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June 01, 2007

Good Eats

By Sarah Stewart Taylor

The first time I had the conversation, it was on a backpacking trip in the Green Mountains. We’d been subsisting on freeze dried camping meals and morsels of chocolate bar and as we closed in on day four in the wilderness, a member of the group I was hiking with asked, “What’s the best meal you’ve ever eaten?” We spent a happy couple of hours recounting home-cooked meals, restaurant meals, fast food meals, and street food. I still remember the Ben and Jerry’s Vermonster Sundae (ice cream and toppings for 20) we treated ourselves to once we’d come down out of the mountains as one of the best meals of my life.

Over the years, I’ve gotten more into cooking and I’ve found that I keep a running tally in my head of my best meals. They change from time to time, a new culinary experience bumping an old one off the list. It’s a fun way to remember important events, especially travel, and it makes me realize how much food and sharing food is tied up with relationships and life experience.

Two of my favorite meals were eaten on my honeymoon to Northern Italy and Croatia. We started off in Venice and ate a pedestrian, touristy dinner the first night. Determined that we were going to eat really well the second night, my new husband and I trudged all over the city, crossing and recrossing canals in some vague hope of finding the perfect, authentic Venetian meal. I gave up at some point, so hungry that I would have eaten McDonalds if it came to that. But my hubby persisted, saying he “had a feeling” that the right place was just around the next corner. He was right. We settled in at a tiny restaurant completely devoid of tourists. The waiter didn’t speak English. There wasn’t a menu.  We told him, with hand gestures and terrible Italian, to bring us some dinner, whatever he wanted. What followed was a spectacular series of courses, mostly fish, ending with the best apple tart I have ever had in my life.

Later on our honeymoon trip, we were traveling around Croatia’s Istrian peninsula, a hilly region famous for two things – wine and truffles. We had been disappointed by a couple of the villages we’d visited and on a whim, wound our way up a narrow road to the hilltop fortress of Motovun. It was like something out of a fairytale, a grim-looking castle surrounded by winding cobblestone streets, houses and shops tucked into the sides of the hill. Enchanted, we stopped at a little café and had amazing white truffle risotto and pasta with truffles and oil, washed down with local wine. Best of all was the long conversation with the owner, a Dutchman who’d been a photojournalist during the wars in the former Yugoslavia and had fallen in love with a Croatian woman, and an American writer and the Croatian woman he’d fallen in love with while working in a refugee camp. It was one of the most romantic dinners I've ever eaten.

One of my favorite memories of a meal is the huge plate of my mother’s Mexican chicken casserole (piles of corn tortillas, chicken, chilies, and cheese) I ate the night we brought our son home from the hospital. Exhausted, sore, starving, I heated it up in the microwave and we ate at the kitchen table, never taking our eyes off the gorgeous, mysterious little being in the basket next to us.

Traveling alone in France as a college student, I spent a month staying with some friends of my parents in a suburb of Paris. Every day, I would take the train into the city and explore museums and parks. It was a lonely time, but a good time too. One of those first days, I managed enough French to buy a baguette and to ask the guy at the cheese shop for a recommendation. Sitting on a park bench, I made a sandwich and enjoyed it all by myself, the whole baguette, the whole wedge of Brie. I still remember the unfamiliar, tangy taste of the cheese and the way the bread was so crusty it cut the top of my mouth.

So those are a few of my best meals of all time. What are yours?

P.S. Thanks to the tarts for the opportunity to spend some time at TLC! It's been a blast.

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Sarah, I think your post proves that those memorable meals are more than just the food, it's the people, the occasion, and the locale.
I'm a good cook, not a gourmet, just a good cook. I was a cook at a writer's retreat for three years. One Thanksgiving we had a storm and lost power, but the kitchen had a working wood range. I got the whole meal cooked on that old stove and the writers and I sat down to eat in the glow of candles. It was the longest, most mellow meal I can ever remember. We lingered, we told stories, we read aloud. We were in a different, more relaxed, less driven space and we allowed ourselves to live in it.

The best meal I can think of was when I proposed to my wife. At Donneckers in Ephrata, summer of 1988. The food didn't matter, although it wasn't bad. She didn't answer for several months, but the next morning we did walk down to Trolley Square and she bought a bride magazine, which I took as a good sign. Better than the body-disposal manuals she gets now, which I don't think I should take as such a good sign.

Sarah, this is one of my all-time favorite games: Best Meal Ever.

