Five Foods: Clam Chowder

Not every vegetarian has an a-ha moment, but I did: It struck me halfway through a bowl of Campbell’s Manhattan Clam Chowder. In fact, it struck me smack in the middle of trying my darndest to masticate one of those rubbery little clam-like things, trying to break it down enough to where I could swallow without it being a choking hazard.

(I don’t know if you’ve ever attempted a bowl of Campbell’s Manhattan Clam Chowder, but the above is not an easy task.)

The self-realization came while I was standing at the kitchen counter, eating the too-hot soup out of a too-small bowl; the tomato-flavored liquid threatened to escape if I wasn’t careful. It was a dish I’d eaten for dinner every night for nearly two weeks, and at first I really appreciated the stubborn texture of the clams—especially in contrast to the starchy crumbiness of the cubed potatoes, and the baby-food mush of tiny carrot half-moons.

I was 13 years old and in the eighth grade, finally feeling myself something of an adult. Largely, that adultiness was due to the fact that I had become responsible for my own dinners, my mother working full-time daytime hours and holding down an evening job as an adjunct Ready Level 1 professor at a local community college.

My older brother’s nightly routine was to make himself three servings of Stove Top Stuffing and call it dinner, and he always forgot it long enough to burn bits black and hard to the bottom of the pan; it took a lot of knuckle-down effort to scrape them off of a night, even after soaking.

I could be trusted at the very least to dilute and heat up a can of condensed soup, and so I had a stash any bomb-shelter interior decorator would envy: An entire shelf of the pantry lined with those perfect red-and-white cans, all the same flavor (on account of a 4-for-$1 sale at the local A&P), and all for me.

Chicken Noodle didn’t cause a moment’s stir, and neither did Beef Barley. Even New England Clam Chowder had been acceptable, though I got sick of it very quickly.

That Manhattan Clam Chowder, though. That’s what pushed me over the veg edge.

 

Photo by Flickr user Carbon Arc.

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Five Foods: Cake

What’s the first birthday you actually remember? What about it sticks with you, a present? A family friend dressed as a clown, making terrible balloon animals? A crying fight over a piñata or a broken toy or one of those vanilla-chocolate iced-cream cups? Maybe you remember your 16th birthday clearer than all the rest, but why—did you have your first kiss that night? Did you get your driver’s permit? Tell me about the pizza, because I’m sure there was pizza. What the hell kind of a 16th birthday party doesn’t have pizza?

(Mine. My 16th birthday party had zero pizza. My 16th birthday party featured an array of microwaved-frozen hors d’oeuvres acquired from a Sam’s Club in Edison, New Jersey. I distinctly remember there being tiny, soggy egg rolls. My kingdom for a pizza.)

In any event, the first birthday etched forever and ever amen into my memory was the year I turned 5. And the only thing about that birthday that I can even remotely actually recall was the cake.

The most glorious cake. The perfect cake.

I mean, just look at that thing.

Meister, age 5, with cake

Meister, age 5, with cake

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Five Foods: Pasta e Ceci

I thought I was immune to the lure of Italian food because I was on a mission, absolutely passionate to a single focus: a one-track pilgrimage through the streets of Venice, Florence, Rome and Naples in search of the true essence of espresso coffee. I was on the hunt for that perfect, can-only-get-it-in-Italy espresso everyone always mythologizes, the unicorn of the caffeinated free world.

I also thought I was immune to Italian food because before I step foot in the country, I hadn’t eaten pasta in nearly two years. Afraid of carbs, afraid of olive oil, afraid of cheese—I had only very recently started to squirm out of the leg-irons of disordered eating, a misery which had kept me on a steady diet of boiled vegetables and coffee (and a daily 11-mile run) for the better part of minus 60 pounds.

The notion of visiting a country where the streets are practically paved with good bread and al dente noodles was a great test of self and recovery. It was a show of trust in and love for myself. I was ready, and I knew could do it.

Plus, when would I have time to think about food in between all those miraculous G-d shots of espresso? Certainly not I.

With that in mind, one of the best things I decided to do on this trip—in addition to trying to limit my caffeine intake to a perfectly reasonable 16 to 18 shots of espresso a day—was to eat exclusively at vegetarian restaurants. Not out of self-flagellation, though I realize there are probably few places in Europe where it’s easier to find plant-based food even in the most mainstream trattoria; rather, I wanted to go where few tourists dare tread, where English menus were unheard of, and where the ingredients would be so fresh as to practically still be alive.

