Thursday, March 6, 2014

When a meal becomes a memory

Yesterday I read something by Christina Uticone on Houston Press' food blog, Eating Our Words, that made me revisit one of my favorite food topics. I can talk your ear off for hours about the technique, execution and history of food. I love these topics. I could tell you about why something is prepared a certain way, where this type of dish originated from, and entertain or bore you to death with the details. But my favorite thing by far when it comes to a meal is the story behind it and the memories it creates. These memories don't have to be created by rock star chefs for me personally; my wife and I's first date was at a now defunct Champps on Westheimer (don't judge, we were young!). I can still remember the face she made while trying to eat "properly." Conversely, the dinner directly following our engagement was at a restaurant by legendary French chef Alain Ducasse. A Michelin decorated establishment, I can scarcely tell you what we ate or how it tasted. My point is, sometimes the simplest restaurants can provide vivid memories. Don't get me wrong, I love many of the "it" establishments, but they are not a necessary backdrop for the dining experiences that mark the milestones of my life.

I've had the good fortune to have had many memorable meals in so many different settings. One of my favorite memories was a fantastic dinner served by "celebrity chef" (that term bothers me, but that's for a later date) Kevin Gillespie while he was still at Woodfire Grill in Atlanta. An impeccable meal from start to finish, my wife, sister and father sampled almost the entire menu that night, expertly described by a fantastic server and executed brilliantly by the talented kitchen. I visited one of Jose Andres' world of pure imagination restaurants with é in Las Vegas that I'll never forget, but it doesn't take avant-garde technique to make a meal memorable.

Similarly to Mrs. Uticone, my family's restaurant is also a small Italian eatery that does not have any critical recognition. It is in a suburb of Houston and has been serving its diners for 15+ years. While it will never be confused with Da Marco, it is the place that marked so many different ocassions in my life. My mother's memorial service was there, and they served the last meal of my single life at the rehearsal dinner the night before my wedding. Along the way there were family celebrations, reunions, and just because meals served. These places are important. Food critics talk ad nauseam about the latest big name chef's food venture, and rightfully so. But the neighborhood haunt is an essential part of our dining culture. While the only time I go back to my old neighborhood stalwart is when family comes to town, it never ceases to satisfy my craving for culinary nostalgia. When they finally close the doors, I suspect I'll feel the same odd sort of loss discussed in the Eating Our Words article. I grew up in this place and, while my personal palate may have evolved to the point where the food there doesn't knock my socks off, a part of me will always be the kid staring at that menu, wondering which of three dishes I may choose. The decision is never the important part; the people who mean so much to me that fill the seats at the table are the memories I'll hold on to for as long as I can.

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