Some of mine definitely come from New Years' Eve. Once we had kids and stopped going out, we started getting together with close friends - the meal developed over the years, but here are the basics, accompanied by lots and lots of champagne over the entire evening.

Apps: shrimp, (Hoezel or crabcakes), caviar with blini and the traditional accompaniments.
Ceasar Salad
Dinner: whole lobsters and filet, baked potatoes
Desert: homemade and decadent

We cook everything together, as a group, and it's a great time. It's more about the people, and the observation of the tradition of New Years - reminiscing, toasting, resolving - rather than the food itself, but let's face it - the food doesn't hurt.

My best meal memories revolve around my childhood -- big holiday dinners at my great grandparents' farm out in the country. A cast of thousands, it seemed to me at the time. The adults would talk around the table for hours as kids wandered in and out for cookies and fudge. It was always an amazing, Norman Rockwell-ian scene, although I'm sure there was probably lots of grownup tension going on beneath the surface that I never appreciated as a child. That's probably why I bought a big old house and love having large groups in for dinner. I don't cook like my great-grandmother (she'd die at the sight of tuna tartare), but I crave the chaos of lots of people at table. Those sorts of gatherings, I think, are a great gift to give ourselves and our kids.

My all-time favorite meal is our traditional Christmas day dinner as cooked by my mother - a standing rib roast, Yorkshire pudding, pan roasted potatoes, and all the other trimmings. We haul out the good china, silver, and crystal for all six of us and eat this sumptuous feast in our jammies and scary hair at about noon, after having been awakened at or before 4:00 a.m. to open presents.

But one year, we all picked up and went to Australia for a month over the holidays. We had Christmas morning in this tremendously posh hotel suite in Melbourne, but had neglected to make plans for dinner. We discovered nothing was open or had space for last minute additions. Except McDonalds. Our Christmas feast that year was Big Macs and fries and we giggled all the way through it.

Then we went to the zoo, which we discovered is a popular picnic spot on Christmas day. If we had only known!

Easy answer: Thanksgiving, cooked by me. It's yummy, we sit at the table until the candles burn below the rim of the pilgrims' hats, and I'm always snonkered with Mimosas. Tell me anything more fun than that?

Really, it's the best. Y'all should all come.

I agree with Kathy - the best meals are all about the people you are with, whether family or friends. I've had a great meal recently at Hank's Custard Stand in New Brighton, PA and at the Sonoma Grille in Pittsburgh, PA. Talk about contrasts! Both meals, however, were with good friends and involved alot of laughter and conversation.

Yes, I have to go back to childhood too. I'm thinking Swanson Pot Pies and my mom's chicken and rice casserole. I don't even know why those are the ones that stick in my head. Oh, and spaghetti and meatballs. Things I haven't eaten in 35 years and wouldn't even want to. Unless they could bring my mom back.

I'm with Harley on this one. Gee, I'd forgotten about the Swanson Pot Pies. Sigh...

Oddly, when I read the question, I knew the answer immediately. And then realized I don't remember what I actually ate during that meal. It was at one of the restaurants in Colonial Williamsburg on our second honeymoon during a rare bit of extragant spending on my hubby's part. Price was no object. If you know my husband, you know how truly rare that is.

The restaurant was in one of the old houses. The staff wore formal colonial attire. We were almost the only diners that evening (off season, off peak hour) and we received the most incredible service including being serenaded by a violinist.

I do remember the dessert. We didn't order it. They gave it to us on the house. Why? I don't know. I guess they liked us or thought we were cute. It was the most delectible bread pudding I've ever eaten. Literally melted in my mouth.

Okay, now I want to go back there. NOW.

Thanks for stirring up the trip down memory lane, Sarah.

Sarah, thank you for this beautiful blog. You make me realize how lucky I've been to have not only great food but a lot of great memories. (Including the memory of the turkey blog--my most favorite virtual meal ever! Thanks for reminding me, Ramona.)

The dinner where I got engaged is definitely big. (Josh, I'm mad at your wife for not accepting you on the spot!) Mine was at the old Bouley when it was the most romantic restaurant in New York. He brought me flowers and ordered a bottle of Opus One so I knew something big was coming. But I have to agree that I can't remember the food at all.

