The Most Memorable Meals We Ever Had
Let's remember some meals
As I’ve mentioned a few times already, this newsletter was recently selected for a fellowship in Substack’s new Food Writers’ Intensive program. The humble home of the Kentuckiana Hot Loin stands aside an impressive cohort of immensely talented writers speaking on a wide range of subjects from coffee and snack foods to Jewish and African cuisine to natural wine and more.
It’s a terrific honor, and I think it’ll mean nothing but good things for this newsletter going forward.
One of the things we’ve been talking about in our sessions recently is the importance of building community with your readers, and that’s one area where I’m proud to say this newsletter excels. I’m always thrilled when I share something and a lively conversation ensues, and in my book there isn’t a better group of readers anywhere on this here internet. I’d like to take credit for that community forming, but a large part of it is luck and a larger part of it is simply you showing up here and doing your thing.
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I’ve been encouraging discussions more and more lately, and that’s not just because it makes my job easier. (Though, it does.)
You all have a lot to say, and I love to hear it.
Never is this more true on food-related topics, and that makes sense. Food is universal! With a few exceptions, we all eat every day, and yet no day of food is exactly the same. That means that everyone’s got a unique perspective to share. Meanwhile, food is intensely linked to memory. The lasting image of so many trips I’ve taken, birthdays or anniversaries I’ve celebrated, or new experiences I’ve had center around what I ate at the time. I may not be able to remember everything I was supposed to do at work today or where I left my car keys, but I can remember a meal I had seventeen years ago like it was yesterday.
With that in mind, I’d like to talk briefly about some of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had. Then, I want to hear about yours!
Thinking bout those beans
In grad school, I did an internship with an architecture firm in Barcelona. To my surprise and delight, a week after the gig started, the firm closed for eight days for Holy Week observances. I took that unexpected opportunity to buy a cheap train ticket and bum around the country with no agenda, and I ended up in the southern city of Alicante.
At the hostel I was staying in, I learned that a great place to watch the ceremonial Easter week processions (you know, the things that look really unnerving as an American who has very different associations with the costumes the penitents wear) was a stair-step, car-free street in one of the old neighborhoods that climb up the hills to the old castle.
(It may or may not have been this street. It looked like this.)
I staked out a spot in the late afternoon, and parked my clueless American tourist butt down. Soon, the street was filled with families celebrating, eating, passing dishes around to share with everyone. Even as a random stranger, I was offered to join, and one of the dishes that was put in front of me was a plate of gigantes beans stewed in tomatoes and olive oil.
(I didn’t get a picture, but it looked something like this.)
It’s just beans, right? But it’s a dish that’s forever imbued with joy for me, as it recalls sharing a special moment with strangers and being welcomed in.
(I’ve been a fan of gigantes ever since, and have taken my own spin on things since.)
The Best Lousy Takeout Burger Ever
I don’t remember where we ordered the cheeseburger and fries from. Neither the cheeseburger nor fries were very good, and I don’t think I even finished them. But I had just finished the New York City Marathon. I weighed myself that morning, and weighed myself again when I got home, and I lost nine pounds that day.
The first bite of that burger was the most satisfying bite of food I’ve ever taken.
In 2011, my then-girlfriend and I were living in Park Slope, Brooklyn, relishing the wealth of restaurants a short walk from our apartment. For her birthday, I’d made a reservation at Applewood, a farm-to-table restaurant that some cursory Googling tells me closed in 2016. We had just been seated and were looking at menus when the building abruptly lost power. We offered to leave, assuming there was no way that dinner service could continue, but the server offered that the kitchen had daylight and the gas service was still functioning, so “we’re up for it if you are”.
We ate by candlelight in a dining room that crept past 80 degrees through the night. They began to turn new diners away—apparently the kitchen was getting quite hot, it was late July—but served excellent multi-course dinners to everyone who stayed. It remains the most impressive kitchen effort I’ve ever seen.
(We tipped accordingly, of course.)
“Ah, the party of four”
I believe this was the same year—we’d traveled home for the holidays to see her family in Indiana and mine in Ohio, and we were in suburban Columbus for New Year’s Eve. My parents offered that a small-chain barbecue restaurant they liked had advertised a NYE dinner, with the knowing caveat that “it’s better than staying in, right?”
When we got to the door and my father told the host we were a party of four, the host immediately nodded and said “ah, you must be the Hines party”.
We were the only guests that had booked that entire night. Once again, we offered to leave, but the staff insisted that they had to stay at midnight. We persisted, offering that they could “lock the doors and have fun without any customers in your way”.
We met in the middle, eating our meal and then taking our champagne toast with the kitchen staff before going home at 10:30pm.
The Time I Ordered A Pizza With Olives In Germany
I understand that pizza was invented in Europe and that different countries have different ideas of what constitute appropriate pizza toppings but it has been nearly two decades and I cannot fathom the reasoning behind putting whole olives with the pits still in them on a pizza. I nearly broke a tooth. What the hell, Germany.
In the eight minutes after I posted this photo, the Cincinnati Bearcats scored three unanswered touchdowns and sealed a perfect regular season and historic College Football Playoff bid. (Have you heard about this? Have I mentioned this?)
The coneys were tasty, too.
Watching my kids eat a bell pepper fresh off the vine
My gardening efforts over the years have been hit and miss. One year, I planted zucchini too close to everything else, not realizing zucchini’s ability to spread, sprawl and smother everything in a ten-foot radius. Another year, the local rule of “don’t plant your garden until after the Kentucky Derby” failed me, when a shock frost two weeks after Derby left me frantically covering tomato plants with canvas grocery bags after dusk.
When I factor in the cost of the garden bed, the soil, the plants, the lumber and chicken wire I used to build a squirrel-proof cage around it all, and the water bill I run up keeping it alive in the scorching Kentucky summers, I’m sure I’m facing caviar-like actual per-pound prices on my produce.
Two summers ago, though, my then 5- and 4-year-old children took a break from playing in the sprinkler to pluck a fresh green pepper right off the vine. They sat there at the picnic table, dripping wet in their swimsuits, and passed that pepper back and forth, eating it like an apple and savoring every bit of it.
That might be the most memorable meal I’ve ever had, and I didn’t even get a bite.
What’s the most memorable meal (or meals) you’ve ever had, for whatever reason?
A Chipotle burrito: steak, pintos, white rice. That’s all. Seems pretty small and uninteresting, but across the table from me was the woman I would end up marrying. We were friends-of-friends and I’d been to her house a couple weeks earlier, and one afternoon she asked if I wanted to grab lunch. Chick-fil-a was busy so we went next door to Chipotle and got burritos. That turned into going to the park to feed ducks, then she tagged along that night while I covered an elementary school musical for the newspaper where I worked and we wandered the aisles at Walmart to kill time. It was love at first sight, all because of a simple burrito.
That was 15 years ago last month, and now that she’s gone, Duck Day is going to be one of the lasting memories I hold on to.
My father had passed away days before Thanksgiving a few years ago. Very early in the grieving process we decided we still wanted to celebrate the holiday; even a stripped down version of Thanksgiving would have been better than just skipping it. My older brother to his everlasting credit was the one who made all the calls to tell family and friends what had happened.
My dad was a member of a golf club nearby and when my brother called, they offered to cook our Thanksgiving dinner for us. So, Thanksgiving morning my brother and I drove to pick it up and we were embraced by the warmest people who shared their genuine love for my dad with us. Whether the food was good or not was irrelevant (it was very, very good). The circumstances around that particular Thanksgiving were less than ideal – but the memory of a simple kindness tethered to the meal itself puts it over the top for me…. and the pie.