Food Cooked Elsewhere, and Other Longings #1

Growing up in St. Clair, Michigan was not that much fun. However, there were some great restaurants, at least (only?) to me, a kid crazy for Food Cooked Elsewhere.

One place I remember was not a restaurant, per se, nor noteworthy as a destination, but a bagel takeout joint where I was introduced to salt bagels. Sometimes we got a dozen or so and lox and took them down to the river and had a little picnic. That was fun, especially the time my two older brothers weren’t there, and it was just me and my mom and my dad on a blanket across from the blue smokestacks in Canada. And I devoured my little Midwestern Jewess delight, the cream cheese squeezing out of the sides, feeling like I should be embarrassed to be out with my parents like this, but hell, I thought, who would even care enough about me to notice?  Munch, munch…

And then, at the little outdoor row of shops/strip-mall center of town, down the hall from the Shoe Haus, the origination of my persistent clog-lust, and the drug store where I craved Garfield calendars and Bonnie Bell lip gloss (ok, now that we’re firmly planted in both time and space…), was the hot dog joint called Coney Island, where the whole family ate often. It was a restaurant in the sense that we got waited on, but it felt more like a go-to-the-counter type of place. And like every place my dad frequented, there was a lot of loud chit-chat/not-funny joking going on between him and the hosts. Here we all ordered hot dogs, anywhere from one or two a piece, up to say, six? is it possible that teenage boys eat six dogs in a sitting? Though one  brother (B1 we will call him) was super picky, thus probably ordered his plain, most of us got the works, and this is the point of this story: that chili! It was orange-ish brownish, almost the color of our shag carpet, you could get it with beans or without, but always with little pebbles of spicy beef. It was kind of brothy, decidedly not chunky, and its spiciness was full and garlicky and hot—I have since learned that it was and still is spiked with cumin—the perfect whole note for a squeeze of French’s yellow mustard, all of it spilling off the soft white bun and even on to the grease-stained fries. And cokes all around. Goddamn, that shit was good.

When I met my husband, T, we were both living at a Zen monastery in the Catskills. After one summer sesshin, a week-long silent meditation retreat, we sat on the outdoor circular steps with our buddies, all vibrating with the energy we had collected in our bodies over the week, and dying to let it all out. It’s a crazy feeling, in those first years, after the silence has been lifted, and you are there, with people, dying to make contact, and jazzed beyond your own familiar boundaries. Anyway, I remember sitting back there when T and I were just becoming friends. It was humid, like it is today (there is a god!), and T sat there in his funky T-shirt, so thin it barely covered his wide shoulders and super muscly arms, and he had a cigarette in his hand, and he was smoking it. And he held it hard, like it might break, and then he put it near his mouth, raised his arms above his head, and made an AAAAARGH sound, and said, fuckin ay! I just want to EAT this thing.


T and I on the circular stairs at ZMM 1998. Yummy.

I knew he was the boy for me.

So yes, there is the food, and the almost unbearable desire for sensation, for complete connection with the flavor, or the smoke, or the human being…..

And then there is the love of Food Cooked Elsewhere, the magic of not knowing anything about a meal other than how it appears, on a plate, offering itself to you.