Feast or famine: literal or figurative, the phrase has come to define my career as a freelance food writer. In fat times, deadlines & bylines swirl past me like front pages in an old newsreel, & the weight I gain is a pittance to pay for the sense of purpose & productivity I—don’t we all?—live for. In lean times, my savings depleting & my self-esteem plummeting (but my weight still increasing—wha?), I look in the mirror in sheer panic & sadness & wonder what the hell I’m doing, how I’ll survive, if I’ll survive.
Guess which times these are.
In August, I’ll be marking my 3rd anniversary in Denver—& my 40th year on earth. In the looming shadow of the calendar, I find myself dwelling on better days past—on the shining forks in the road that led to this one, the bite I took here or sip I took there that so struck me with the pure joy of discovery that I felt I was being consumed by it as much as the other way around.
Do I wax poetic? Well, so be it: it was poetry that food writing all but replaced in my world as a result of such moments, as they accumulated & coalesced into something meaningful—into a personal narrative of which I was the fat, happy heroine.
On a day like today, when that story looks short, the ending bitter, & those memories in danger of revision in the light of my own petty failures, I’m feeling compelled to record a few of them while they remain clear & dear.
Cream soda & half-sours: a Jewish deli in Paterson, New Jersey
Summer glared where my grandparents lived amid brick tenements, scorched concrete & basketball courts that seemed to echo all the louder when no one was around. I was 8. In those days you couldn’t get a bagel in my Oklahoma hometown, never mind the chopped liver & pickled herring my father’d grown up on. Here there was dust in the sunlight as it crossed the wooden booths, the display counter filled with cylinders & slabs in shades of gray, the slatted barrels lining the wall. Someone dipped into one & brought over a dish—pickles, only much brighter green than any I’d ever seen. The crunch rang out—they weren’t so salty—they zinged, zang, zung, curled the sides of the tongue. The liquid in my tumbler was tan, not brown. It wasn’t cola. It tasted like ice cream. Sour, sweet. Sour, sweet. I went back & forth, back & forth.
French vanilla & daiquiri ice: double scoop at Baskin-Robbins
Sour, sweet. Sour, so sweet. I didn’t go back & forth, back & forth. I got a little of each on my spoon, the orange-yellow & the pale blue-green, & let them mingle, linger. I was 8 & my friends wanted chocolate & vanilla, adjectiveless. I must, I thought, be sophisticated.
Broiled swordfish: Durgin Park, Boston
The flight of stairs was dark, narrow & creaky. But the dining room at the top was bright, sprawling & creaky—wood scuffed all over & long tables covered in red-&-white-checked cloths. So we’d be sitting with strangers, like in the olden days, whatever those were—scuffed faces & denim overalls. Our waitress sounded like she was made of rotting wood, her voice falling apart. I was 11. The skyline had gleamed golden-blue as the plane touched down & I’d known at that moment I would live there someday. I almost didn’t need to see the city. Then I read the menu: swordfish. Swordfish. Would it glint silver & poke me in the mouth? Did it swashbuckle in the sea?
It had crossmarks all over it, like the pictures of steak platters on the placemat from Denny’s I cut out for Barbie & Ken to eat. Sprigs of curly parsley. I must, I thought, be fancy.
It tasted a little like steak. It tasted a lot like the darkness of the sea. Like I was embarking on something. Like some door was opening & I could go in.
What doesn’t go together: a trattoria in Atrani, Campagna
It was early; the place was empty except for the man who emerged from the kitchen to seat us, smiling. Perhaps he was 50; I was 28 & in love with Alex, with Italy through Alex as he led me through Venice & Ravenna, Lucca & Lecce, introducing me to Amarone & Schiacchetrà (shock-eh-trah, shock-eh-trah), to lardo (don’t think about it, just eat it, he insisted), to gelato (look for banana. Is it grayish? It’s a go. Golden-yellow? A go-elsewhere).
The man did not present menus. He asked us whether we’d like it if he cooked for us. We said yes. He beamed. He asked us what we liked—seafood? Pasta? We said yes. Then we would start with antipasto ai frutti di mare for 2 before moving to on the primo piatto—did we like this pasta or this pasta or this one? This sauce or that sauce or the other? This one, I said, with that sauce. He smiled again, sadly this time. He shook his head. Non possibile, he said, his tone apologetic but firm. They don’t go together. He suggested something else.