Venice was a nice introduction to the culture and the cuisine of Italy, kind of like how Disney World is a nice introduction to the culture and cuisine of the United States. Italy-lite, I guess: Tourist shops, tourist restaurants, tourists asking other tourists for directions because everyone’s a tourist. Everything printed in English and Japanese; coffee shops advertising “American sizes” and “American breakfast.” The food highlight of my time there was an uninspired dish of curried carrots (because Italians are known for their curry), and a plate of limp and lukewarm grilled eggplant.

“Oh, no,” I thought. “What have I gotten myself into?” I crouched outside the warm glow of the cheesy but popular restaurants, coveting the living hell out of everybody’s meatballs.

But then I went to Florence, and all that changed.

Photo by Meister

 

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Five Foods: Tiramisu

The tiramisu came frozen, in enormous sheet pans, 18″ x 26″—so deep-chilled that they burned to the touch, and so big my father eventually needed to buy a separate fridge to store them out in the garage. A thin film of cling wrap covered the dusted cocoa top of a single magnificent, uncut cake of sweet, creamy marscapone and fat, coffee-soaked lady fingers.

Tiramisu would arrive two and three pans at a time, slid out of the climate-controlled back cabin of a solid-white catering truck which would pull up into our driveway in reverse—even sometimes half nudging itself into the garage—so that no one would see the covert dessert hand-off. Upon hearing the truck pull up, my father would creep up and signal to me to follow him: I loved watching with wide eyes as he unloaded the delivery, stacking the trays neatly in the tiramisu fridge.

Not every suburban New Jersey garage had a tiramisu fridge. It made my father feel like a rich man.

Photo by Flickr user Bricks Neapolitan Pizza

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Five Foods: Bread

I.

Give us this day our daily bread. Even thinking those words, I can taste the thin, stale wafer of the Christ’s transubstantiated flesh on my tongue, softening to a kind of pasty mush that quickly glued itself to the roof of my mouth as I walked back to the pew, following my father in his cologne and his scratchy Sunday suit. My hands cupped together in a mimicking prayer gesture, I would return to the kneeling board and focus all of my attention on the now-soggy body of our Lord and Savior, wondering whether it was a bigger sin to chew and swallow, or to leave it there and wait for it to slowly dissolve.

Apparently I wasn’t alone: A quick Google search of, “Is it a sin to chew the Eucharist?” not only calls up 1,210,000 hits (in 0.81 seconds), but also offers a host of opinions about chewing the Host—everything from, “Please note that the Eucharist is not chewed, but is allowed to soften in the mouth and then swallowed. This is to avoid having the smallest particle stuck in one’s teeth where it might be desecrated later by coming into contact with the profane. Having the very Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ mingle with a gulp of Mountain Dew is hardly the treatment He deserves”; to “The words are, ‘Take and EAT, this is My Body.’ They are not, ‘Take and let dissolve on your tongue, this is My Body.”

(That last one I find particularly comforting.)

I loved to think of the Tabernacle as Jesus’s bread box: It was also where He lived between Masses. Swaddled in some soft, protective cloth, I imagined boxes of wafers hidden away, quiet and cool and waiting to be transformed into the Body. A kind of religious Ritz cracker. The saltines of salvation.

I gave myself fully to the idea that this paper-thin presence on my tongue, the dryness and blandness of it so familiar and comforting, was truly transformed somehow through the mysticism of the sacraments. There was the Light inside me, slowly liquefying and mixing with my temporal saliva, connecting me to the faces carved in marble, to the smell of the prayer candles, to the gold everywhere.

Please forgive me, Lord, if I should chew.

II.

Ultimately, bread’s greatest purpose is to keep one’s hands clean. It is the protective coating between fingers and peanut butter or American cheese—or, in my house growing up, between fingers and liverwurst slathered with spicy whole-grain German mustard. In the Southern United States, it is the tool by which barbecue sauce and the juices of fatty, smoked meats are sopped up and brought to the mouth. In Ethiopia, it is plate and fork.

At my best friend Kim’s house, it was the food equivalent of the other side of the pillow: Doubled-up slices of pillowy white Wonder Bread, spread thick with buttery non-butter spread—Country Crock was a pantry staple in every neighborhood kitchen—and cut into tea-sandwich triangles, served cool to mitigate the steaming-hot bowl of SpaghettiOs Kim and I ate for lunch every day, sitting beside each other at the table comparing the number of meatballs in our bowls.

Kim’s mother picked us both up after half-day kindergarten, driving us back to their house in a long American-made car full of happy teasing, country music, and the clean warm vinyl smell that comes from parking in the sun. Standing over small wooden bowls, her mom would spoon the tiny pasta rounds and carmine-red sauce in equal portions, taking especial care to count each meatball.

But it was the bread that made lunch an event for me.

Photo by Flickr user French Tart

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