Best food memories -- food while traveling. Sarah's right about that. Southeast Asia rules. I remember almost everything I ever ate in Thailand though I haven't been there in years. My most exotic meal ever was in Singapore, where the head of the DEA office (who was a very glamorous guy, right out of a spy novel) invited me to a dinner hosted by an Indian businessman and his wife. The food was incredibly delicious, authentic, home-cooked Indian food. The apartment was lavish. Lots of important people from the American ex-pat community were there and there this overwhelming sense of intrigue and even danger. (I'd been told not to trust my telephones.) Oh, it was fun!

One of my favorite meals is celebrating my dad's 90th birthday at Catfish Country, somewhere on the highway between Bartow and Lakeland Florida...the Cubs were playing the Marlins in one of the playoff games, so we all wore our Cub T-shirts! We got free drinks for that act of bravery, and of course the server brought my dad the traditional cupcake and candle. I have the family "portrait" from that event and it always makes me smile.
Other memorable meals include Irene's in New Orleans, the Survival by Death Mystery Train(with dinner) in Hood River, Oregon, and Cafe Reconcile in New Orleans, all with my daughter and her husband...who by the way is the only person who can get me to eat lamb!
The ones I miss the most though are the Saturday lunches of Italian beef and salad we used to have after shopping in Roseland with my parents.
Happy Friday!

Michele,

I was employed as a law clerk in a state trial court, and she wanted to make sure that I was motivated enough to have legitmate employment prospects and do something about it. She had already carried me for two years, more or less, what with her having a real job and my being a student. Once I got an offer where I would make something in the neighborhood that she made, and once I sent her those flowers for her birthday down in Florida where she was teaching for the semester, she accepted. I didn't begrudge her at the time, since those were legitmate concerns, and I still don't. I would hope that my children would take into consideration whether the slacker they are involved with will rise above it before they make a commitment or otherwise have a commitment made for them.

If you want to rip her, email me (or Harley), and we can give you email address.

Aside from the night I ate roasted chicken and mashed potatoes in the hospital after delivering our first daughter, I find myself remembering the last night our whole family had dinner together before my dad passed away. New Year's Eve, the night before his 81st birthday. We were at a restaurant on the ocean with the windows open and the breeze coming in, and we laughed for hours. My daughter (she, of the chicken and mashed potatoes 20-some years earlier) stood up and made the traditional Irish toast. Big tears all around. Six months later, my dad was gone, but I still remember watching his face as he listened to that toast.

I think I have to go back to my childhood, too. My mom used to make shredded beef barbecue--but only when her girlfriends came over for their "sewing club." It was a special treat that my sisters and I really looked forward to.

She also used to make something she called "Spice Pudding" for dessert sometimes. It was like eating liquid brown sugar with a crust on it. Yummy. Especially with vanilla ice cream.

Unfortunately, she took both recipes to the grave with her. I've looked everywhere for a recipe for spice pudding, but haven't found anything that even comes close. If anyone out there has anything similar, you'll have my undying gratitude!

When I first read all of the comments, my first thought was of my Mom making a big pot of pinto beans and ham, and always baking 4 loaves of home made bread when she did. One loaf for the neighbors on either side of us, 2 for us.
But the funniest food memory was making Elaine's recipe for White Castle Pate` as an appetizer for Thanksgiving. My brothers scarfed it down (while drinking alot of beer, White Castles always taste better when you've been drinking!) Thanks Elaine!

Last night's dinner has to be one of my favorite meals. We invited some neighbors who are moving away today. I cooked crawfish etouffee, loaded with butter, spaghetti with local Italian sausage, fresh green beans, so fresh they were sweet, salad with fresh Creole tomatoes and store bought Key Lime pie. I just finished reading Joanne Fluke's Key Lime Pie Murder. The best part of the meal was watching my neighbor's six year old son James stuff his face with the crawfish etouffee. He turned to me and asked if he could eat breakfast with us in the morning before they take off. This drew a big laugh from my husband because, I don't do breakfast, that's his specialty.

What a FABULOUS blog! And your writing is beautiful, Sarah....

....Oddly enough, one of my most memorable meals happened by accident after the suicide of Charlie's cousin, John, a 21-year-old Yale student, musician and charming man with a brilliant future waiting until his brain turned on him and he shot himself.

I was in my late 20s, newly married, and childless. After his memorial, I planned an intimate dinner for about four. Somehow, however, a slew of John's college and high school friends who had returned for his memorial ended up at our house. As more and more poured in I was distressed there wouldn't be nearly enough food. Making do with what I had (parsley) and finding a few extra boxes of spaghetti in the pantry, I kept extending and extending the dish until, miraculously, there was almost more than enough.