I don’t remember what it was; it doesn’t matter how it tasted. I was in love—with what lay in his refusal to pair a sauce with a shape that wouldn’t hold it, the gentle passion, the conviction, with all I had to learn. We returned the next night.
Arancini: a train station in Palermo, Sicily
August 15. My 29th birthday fell on a Sunday, but not just any day of rest—it was Ferragosto, a national holiday. Everything was closed. Everything. No one was around—no one. I couldn’t even get a gelato & I was bored & cranky. We wandered the empty streets shimmering with heat, passing the shells of bombed-out buildings as though it were 1943, the air raid had just ended & we were the first shocked, dust-covered survivors to emerge from our crushed homes.
A car slowed past us & came to a stop. The old man behind the wheel waved us over; after speaking with him a moment, Alex gestured at me to get in. I balked. I was not going to get in the car of a stranger in the headquarters of the Sicilian Mafia!
I got in. Come si chiama? the man asked. Ruth, I said. Brut’? he replied. Non è brut’. (“Ugly? You’re not ugly.”) Alex grinned.
We drove around Palermo. For two hours he guided us past landmarks—the operahouse, the mosque, La Martorana—describing what the Mob had done here to modernize the city or failed to do there to protect its own interests. That’s why there’s no bridge to the mainland, he explained—the Mob controls the ferry system. He pointed out his favorite restaurants & told us about his kids.
He asked Alex where we were staying & pulled up to the entrance of our pensione, bidding us ciao. Alex looked at me, then pulled out some lire. No, he said. Thank you for letting me show you my city.
He drove off, the lonely old man, & we made our way to the train station—we had an evening bus to catch to Siracusa. Even here, the café was closed. Alex approached a lone vendor selling snacks from a cart & returned with my dinner—a bottle of water & a paper bag. Happy birthday to me. Arancini, he explained. Deep-fried rice balls the size & color of oranges, hence the name.
The sun was setting as the bus emerged from the outskirts of town into low, green hills. It looked like Iowa. I pulled out a ball & bit in.
Crispy & melting, hot & oozing mozzarella. Tinged with saffron. My fingers orange. A rich brown ragù of chopped beef & peas spilling from the other.
It was the best birthday dinner ever.
Bistecca di cavallo: a trattoria in Trieste, Friuli–Venezia Giulia
It was early when we arrived; the place was empty. It was late when we left—the place was empty. If we’d known we’d be the only customers, would we have felt suspicious, uncomfortable, walked on by? No, not if we’d known with whom we’d be alone. A young man in a white shirt & black tie sat at the small bar in front, glued to the soccer match on a tiny old TV, antennae cocked. In back, half-visible through the doorway to the kitchen, a squat old lady, support hose drooping into her slippers, manned the stove. I was 32—was I still in love with Alex? Did it matter, since he (it was clear now; from the right angle, it probably always was) didn’t love me? Was this our last trip to Italy, the last time we’d wander quieter streets—Rome’s cobblestones, Perugia’s walled alleyways, Bologna’s arcades—in search of the place, just the place for our kind of romance—seated, eating—sharing too much wine with umbrichelli al tartufo, with vitello tonnato or zuppa di pesce or pizza con i fiori di zucca?
All I knew was that something more than mere curiosity, something urgent & somehow tender, sweet, already nostalgic, was compelling us to order horsemeat from the young man, our waiter, the only waiter.
The horsemeat was not tender or sweet. It was gamey & tough. It was what it was. We couldn’t complain. We definitely couldn’t complain. Our waiter cheered. His team had just scored. He came over with 3 shots of grappa & told us we should go to Croatia, where the beaches were beautiful, the nightclubs on fire. His team scored again; he brought another round. A third. He was his mamma’s only son. She was still back there cooking for no one in particular.
Fried oysters with pickled beef tongue: Neptune Oyster, Boston
If you ever order fried oysters & it turns out they come in a pile with shreds of pickled beef tongue, & then sauerkraut, & then melted gruyère, & then Russian dressing, don’t assume the chef just had a nervous breakdown over your dinner & ran out of the kitchen screaming. Eat it. It will change your life.