What's the most interesting, strangest, or haunting encounter you've had with food at a restaurant or cooking, etc?Meg Tuite
It was a glorious season in the Sea of Cortez, spearfishing every day for our dinner and enjoying a never-ending supply of three of my favorite things: cilantro, lime and chilis. I fell in love with the mild poblano; chipotle turned chili con carne deep and smoky; jalape˜no became a standard in my spicy tomato-corn salsa; and serranos were a must in any respectable salsa verde poured over fish tacos.
Sometimes I’d use the serrano to heighten the flavor of my creamy cilantro sauce served over grilled chicken or fish. And I always used a serrano or jalapeno for ceviche, depending on which was available in my pepper basket on that particular day. Each of these chilis is measured by how many parts per million of capsaicin a pepper contains, and how much dilution is needed to drown out the heat. A rub with a serrano might not be such a big deal. Right? But the serrano is sharp enough, and the effect is immediate. I felt the full power of the serrano’s 30,000 units one day: they burned into my skin, and into my memory. Here it is, in all its scorching bluntness: Do not ever chop chili peppers and then change your tampon. You do not know the meaning of caliente until you’ve done this. Forget that itchy-hot sensation you get when you chop chilis and inadvertently scratch your nose. This is a brutal hot on a whole different level. There is no scale for this (or for the degree of embarrassment, especially if your mother-in-law is visiting).
It was a Sunday. I was hungover. Some friends and I met up for brunch at the busiest diner in our neighborhood. The place was packed, as usual. We laughed cause we all ordered the same thing. Two eggs over-easy, hash browns, and bacon along with Bloody Marys. The waitress was quick, considering all the tables were full. We toasted and then I picked up my fork. There’s that moment when you appraise your plate before digging in. I’m forever thankful for that moment. I found out I’m not a screamer. My face became masklike and I believe I stopped blinking. The friend sitting next to me, said ‘Anne, what’s wrong?” as she shoveled a forkful of eggs and potatoes into her mouth. She stared at my plate. It took a few moments before she focused in on the issue. I couldn’t speak. The waitress was just passing and my friend said, “there’s some thing on her plate,” as she pointed at my setting. The waitress said, “What hon, more coffee?” and then her eyes connected with the foreign object and opened as wide as ours. Apparently, none of us were screamers. We all stared down at my hash browns. Fried into the middle of the batch was a fleshy, hairy rat’s tail that melded its beige with the surrounding potatoes. I could feel tears on my face, but no sound. The waitress picked up the plate and ran to the kitchen. When she came back she said two things. “I guess it was in with the bag of potatoes,” and “I’m so sorry. Can I get you anything else?” We stood up and stared at her as she mumbled. We moved quickly toward the exit.
Every time I had to drive by that place I started to shake. I didn’t go out for breakfast for years. When the restaurant changed hands and the new name was ‘The Breakfast Club’, I looked over at my husband in the car and said, “That’s one goddamn club I will NEVER belong to.”Anne Taffe
The aroma guided me. I had been wandering the streets, breathing in the air of the beloved city, peering into store windows, cawing with the birds. I’d seen the relatives, cried with his bereft partner, placed bromeliads at the family gravestone. Obligations done, I was open to chance, to impressions, to memories, with no destination in mind.
It was pungent.
My childhood calling.
By the scruff of the neck I was led down a stone staircase. The squinting fellow at the entrance hardly looked up from his crossword, twirled one finger, and motioned me in with his head.
The intensity of the cheese. Somewhere in the recesses behind the curtain I heard running water and a plaintive soprano singing “Janosicek, Suhajicek.”
Heavy vapor from a cauldron of boiling water embracing a freshly poured batch of dumpling batter.
My eyes squinted and adjusted to the dimness of the echoing bistro. Twelve small tables, three occupied. I chose one furthest away from the unseeing, gorging aficionados engaged with their spoons.
I settled. Through the curtain a tureen appeared and my eyes followed it. Words issued from the mouth of the waitperson but I did not distinguish them. The delight was steaming. I ladled the first serving into my bowl, dug in. Food of the gods, straight from the salašes of the Tatra Mountains, Bryndzové Halušky, dumplings with bryndza cheese and bacon. I slurped, inhaled the nectar of the cheesy sauce, chewed the delicate potato dumplings, savored the melting. I was transported, ladled a second serving, and a third. It was impossible to be sated. I leaned back finally, for a brief respite before digging in for more.
My father sat across the table from me. His neck still bore the marks of the rope. I delivered his eulogy a week ago. He raised a glass and we clinked. “Slovak to the core, both of us, no matter where we locate,” he rasped. “On this side of the divide, and that.” I filled a spoon, lifted it to the spectral mouth. He swallowed, smacked his lips, nodded. I filled a second spoon for him but he was no more.