In the end, I think there were more than 20 people. I hate to say this considering the circumstances but it was one of the most warm and memorable nights of my life.

I recently read an atheist's account disputing the loaves-and-fishes story in the New Testament. Impossible? Maybe. But the Spirit was in our house that night and I can attest to the miracle of food increasing in abundance to nourish the soul as well as the body. (Or bodies...)

Joyce,
Have you checked the Taste of Home magazine index for that spice pudding recipe?

I'll admit to being a food snob, not as you might think for gourmet food and restaurants, but for food grown in my own garden. My favorite meals are all centered on summer, at home where the entire meal (excluding the meat) comes from our garden. Summer squash, green beans, corn on the cob, new potatoes, beets, sugar snap peas, spinach, lettuce, onions, cabbage, asparagus, rhubarb, raspberries, strawberries, cantaloupe, watermelon, lima beans, carrots, peppers, eggplants, winter squash, tomatoes, radishes, garlic, and herbs, these are the palate (pun intended) I paint with from April to October each year. It doesn't stop there, as we are an unusual family in this day and age with our large garden, we can and freeze everything possible, thus enjoying the bounty throughout the year, but not the fresh taste and texture that makes summer my favorite time to create with food.

Hey guys, this has got to stop. I'm sitting here in my office at the PD and now I'm starving. And not a doughnut in sight!

Thanks for the tip, Annette. I'll check it out.

Sarah - thanks for this blog. Wonderful topic, and such wonderful memories and meals from everyone.

I was raised "in town", but my grandparents lived "in the country", and I learned to love country food, and to cook it. Favorites?

My Granny's breakfast: fried chicken or pork chops, scratch biscuts, eggs, fried potatoes, gravy, homemade jelly and fresh butter.

My Grandma's beans: From the garden (acre fields) green beans slow cooked all day to almost mush with bacon drippings; Brown (pinto) beans and ham with mashed potatoes meatloaf, and sliced tomotoes warm from the garden.

Other favorites: Chicken & Dumplings that have slow cooked for hours. And, Homemade (cranked) ice-cream with fresh stawberries or peaches.

Breakfast foods are still my favorites, and I LOVE to have breakfast for dinner from a local diner.

Is it time for lunch yet?

Peach - my Granny taught me to cook - on a wood stove in July. We cooked for hay-haulers. Man was it HOT! But, the food was amazing.

Canning beans and making Jelly in the middle of the summer is some seriously HOT work.

Best of luck with your garden.

My favorite meals. Yum, makes me hungry just thinking about it. When I was small, my mom made homemade sweet rolls for breakfast on Christmas morning. The fun of making them was better than the eating.

Our traditional Christmas breakfast now is a breakfast casserole and is the hightlight of the morning as we sit around the living room, piles of wrapping paper and empty boxes littering the floor and eat until we're stuffed.

My most memorable though, was a dinner with my mom. When I got my 100th rejection on my novel, she packed me up and drove me to St. Louis and we "celebrated" with a traditional Japanese meal cooked right at our table. Shrimp and knives were flying and we had a wonderful time. I think I'll celebrate there again when I finally sell a book. :)

These are really fun to read -- thanks for sharing everyone. I just thought of another one I should have mentioned. When we were sick, my Mom would always make baked custard, golden yellow with nutmeg on top. It's one of my favorites meals -- a big bowl of warm yellow custard. I love making it and the taste now reminds me of those delicious sick days, watching reruns on the couch and reading in bed . . .

Sarah, I have not yet had my first cup of coffee, so when I read "We started off in Venice and ate a pedestrian," I did wonder to whom you are married.

Hee Hee. Yeah, he only likes pedestrians. Not drivers or joggers. They're too tough.

Wow - great stuff! It's a good thing I've got lunch sitting in the refrigerator right now :)

Family dinners were often tense affairs at my house, but that doesn't change how lovely it was to come home (from college, grad school, etc.) to one of my Dad's pedigreed top sirloins accompanied by a simple tossed salad, baked potato, and garlic bread made from good San Francisco sourdough, finished with one of my mother's incomparable apple pies (with apologies to all you bakers out there, my Mom made the best pie crust in the universe). Yes, the food was superb, but it was knowing that, even though we were none of us very good at family relationships, still there was love all around.

