My husband and I had our blindfolds on, nervously waiting. This was not some class in tantric technique—we’re not flexible enough for that—but rather an evening of a seven-course meal, in the dark. We were to experience food in a new way, let our senses lead us. A waiter leaned in and whispered with some sultry accent in my ear: “It’s just in front of you. You will need to bring it slowly to your mouth.” I told my husband “I’m afraid it won’t fit in my mouth.”
“That’s what she said,” he replied and we giggled.
I opened my mouth, not wide enough at first, but then I adjusted. There was a slight roughness against my tongue, and the familiar crisp of bread. Slightly crusty on the outside, with a pleasant give to my teeth. Then a rush of the most amazing butter I have ever had. A mind-blowing butter. A butter of the gods. Rich, creamy, slightly salty. My body reacted immediately. I actually started to salivate. Or…that might have been the melted butter coursing down my chin. (Let’s hope it was the butter.) I chewed and atoms collided. Atoms are always colliding, I know, but this time I could feel them. “That’s the best toast I’ve ever had,” I said. When we removed our blindfolds, we saw the crostini in front of us, and the smooth layer of not butter, but of bone marrow. For a woman who waxes vegetarian, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. “I think my brain just expanded,” I said. My husband laughed and said: “Feels kinda good doesn’t it?”
When speaking of love, we talk of our hearts and our souls and the people who share our space and life. We speak of the first kiss, the first time, the first loss. We know that dating is different somehow than marriage and a marriage somehow weaves two separate people into a single unit, that friendships are transformative, that children are maddeningly magnificent. But our hearts and minds also can be shaped by other things: experiences, travel…and food.
There have been pivotal moments in my life where I have felt a continental shift in my spirit caused by a mouthful of food. A shift in my ideas, my understanding, and sometimes of my passion.
I was raised in Michigan. My favorite childhood meal was Swanson’s Frozen Chicken, Mashed Potatoes, Corn and Brownie. The brownie was important. A close second for my favorite dinner was Chipped Beef, made by frying lunchmeat in butter, making a slurry of milk and flour, warming it all up and plopping it on toast. As a teen, my sister and I would make Hamburger Helper’s Tuna Pot Pie and hope that no one would want seconds so we could have it again for breakfast. My culinary landscape was populated by Nestle Quick and Tater Tot Casserole. I had never heard of curry. I lived in a world that was flat and populated by casseroles.
In college, I tasted sourdough for the first time. I did not believe my roommate when she told me the bread was perfectly good. “There’s nothing wrong with it! They make it this way on purpose!” I took a small bite and broke out into a sweat. “Why would anyone want sour bread?” I asked. I truly wanted to know. “It doesn’t make sense!” Later that night, I would dream of ripping the bread into little bites and popping it in my mouth so my tongue could wrestle with it. That bread brought a part of my taste-buds alive…a part of me brought to life that I didn’t even know existed. My roommate would later catch me with my own loaf of sourdough bread purchased at the Spartan store. We did not speak of it, but nodded in understanding.
I tried goat cheese and pesto on a brick oven pizza in Stratford, Canada during their Shakespeare festival. I ordered it because it sounded smart. I figured smart people watched Shakespeare and if they ate goat cheese, then I would eat goat cheese too. I sipped an Orangina with it and felt like I was drinking culture.
When I lived in Miami for a brief time with my then-fiancé, I tried plantain chips and Cuban coffee. My lips tingled. They ached. I asked for more. My boyfriend had a friend in grad school who wanted to cook us a traditional Indian meal. I thought that meant there would be something with Maize. I didn’t understand what chick peas were and cilantro tasted slightly of soap, but something in me quivered. It wasn’t indigestion, but a sort of joy unfurling, the way flower petals unfurl in the early morning. I tried spicy potato samosas, and poppadums that were like crisp paper with a hint of heat. Tator tots did not exist in my world anymore. I fell asleep to the rise and fall of lassis and chutneys, or picadillo and peppers.
Each new food I experienced challenged me to the core. It made me question my understanding of my environment and even myself. The world was far more vast than I expected and understood, and my own body was capable of feeling and experiencing things that I’d never thought existed. It was like seeing new colors in the rainbow, without being on LSD.
When I returned to Michigan, I worked in a high-end restaurant. Each night, we would try a new wine. At first I gagged on the taste. A chardonnay that was so oaky it creaked seemed to lodge in my throat. But gradually, as my palate grew accustomed to new universes, I could taste lemon, and cantaloupe, blackberries, cherries. I could taste summers and rain, and sometimes I would cry. Food…this kind of food and experience…could make me swoon. There should be more swooning in one’s life, I think.
I would taste beef wellington, tapas, pad thai and green curry so creamy and spicy that it could cure your cold. In France, I tried delicate macarons that were never too sweet, and salad with a dressing that combined mustard with shallots.
Food would become something that marked occasions: the crusty cornmeal pizza on the shore of Lake Michigan where we watched the meteor shower as the waves rolled against the sand; the Christmas where we ordered a Turducken with Cajun seasoning and got drunk on Mai Tais while the kids decapitated a reindeer piñata and pranced around with it a la Lord Of The Flies; the wedding where my husband and I created a menu of appetizers to appeal to the meat-eating-vegan-loving-gluten-free-carbo-loading-lactose-intollerant-lactose-loving mixture of our two different worlds colliding.
Food became a language for me. A way to connect not just with others, but with the tiny tendrils of my hungry little spirit. Food taught me to move past boundaries. To explore. To endure. To live fully and with joy.
I still make Tater Tot Casserole. It reminds my kids of camp, and it reminds me of where I started and who I was. I have a Pinterest board that is populated with recipes from every cuisine imaginable. They are my ticket to keep my brain expanding and reaching out, even as my waistline probably does the same. Good food, shared with a loved one, or on your own, is truly transformative.
This spring, we picked Morels in the lush Michigan woods and came home smelling of fresh leeks and trillium, those delicate white flowers. I sliced the morels in half and soaked them in a water bath laced with salt to draw out the bugs. I melted the butter, dried the morels, and slid them lovingly into the pan. I watched them tremble in the pan, shivering into a smaller morsel, collapsing into themselves, transforming from earth to delicacy before my eyes. When they were glistening and streaked with golden edges, I spooned them onto plates, and sprinkled them with salt. My husband and I ate them, our eyes wide open, nodding to each other that this, this simple act of eating, was a beautiful thing, and something for which to be deeply grateful.