“Fare thee well, Father.”Andrew Stancek
I’d been hearing a quiet scratching in the walls for at least a month, faint and infrequent enough that I allowed it to recede into the corners of my consciousness, until one day I saw a mouse dart across the hallway. Steeling my nerves, I ventured into the adjoining apartment where my grandmother had lived. For some vague reason I’d been avoiding it. In the back room I discovered shelves of food storage had been ravaged by mice living in the couch. Canisters of freeze-dried soups fared much better than bags of beans and chips, gnawed by tiny teeth, surrounded by piles of black droppings. Mice poison was scattered through the room, holes were drilled in the walls, and the cats were kept away. The cats had been keeping vigil outside the couch where the mice were. It was an antique, which had belonged to my grandmother, gutted inside by the furry interlopers. Once the poison took effect and the mice population had dwindled, we took out all the food stores, cans, bags, and boxes, and there was the absolute piece de resistance: The mice had drained a case of water bottles and created nests inside them, with soft bits of foam rubber torn to shreds at the bottom of the bottles, like little luxury apartments for the industrious rodent with a taste for the finer things.Katharyn Grant
I once vomited on the burgundy carpeting of a steakhouse because I smelled lobster. Just a whiff of the buttered meat was all it took to get me physically ill. I was five years old at the time, waiting in line with my parents for a plush booth in the dimly lit dining room. Although I loved to go out for a steak dinner, my appetite was always held in check by the possibility that someone might start crunching a freshly boiled exoskeleton at an adjacent table. That crunching was the root of my revulsion. Most food can be consumed silently, but a double-jawed lobster cracker was starkly audible. It was the sound of death: a final reminder that one of those black alien creatures bunched up in the fish tank at the entrance to the restaurant was now on someone’s plate.Craig Fishbane
My most successful diet was in 1987, when I lost 35 pounds in 3 months. How did I do it? By eating very little, avoiding high-calorie items, and stuffing myself with lots of vegetable fiber. I ate enough steamed broccoli to last a lifetime. The diet was tough going, but I discovered a survival mechanism that worked for me: sniffing. In fact, I told people I was on the sniffing diet. Across the street from my office was a sausage guy. At lunch I’d eat a bunch of vegetables at my desk, then I’d go out and loiter by the sausage cart, sniffing Italian sausages and onions. It was surprisingly satisfying. Indian restaurants are often pretty generous when it comes to offering aromas to the street. When I lost those 35 pounds I was over thirty, so I was old enough to realize that three months wasn’t such a long time; I’d be able to eat what I loved in due time. And sniff.Peter Cherches
The man standing next to us, outside the Rive Gauche market, must’ve thought we were penniless hippies—teenaged runaways perhaps. “Hungry?” he asked. That we were. All those cheeses and meats in the window display. What was in his shopping bag, I wondered. Perfect loaves of crusty bread? The fixings for a nice cassoulet? Follow me, he gestured. Down the street we went, and upstairs, to his apartment. His wife smiled at us and took the man’s shopping bag into the kitchen. “Sit, please,” he said, in English far less broken than our own French, and went into the kitchen. We thumbed through a communist newspaper on the dining room table while we waited. Returning, the man set four bowls on the table. Bowls . . . for boeuf bourguignon? No, the aroma filling the apartment was sweet. What could it be? A dinner bell rang. Down the hall ran a little boy and a little girl. They sat down at the table across from us. The woman appeared with lipstick on. While she put on her jacket, the man ladled tapioca pudding into the bowls. “Bon appétit!” they said, together. And left the apartment, to enjoy the rest of their evening. We stared at the kids.Ray Nessly
After the night Mom asked my brother Bobby if he’d had a wet dream yet, we never had dinner as a family again. However, one Sunday my mother called us all to the table in the middle of the day.
“Welcome! Welcome! It’s so good of you to come!” Mom announced, swinging an arm wide, directing our attention to the kitchen table, walnut, as it turned out, without its flowered plastic tablecloth. It was set formally, with cloth napkins and the good china we usually only used in the dining room on Thanksgiving. She took each of our hands as she welcomed us as Neil Armstrong, Milan, Apple Jack and Milquetoast before introducing herself, as our hostess, Mrs. Monotonous.
“Polly,” Dad said, in a low steady voice.
Mom waved him off, pushing him without quite touching him, toward the table, describing the “high tea” menu in a fascinating, upper-class southern drawl. She was Mom and not Mom. The accent wasn’t flat-vowelled and hollar-borne, but like something from the movies, and her voice itself bore no resemblance to her usual house-voice used to call us inside. No, this was her singing voice, untethered from lyrics, a gentile melody of offering and apology but with an edge.
The table was set with red-pop “tea” in the fine bone coffee cups her customers gave her on special occasions. The tea-pot, also a fragile floral pattern, that usually sat on the top shelf of the dining room hutch, sat in the very middle of the table, its placement promising more. She swooped around, from the counter, to the table, bringing plates of toast and little jars of jam and marmalade to be ladled out with tiny spoons. She wore an apron I didn’t even know she had, frilly, with fold-marks from its place in some drawer. The rest of us looked at each other. I knew I shouldn’t participate but couldn’t help myself. Mike was in as soon as he saw food. She waved me into my spot in the corner and then was back at the counter while I cracked the window.