For pure, total sensory satisfaction, I offer a meal served up the summer I spent doing small mammal survey work in the mountains of West Virginia, accompanied by three of my undergraduates. This particular evening we were at our base camp above Shaver's Fork. We'd worked hard all day and were pleasantly tired and ready to relax and enjoy a spectacular summer evening. A botanist doing plant surveys joined us and whipped up a batch of the best corn bread I've ever had, cooked in a cast iron skillet over an open fire. One of the students had brought up a big pot of pinto beans and cooked up a batch of fresh new potatoes (from her garden) with bacon and onions. Simple, "pure" food and nice, cold beer, enjoyed in beautiful surroundings with great company after a long day's physical labor. Superb!

And Sarah, my daughter and I enjoyed a great bread-and-cheese meal when we went to Spain together. It was the best meal we had there!

Sarah, my mom used to make the same custard. Any chance of you sharing your recipe?

Oh no, a new recipe means another trip to the grocery store.

I have another one: Good Friday crawfish boils. Yea, yea, I know you're supposed to fast and sacrifice and all that that day, but in my family, in south Louisiana, Good Friday remains the day for family gathered around steaming mounds of mudbugs. You'll never catch me saying French Catholicism makes lots of sense, but the meals are always good.

Yikes!

I forgot the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve. We don't do them all anymore (when we started counting tuna noodle casserole and Goldfish crackers, we realized it was time to move on).

I can remember my Aunts and Uncles, each bringing their specialty, and laughing as a new guest loaded up on the baccala. Yuck.

You're right YUCK! Just the smell of baccala cooking is enough to gag a maggot!

An old-world Mexican restaurant near Easton, Mass called Sebastian's (Lee, if they're still around, you've *got* to go there). That's where, after a whirlwind 9 YEAR courtship, Attila-the-Husband finally proposed. The owner's daughter was our waitress, and when she saw what was going on, she brought out her parents and her brother (who serenaded us with some classical guitar). Nah...I don't remember what we ate.
Second best meal was on a train from Venice to Lisbon. It was the Orient Express. I mean, c'mon...The Orient Express ! How cool is that ? The dining car was formal and fancy, yet somehow exotic and adventurous.
Best meals that I can actually remember what we ate, were Pizza and Beer nights at our apartment in Germany. We'd get a couple of cases of pilsner from the beer-frau across the street, then I'd hand toss eight or ten (or more) pizzas and load them up with different toppings. Our army buddies would all come over and we'd eat, drink, and tell tall tales. My husband and I refer to those days as 'back when we were alive'. sigh.

Favorite meals - so many of them, but as I think, I really can't remember the food. Any Sunday lunch at my Grandma Hobby's house. A dinner on top of a high hill in St. Thomas.The view was incredible. Too many meals in France but they were all wonderful.

If you find that spice pudding recipe, please share. My mouth watered at the thought

Joyce- I checked 1906 version of the 20th Century Cookbook but no spice pudding. But from your description, the filling for Marcia Adams Old Fashioned Vinegar Pie sounds similar. Eggs, brown sugar,allspice, mace. It's in her Heartland Cookbook. You want it?

Sure, Rita! If you want, you can email it to me (follow link) or you can post it here in case anyone else wants it.

Thanks! If I find any other recipes that sound similar I'll pass them onto whoever wants them.

I make this beans and rice combination that I grill in Olive Oil. Add a low budget beer and I have some happy campers at dinner time.

Of course, I wonder if people eat it because they are amazed that I can cook something.

Okay -- Here's the baked custard recipe:

Beat 4 eggs and then stir in 1/2 cup sugar and 1/4 tsp. salt. Add slowly, still beating, 3 cups scalded milk and 1 tsp. vanilla. Pour into a round baking dish and sprinkle with nutmeg. Put it in a shallow pan and pour boiling water into the pan so that it goes an inch or two up the sides of the dish. Bake at 325 degrees for an hour. Take it out and let it cool before eating. It's really good if you let it sit in the fridge for a couple of hours. It's good just slightly warm too.

Spicy Pudding (I hope)
3 eggs
2/3c. brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/4c melted butter
1c. dark corn syrup
1/2 tsp each cinnamon, allspice, and nutmeg
1 tsp vanilla extract
-------------
2 tbsp sugar for top
---------------
Preheat oven to 350, butter a round casserole dish (1 or 1 1/2 qt)
Beat together all ingredients but topping sugar. Pour into casserole dish.Sprinkle sugar evenly on top. Place dish in 9x9 or 9x13 pan, pour in a couple inches of boiling water and bake for 50 to 60 minutes (or till knife inserted 1 inch from center comes out clean.

Thanks, Rita!

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