“What is patriotism but the love of the food one ate as a child?” –Lin Yutang
Today Anderson Cooper spent his new show talking about (disordered) eating. Food is such a base, simple need that is loaded with unbelievable baggage. We need food from before we are out of our mothers’ wombs, and continue to need it until the day we die. It is ever-present, both background and foreground for the most important and mundane moments of our lives. Food is a matter of life and death. While it seems so simple, such an afterthought, it really is a complex piece of our lives.
As someone lucky enough to live a life where my next meal is not a mystery, where I know that I can choose what I consume, food takes on much more symbolism. It intricately ties itself to memories and people, to places and emotions. Cooper admitted to being a surprisingly picky eater and other people talked about idiosyncrasies with respect to their dining rituals. As a picky eater, I felt validated that there are others out there who share in my aversions, my fears, and my embarrassments. As I prepare to make myself dinner, with this show on my mind, I’m thinking very seriously about food.
I go through phases when I will crave something and eat it almost exclusively, and then will lose my taste for it. Right now my taste for spicy food is dominating my palate. While I still fear new foods, my old standbys are getting a little punch with some chipotle or jalapeno. And while there are foods that I try and gain a taste for, there are some things that I will never refuse, that I am always in the mood for.
With the absurd request of recently-executed Lawrence Russell Brewer, many are asking what their last meal would be. I spent a long overnight shift answering this one for myself. After one of the most fascinating stories I gleaned from This American Life (Poultry Slam 2007), the question stuck with me. After hearing about the legendary last meal of forbidden ortolan (you really need to listen to, or at least read, the story), I wondered what I would eat. During a silent night of work, the thought settled on my mind and I quietly realized what I would eat, with no reservations.
If I knew I had only one meal left to eat, I would want my mother’s chicken and dumplings, drink strawberry Quick, and enjoy my grandma’s chocolate balls (yep, laugh all you want) for dessert. When I’m hot and craving something sweet, nothing quenches my thirst like Diet Coke. There is no pizza like a hot Round Table pie. I love the soft, gooey sweet bread my grandma makes each Christmas. I have a sandwich place I would eat at every day to keep in business. There are plenty of foods that I love and would eat any time, any place, but that would be my last meal. I would savor the hot broth, tender chicken shredded in it, saving the heavy, chewy dumplings for last, sprinkled with salt and lemon pepper. I would remember every cold night, warmed by the scoops out of the steaming pot. I would remember my family, silently gathered around the table, burning our tongues on the hot broth because we cannot wait to eat the delicious tradition. I would sip my pink milk, remembering my little mouse glass, the lunches of grilled cheese and crackers. I would remember being young, as much as I could, and the special treat that strawberry Quick was. The cool milk soothing my burnt tongue, I would eat until my stomach burst with warmth, heavy with winter. Then, after the hot meal, I would enjoy the semi-frozen chocolate candy that my grandmother makes each Christmas. Small, sweet balls of graham cracker, peanut butter and coconut, coated in dark chocolate, are a sure sign that the holidays have arrived.
My mouth waters as I think of the foods, able to recall the tastes as I imagine the glorious meal. While delicious and satisfying, the meal would be made infinitely better because it is tied together with love. My mom, leaning against the counter as she stirs the large, stainless steel pot of chicken never gets more thanks than on those nights. My grandma, year after year baking, her tanned hands forming each ball and dipping them, freezing them and always keeping a few hidden until New Year’s for us. My dad, stirring the gritty drink mix in as we kids climbed up to the table for lunch. The last meal I would choose wouldn’t be some of the best food on earth, but it would be food that makes me feel indescribably loved. It is food that links me to my family, food that brings me home. There are plenty of other things I enjoy eating and restaurants I love, but this is the food that sustains me, the things that make eating life-giving. What would your last meal be?
“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.” –Mother Teresa