Even though many people don’t think it is a delicious food at all, the best comfort food for Husband is Cincinnati chili, a meat sauce with twinges of cinnamon and chocolate that is somewhat unremarkable but is quite elevated when layered on a bun with a huge quantity of sharp cheddar cheese on top. We made it even better by frying sweet potatoes in butter, pouring on the chili, and adding the cheese garnish, and it’s now become out go-to dish for friends with a Cincinnati connection or just for ourselves, eaten in a bowl while watching a movie. For such a savory dish, it also satisfies the little sweet tooth quite well.
My friend S insisted on making traditional Chinese food for me, my friend E, and Husband a few years ago, and it was so good – authentic, simple flavors and textures, with hints of vinegar and salt but mostly the taste of the tomato, the egg, the short ribs. It was at a time when I was eating way too much processed food and needed nourishment more than average, but even more so I needed to eat with others, with people I cared about. I thought that S and I had become close in vain, because she moved back to China when each of us finished our graduate school program. However, a year later, she returned from China to take a PhD degree, and I get to see her every month or two – a surprising positive in a world when sometimes you have to think that this might be the last meal you share with a close friend.
One of my favorite things about knowing people from all over is that when we happen to be passing through a town or city, I can text someone and ask “where should we eat here?” We were given this Southern-Asian fusion restaurant from Husband’s cousin, and the memory of the surprising foods on the menu (chorizo with rice and greens and a creamy sauce? Okay!) made the experience notable even if it wasn’t just piles and piles of food. I am coming around to eating out less often and in smaller portions – if it’s truly memorable, I don’t mind leaving with no take-out box for later. 🙂
The memory of how truly awful me and my friends are at music trivia is nicely overshadowed by the memory that we tried, that same evening, the most decadent food known to man: pecan-candied bacon. The bacon was every combination of bad-for-you that I can think of, and given that I recently read that the most craveable combination is fat+sweet, it makes sense that just looking at this picture makes me hungry. Like food purchased at state fairs, such treats must be a once a year (or once in a lifetime?) kind of experience, or they lose their luster and make us feel terrible, but I’m still a bit in awe of whoever came up with this snack and served it up to us while we listened, mistified, to clips of songs we could not identify at all.
2014 was a hard year for my in-laws in some ways, because of losses of beloved members of the family. However, there were also ways in which the year was incredibly sweet, because in loss they bonded around each other fiercely, becoming closer than ever through creating memories and sharing evenings together on back porches. One especially perfect September day stands out – J had been getting Husband and I to look for fondue pots all over town and we’d gotten enough of them to have a blow-out fondue night for the family – look at this spread! The dessert fondue was double dipped – you could spear a marshmallow, dip it in caramel, and roll it in graham cracker crumbs… to die for! What was more wonderful, though, was the way we lounged outdoors all evening listening to music and periodically dancing to the 80s jams, and the way the chimenea was stocked with wood to keep a fire going all evening. It was the way this family rallies around each other to create joy; in no small part, this joy convinced me that joining this family would be a wonderful choice (Husband himself had something to do with it too 🙂 ).
Most people don’t love sitting on the curb to eat their meal out of a paper-board box, but when it’s part of a food truck rally, it becomes a much more exotic notion. While travelling, Husband and I visited a food truck rally that allowed us to see a huge variety of trucks, and what I liked best was that they tended to specialize: instead of trying to serve 50 different meals, they had 3 meals with a couple customizable parts. What food trucks lose in gas efficiency (brick and mortar don’t have to pay gas to move around!) they gain in inventory efficiency – they can pretty regularly stock up and sell down all their supplies. It also makes me feel like I’m getting their most delicious fare, because I don’t wonder if the other 49 menu items are better. Having a big squad of food trucks allows a group to buy multiple items and sample a wide variety of dishes, creating a down-home version of the high-fallutin’ “tasting menus” of fancy dining. If you want variety, these rallies are where its at!
In Asheville, NC, there is a barbecue joint open only for lunch, where you order at the counter and seat yourself, serve your own sauce, and everything they make is heavenly. The pulled pork sandwich here pictured is slathered with a blueberry chipotle sauce – equal parts fiery and sweet – and the sweet potatoes and mild mac and cheese even it out in a soul-food trifecta. I visited with Husband and stood in a long line for this food, and learned that every bite tastes like triumph once you get to the front of the line. It makes me think of how restaurants that truly hit on a unique recipe for success can make a few different choices – they can brand and expand, which results in a lot of joy, or they can double-down on the small-time successes and limit their offerings. While this restaurant could definitely franchise out and be successful, and it could open for dinner and weekends, they create a scarcity that prompts travellers to stop and marvel because they chose to stick with making the best food possible and not sending it out all over. It’s locally-chosen, locally-designed food at it’s finest.
One of my college roommates, E, got married 2.5 years ago, and this picture of bags of marching cupcakes down the hall in her home reminds me of how much food plays an integral part in social rituals. While flowers and lights, dresses and invites, all play a huge role in the way a wedding happens, the dinner or snacks, drinks and dessert that are served are almost always planned down to a tiny margin for error. E chose cupcakes for portability (they didn’t need to be cut!) and, in this case, because they tasted amazing. It was fun to be a part of the backstage for her wedding; at the time, I was probably far more blissfully ignorant of how hard she’d been working than I should have been, but I got my comeuppance 1.5 years later, when I found myself biting into my own cake samples and choosing what would be served at my wedding.
I have an ache in my heart pretty much constantly for the beauty and restlessness of the ocean; during the winter, it gets even more acute. This memory is extra special: after a long day on the beach with Husband, we wandered back into town and found this restaurant with a balcony that was literally right over a causeway. We watched people pilot their boats and we ate spinach and artichoke dip and cheesy dip on crisp, perfect pita chips – I have not felt deeply relaxed in other places the way I can feel when I’m out at the water, eating something unhealthy and cheesy.
I ate this savory egg-filled crepe on top of a mountain by Husband, who was then Boyfriend. I think part of why I feel so at rest when visiting my now-in-laws is that there is so much good food near their home! Going for a walk of 20 minutes is enough to get you from front door to the creperie, and smothering my potatoes in garlic aioli always satisfies me in a way that makes a long day of housework, games, football, or sightseeing feel possible and exciting.