Our theme for the month of October is “the elements.”
“I have discovered that there is romance in food when romance has disappeared from everywhere else. And as long as my digestion holds out I will follow romance.”
We were told that if you caught a fisherman on the right day, they might give you a salmon. If you looked particularly bedraggled, they might pass over two. Eighteen days into our long paddle of the Prince William Sound, Mike and Adam McCarthy gave us five. The saints.
Fresh, wild caught salmon is a culinary wonder. Fresh, wild caught salmon when living off rice and dehydrated beans, blocks of cheese, and rationed snickers bars for the past six weeks? It’s the very definition of salvation. The strictest of vegetarians would not be able to withstand the temptation. Protein is an underrated commodity.
We cooked them over the coals of a driftwood fire on a rusted iron grill. None of us had proven very successful fishermen, and the grill was usually a source of embarrassment, but that night—July 5th, 2014—we celebrated our independence from the confines of rationing. That night, we feasted.
Fully gorged and close to bursting at the seams I lay back on the rocky beach and stared up at the perpetual twilight that functioned as our night sky. Driftwood smoke clung to my hair and crusts of salt water stained my clothes and my eyes were puffy and skin sunburnt from so much time exposed to Alaskan elements. I was deeply content. So I settled into the type of reflection encouraged by a full stomach and a satisfied soul.
The best meal I’ve ever had was in Rome. Four of us—disheveled, road weary, and very broke—participated. Friends on a Eurorail expedition and overstretched budgets, drinking and eating our way across Europe, we had run short of Euros and figured we could borrow experience as currency.
We walked into a basement Trattoria with a secret. Disheveled and road weary as we were, this meal wasn’t on us. Chad’s dad was paying for the whole thing—with explicit instructions to order as much as we could digest but to stay away from any $200 bottles of wine. The waiter seated us and began to pass out menus. He looked vaguely disappointed. He’d seen our type before. We’d order the pasta entrée, stay for half an hour, get drunk on cheap wine, and pay with crumpled Euros taken from Velcro pouches around our necks.
We stayed for three hours. Maybe four. The night blurred between courses and carafes of rich red wine and laughter and broken English banter with our new Italian friend. The frayed bonds that are an inevitable side effect of weeks on the road were bound back together with pesto and freshly grated Parmesan. We ate well and we ate gladly and it made a difference.
When dessert came, our friend delivered a parting gift. “Limoncello, on the house!” he exclaimed in broken, beaming, accented glory. And the night continued in the Italian tradition of long desserts, extended conversation, too much wine, and an evening finished in the fullness of fellowship—stomachs exhausted as much from laughter as the quality of the meal.
Food, I think, is more than a culinary experience. Memories of good meals carry the same aromatic nostalgia of campfire smoke and fondly remembered perfume. They bring us together in a point of common inference and human experience. A good meal transcends the quality of food before you and enters into something much deeper and richer that ties us together. It’s a little bit of saltwater magic washed down with an aforementioned bottle of culture.
It’s an evening in Budapest spent with the woman you love, inventing sandwiches with too much butter, rich bread, and brie. It’s a sidewinding dive into the experiment in homegrown community that is a Tuesday night potluck. It’s the spice of the divine, mixed with garlic salt, sprinkled on simple backcountry pasta. It’s cold, clear mountain water drunk unfiltered and through cupped hands. It’s the first sip of a good beer on a Founders Monday night.
It’s fresh baked cookies from Grandma’s oven as the frozen Thornapple snakes into an ice choked dam. It’s walking slowly through the Downtown Market, basket in hand, picking out fresh veggies and imbuing the night with borrowed wine and a little bit of magic.
It’s the invitation of people you love and strangers and some who fall in between to break bread and create, for a moment or two, some aromatic nostalgia to be recaptured in tomorrow’s yesterday. It’s inexplicably tied to place and people and it always finds a way to surpass and come right back to the idea of sustenance. And in the end there is no recipe or explanation, there’s simply something that everyone knows. There’s a sigh and a leaning back into the chair and a collected admission. That, we think to ourselves, that was a good meal.
Matt Medendorp (’14) graduated with a writing degree held together by duct tape and a few trips abroad. Currently he lives in Grand Rapids, works for Chaco, and claims to be producing a book of writing and photography from his time in Alaska.