast! Breakfast!”I thought nothing about how early she had risen to get herself ready for work, fix a huge breakfast for eight, then make sure we were off to school. My daughter rarely eats much of anything for breakfast before school, and if she does it’s a small tub of yogurt or a breakfast bar, and we’re barely out the door on time. How in the name of Southern womanhood did Mary Catherine Gentry do it?
For me as an adult, a biscuit was not only about flavor. The joy of it was also in recalling a monumental mother’s effort of love and nurturing—which has shaped my personality in ways I’m not always consciously aware. I witnessed up close a generosity of spirit, a determination to be what her family needed, which certainly seeped into me. She fed our souls, too.