“Did you bring me any moonrocks, Neil?” She asked Bobby. Placing a pyramid-platter of Russian teacakes, his favorite cookie, directly in front of him, before asking, “May I serve you?”
Bobby remained silent. Mom swiveled toward Mike who was already holding out his cup. She filled it. He downed it in one swallow.
“Oh take your time, savor it, Applejack! We have all afternoon, and there’s plenty to go around.” She refilled his cup, then placed her hand over his, directing, until his cup was back on his saucer. He put his hands in his lap and watched, eyes wide, as Mom poured Dad and mine before returning to Bobby.
“Jasper has really grown,” Mom said, the first time she had ever referred to the cat by its name. “He must have missed you on your voyage.”
It had to be killing her not to comment on the propriety cats at the table, but she didn’t say anything else about Jasper, just lifted the pot again in offering. Bobby lowered his arm slowly and released the kitten to the floor. I could hear it scamper up the stairs to the safety of the boys’ room. Smart cat, I thought. Mom pulled one end of the bow of the apron, and it fell loose. She folded it carefully before setting it on the extra kitchen chair she kept in the corner by the telephone for her marathon sessions with her sisters. She moved to sit down, but first she reached around me.
“Much too cold for the window,” Mrs. Monotonous announced, yanking the window in and pulling the handle fast.
Dad pulled his chair up with resignation as she brought a Sarah Lee cake, vanilla with coconut frosting, mostly defrosted, out of the fridge. She smoothed her lap as she took her seat, as if she were wearing a dress, then gently took the tiny spoon Mike was using to scrape margarine onto a triangle of toast and expanded on the introductions, introducing each of us to the other before taking up our plates, asking our preferences, as if she didn’t already know them, and handing them back. She made a big show of opening her napkin, which had not quite taken on the hat-shape of those perfectly folded linens in nicer restaurants, so that we would take our own and put them on our laps, hold us down.
“We have caviar and cocktail weenies,” Mrs. Monotonous told us, motioning toward the marmalade and halved Vienna sausages, cheese melted onto their tops.
“And a variety of crudettes.”
Crudettes evidently meant carrots and celery stuffed with peanut butter.
“Of course we have tea cakes,” she held her hand at an angle as she moved it over both the cookies and the cakes, a movement like a showroom girl on The Price Is Right, which seemed odd since she never, ever watched television.
I was Milan. I imagined Mom must have read the name in some book, because she did read, before the beauty shop had consumed her, but later, I discovered it was the name of a Pepperidge Farm, her favorite brand, cookie. Mike was named after the cereal he liked to sneak when no one was watching, filling his pockets with it before taking a handful to his mouth to crunch when no one was in earshot, but Milquetoast was a mystery to me at the time. I guessed it was toast.
“How was work today? You must be so tired. You work so hard,” Mrs. Monotonous said to Dad in an almost-babying voice, pursing her lips and frowning slightly, just in the middle, in a way I already knew to associate with pity. He didn’t answer.
Applejack had decided on his own that he was an archeologist and had spent his day digging up dinosaur bones. “Makes a man mighty thirsty,” he said, holding up his cup again and again, to be refilled despite a dark look from Dad.
“These cups are so small,” Mrs. Monotonous addressed Milquetoast. “And the desert is so dry.”
We practiced our manners that day, saying “please” and “thank you” and talking to each other so sweetly that it was almost as if we were some other people, some other family. Mrs. Monotonous corrected us if we called each other by our real names. I slipped once and called her Mom.
“You’re such a beautiful girl,” she said, correcting me. “I would be so proud to be your mother.”
And then she winked. She never spoke to me like that, never said she thought I was beautiful. After that, I came around, nibbling at the sweets and lifting my cup for a refill. Mrs. Monotonous didn’t feel real, but real didn’t feel good. Bobby, who had always loved to play pretend and particularly pretend-rich, making his own paper money and credit cards and wearing his robe with one of Mom’s scarves shoved into the throat as an ascot, relaxed and was happy to talk about his ticker-tape parade in New York City following splashdown and pretend the marmalade was caviar. I was mostly quiet but pulled out what I believed to be an accurate answer about the Orient out when Mrs. Monotonous asked me a question. Dad simmered, ignoring her questions when she addressed him, but answering ours as the boys started to play along, and it was fun we realized. We could just play together, could simply pretend without the reality of wet dreams, trouble at school, or beauty shop stories.Tiff Holland
I walked into Dunkin Donuts this morning for my first coffee of the day. I forgot I was wearing one of my Phish concert t-shirts.
“You like Phish?” Asked the guy behind the counter, with excitement, as he must have been a fan of the band.
“No, man. Just a medium coffee and a Boston Creme,” I responded. I really didn’t want any fish for breakfast.Chuck Howe